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British Olympic skier Chemmy Alcott announced her retirement today. You can see our earlier interview with her here
Britain’s number one female downhill skier, the blonde and beautiful Chemmy Alcott, is comfortably settled on the sofa in her riverside Hampton Court cottage, a cup of herbal tea in hand. The June sunshine streams in and there isn’t a ski slope in sight, yet Chemmy is encased in what can only be described as an oversized toddler’s winter playsuit.
It is, in fact, an essential piece of fitness kit called NormaTec, which gently pulsates and squeezes like a giant leg-shaped pair of bellows, helping to massage away the build-up of lactic acid after a training session in Bushy Park.
As Chemmy whisks me through an average training day (I discover that she can talk almost as fast as she can ski), and her fiancé – fellow British skier Dougie Crawford – busies himself in the kitchen whipping up an energy-boosting quinoa salad for lunch, it dawns on me that I am in the presence of a serious athlete; a three-time Olympian about to make one more monumental effort to compete in her fourth Games: the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia this month.
‘Monumental’, as things turn out, is no editorial exaggeration. For on August 23 2013, two months after our chat, Chemmy was to break her right leg for the second time. (Back in 2010 she sustained an open fracture of the tibia and fibula at Lake Louise, which was widely touted – by the sports press at least – as a ‘career-ending’ injury.) With the competition season fast approaching, and vital funding to be found, it seemed as if – once again – fate had dealt our top female Alpine skier a tough hand.
Fate, however, is clearly not very well acquainted with the determination of one Chimene Mary Alcott. At the start of last month, after months of rehabilitation, she completed a training run in Zauchensee Altenmarkt, Austria and, for the first time since August, believed that she “would make it to Sochi”.
It is not a matter of qualification – that was secured long ago – but simply of fitness, speed and, of course, facing fear. However, as I discovered on that tranquil June day, the 31-year-old local girl learnt long ago not only to face her fear, but to embrace it. Aged just 12, she broke her neck competing for Surbiton High School, to which she’d won a scholarship for the rather incongruous combination of skiing and maths.
“It was a fun event which had a disastrous ending!” she laughs. “I was racing for Surbiton High in a schools event. It was a parallel slalom so we were racing another team. I had a really poor start and flipped up and caught my neck as I came down. I just didn’t want to get beaten and I didn’t want to let the school down.”
The accident turned Chemmy into a bit of a celebrity and showed her that skiing was not only a thrilling hobby, but her lifeblood.
“It sounds bizarre, but I became really popular at school! I had a neck brace that I had to wear everywhere and everyone had to be careful around me. It gave me a story but, importantly, having that enforced time away form skiing, I realised: ‘I really want to do this, I miss it.’ And so you bounce back. I think as a kid injuries are just development, you bounce back so quickly. I had no psychological impact. I wasn’t scared or anything.”
In her teens Chemmy joined the GB Olympic ski team, a step which did not prevent her from gaining four A grade
A levels at Surbiton High. Today she continues her association with her alma mater, attending prize-givings and motivating the current school ski team.
As well as that broken neck and her two leg breaks, Chemmy’s catalogue of injuries includes a broken back and ankle. At the 2006 Olympics in Turin, she skied with holes cut into the sides of her boots to make room for excruciating bone spurs, but she still clocked up the best race of her Olympic career, as well as the best result by a British female skier since the 1968 Games in Grenoble. Adversity, it appears, simply inspires her further.
“Getting injured is just normal,” she says. “We do a sport where every day you have to go out to the limit. If you’re not doing that, then you’re skiing in your comfort zone and you are not fulfilling your highest potential. So, you’ve got to push it, and sometimes you push it and have the most amazing run, like I had in the World Cup giant slalom at Sölden in 2008/9. Then sometimes you push it a little bit too far and you hurt yourself.
“Until the 2010 leg break I hadn’t even missed a season. I’d missed parts of seasons through injury, but I hadn’t missed a whole season, which is quite unheard of. Obviously the last four years haven’t been ideal, but if I did it all again I would make the same decisions because you have to learn. It’s so unsatisfying if you don’t.”
However, it was the subsequent withdrawal of funding by UK Sport that was to have the most unsatisfying impact on Chemmy. She describes hearing the news as her “darkest moment”. Somehow, however, fundraising was also squeezed into her packed days. It is thanks to her tenacity, along with her private and corporate sponsors, that she is able to ski competitively at all.
“You couldn’t do a sport like skiing unless you absolutely loved it,” she explains. “You’re not making money from it, it’s not a living, it’s not a job. It’s a very expensive hobby. I think to be a British skier you have to make twice as many sacrifices as anyone else in the world.
“For a start we don’t have the mountains. I spent every weekend going out to the Alps once Easyjet launched its service there. It’s not like being in Austria where skiing is what people do, what the kids do. It’s more in their upbringing and, if they decide they want to be a skier, they are supported one hundred per cent. The girls I race against can’t believe that I have to pay to ski; that is crazy for them to understand. They are like the footballers of that world.”
Chemmy, named after the Sophia Loren character in the 1961 film El Cid, was raised in Twickenham with three older brothers. Although she spends nine months of the year travelling, she is still very much at home in the area where she grew up. Nowadays she shares her Hampton Court home with Dougie and two lodgers. The couple paddle board on the river and train in Bushy Park.
“I really love it around here,” she says. “I don’t think I’ll ever move.”
Growing up, she attended Newland House School in Twickenham before Surbiton High. Her parents were both sporty and her older siblings all good skiers. Chemmy put on her first pair of skis at 18 months (“I wasn’t that happy, 18-month-olds just want to get fed, don’t they?”) Aged three, however, she won her first medal. For most of her career she believed that she’d won that first race but, in 2012, her father burst her bubble after reading an interview that she had given.
“He said: ‘Chemmy, you tell everyone that you won that race when you were three, but you didn’t win, everyone under the age of five got a teddy bear and a medal.’ Obviously I told him: ‘Well, I must have been fast!’ But he replied that I had stopped to give him a kiss on the way down!”
And so, 28 years later, Chemmy stands at the start gate of what could be the most memorable Games of her career, having fought life-changing injury to be where she is today. This month she is due to arrive in Russia just days before her first training run, as she has to train and compete in Europe until the last minute. Whether or not she wins a medal at Sochi, however, Chemmy is sure that this will be her last Olympics.
“Whether I continue to ski, that’s a different question,” she explains. “But I can’t do another four years. My body is really struggling to keep up with where I’m at right now and also there are other things I want to do in life. It’s my fourth Olympics and just getting there after all I’ve been through is going to be a huge accomplishment.”
Presumably one of those ‘other things’ might be the organisation of her wedding in the not-too-distant future. But that aside, she is also pursuing a career in television. She loves commentating and she enjoyed her 2012 stint on ITV’s Dancing on Ice. Now she hopes to establish herself as a TV adventurer. A pilot programme, in which she camped inside an Italian mountain (where else?), has already been made. She wants to show the world that women can excel in a tough environment just as much as men.
And if Chemmy has set her heart on becoming the female equivalent of Bear Grylls, then that, I have no doubt, is exactly what she will achieve.