If there’s one person likely to be celebrating downhill skier Chemmy Alcott’s retirement from the sport, it’s her doctor, as Al Gordon discovers.
There aren’t many occasions when an elite athlete and former champion is pleased with a 19th-placed finish, but then again Chemmy Alcott isn’t like most other elite athletes.
As Britain's most successful alpine skier – and our first and only to win a run in a World Cup race (in the giant slalom at Soelden, Austria in 2008) – Alcott was used to success. But she was also used to injury heartbreak. At the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the downhill skier posted that 19th-placed, and although unremarkable in itself, it drew a close to an impressive career that, in its latest injury stunt, had offered her a broken leg just six months previously.
The girl who broke her neck on the slopes at the age of 12 (having been competing seriously since the age of 8) had had a previous 23-month spell on the sidelines with a horrific double fracture in 2010 and was determined to get back on the slopes in time for the big event in Russia.
“Yes, that was brutal after everything I’ve been through,” she tells me. “I was like, ‘how many more times do I have to prove I am a fighter?!’ I ’ve had to push myself really hard to see what I can take. I had to fast-track things, not just because it was my last Olympics but because I needed to make sure I could compete. And even though I did not win, it was a great feeling just to be out there and just to prove I did have it in me.”
And after officially announcing her retirement from ski racing, a sport she said ‘defined’ her, Chemmy, despite the sadness that is only natural at the ending of such a long era, was still beaming. “I am incredibly proud of what I achieved, especially getting back to represent my country in Sochi. It has been a great career, and now it’s time for something new.”
Having reached the very top of her profession, along the way overcoming a raft of setbacks, including the loss of her mother who died suddenly at the age of 59 when Chemmy was 23, Alcott is a great spokeswoman for the pressure of sport. And the psychological aspect, she says, is the biggest thing any competitor has to overcome, whether they’re competing for the first time or at the elite level.
“Skiing is a hugely mental sport, but there are very few sports that don’t require real mental solidity. I can go into the gym and lift more and work harder but that doesn’t mean I am a better skier. To have that edge, you have to be prepared to push yourself to the limit. That makes a huge difference. Early on in my career I wasn’t the best technical skier, but I was hugely confident and I was able to pull out some great results because of that. So much is in the mind.”
Alcott’s own injury record, along with devastating high-profile accidents, such as the ones suffered by Michael Schumacher, prove time and time again that skiing is not without its dangers. Alcott feels for the former Formula One champion. “The rush he got from driving probably needed to be replaced by something, and he picked skiing. Sure, it gives you a rush, how can it not... but unfortunately accidents do happen.
She points out that constant developments in technology mean that ski racing is progressively getting faster. “…that’s just the way the sport will go. And sure, you are in control and you can choose how fast you go... you control your own destiny in that respect. But the danger element, that unpredictability, will always be there.”
What’s great, though, is that despite drawing a close on her career, and notwithstanding the aches and pains that her catalogue of injuries still offer, Chemmy’s enjoyment of skiing is as strong as ever.
“I’ll definitely stay on the slopes in some respect, and I’d always encourage others to try out skiing,” she says. “It’s not as expensive as people think – it all depends on where you go and at what time of the year – but it’s a fantastic and active holiday to take.
“People have been asking me what I intend to do now my career is over, but really my mind is firmly focused on June 6th, and not much else.” That’s the date on which the 31-year-old will be marrying British downhill racer Dougie Crawford.
“As you can imagine there is quite a lot to do, so I’m glad of the break from competition,” she laughs. “I know the big day will come around really quickly. My friends have told me to not to get injured again on the lead-up as I will look a bit ridiculous walking down the aisle on crutches. That’s probably some of the best pre-marriage advice I’ve had!
Her plans for the next stage of her career are unformed as yet. “What comes after that… I don’t know, but I’d love to encourage people onto the slopes, and perhaps even I can play a part in discovering our next downhill medallist. Now wouldn’t that be great for Britain...”