I am just back from 10 days in Val di Fassa, Italy where I competed in the Junior World Championships. As always with big events like this, it was an incredible experience, not just the skiing, but seeing all the top athletes from countries all over the world that I have grown up racing against.
There were highs and lows but the one moment I am most proud of is when we (Great Britain) beat Austria in the Team Event. In the past, alpine skiing was strictly an individual sport, but in a search to make the sport more spectator-friendly FIS, (the international governing body), has introduced City Events and Team Events in the past few years. A City Event is basically 2 parallel courses, about 20 seconds long, where 2 racers go head to head, around panelled slalom gates, off jumps, on live TV and in front of big crowds. The team event is the same idea but we compete for our countries (2 male athletes, 2 female athletes), instead of individually, and this was where we really excelled at World Junior Champs.
In Italy, the top 16 countries qualified to compete, with the race taking place early evening under flood lights. The British team was ranked 15th going into the race, and we were drawn against Austria in the first round who were ranked 2nd. To make the challenge even harder, one of our girls fell ill, 2 hours before the start and we couldn’t get a substitute to Val di Fassa in time. I must admit team morale was a little low that afternoon as we put on our boots, helmets and skis.
As night fell, the floodlights came on, and the crowds began pouring in, we started to get more and more excited. During the warm-up period we all felt great, with many of the bigger “alpine” nations starting to notice us as a potential threat.
With only 3 racers, we automatically conceded the first run. In the second head to head, my good friend and team-mate, Zak won his race against the first Austrian guy by a good margin. Next up was Jess, she gave it everything, and although she didn't win, she finished within a few hundredths of a second (this was important later). Finally it was my turn, and with 2 wins for Austria, and 1 for Britain, I knew if I didn’t win, our night would be finished early and so the pressure was on.
I looked down on the town of Val di Fassa, the icy race piste shining under the floodlights, lined with spectators, and I knew it was all or nothing. I took my last few deep breaths of the cold night air before the 5 second countdown began. My coaches cheered me out the start gate. I had a great start and was ahead for the first few turns, only for my Austrian rival to edge in front. I was pushing as hard as I could, I laid everything on the line, and about 3/4 of the way down the Austrian athlete made a mistake, causing him to lose momentum, I shot passed him, into the lead and over the finish line. If only it was that simple though.
Both teams had 2 wins so the winning team would be decided by the two fastest times from each team. After what felt like minutes, but was probably only 30 seconds, they announced over the speaker system that Great Britain would proceed to the next round. The crowd went wild, there’s something special about an “underdog” team like us beating the biggest skiing country in the world, and all the neutrals and supporters of the other big countries loved it.
I have vivid memories of the whole team hugging each other, other countries fans were cheering for us, my parents ran past the security guards and into the finish area to congratulate us. It was surreal.
We recomposed and headed back up for the next rounds. In the end we finished 8th out of 16 countries after being knocked out by Germany who went on to win a medal. That was an evening I will never forget.