Getting the Drift

8th September 2017

Whoever called them ‘winter sports’ was very much off-piste. Jill Glenn meets local Parasnowsport athlete Grace Conway-Murray, and discovers that far from being restricted to the cold months, the call of the slopes is an all-year-round obsession.

if you’ve spent the summer seeking out the sunshine, here or abroad, in search of a warm break with plenty of opportunities for relaxation (and why wouldn’t you?), then spare a thought for Bushey-based Grace Conway-Murray, who has devoted the warmer months to chasing the snow, and practising complicated manoeuvres on it.

Grace, 22 this month, is a champion skier, having won gold in the British Parasnowsport Slalom and Giant Slalom at the National Alpine Ski Championships, held in Tignes, France, in April. Born with cerebral palsy, which affects the right side of her body and particularly her right arm, she is unable to hold a ski pole… so she skis without, competing in a category called LW9-2. Para-alpine skiing events are organised into three categories: sitting, standing and visually impaired; then by men/women; then by further classifications according to the degree of ‘activity limitation’, as laid down in some pretty specific criteria. “It’s complicated,” says Grace. Essentially, though, as the inset box below explains, all Paralympic athletes in any discipline are grouped according to impairment – to create a level playing field (or a level ski slope), as it were. Once the skiers in any classification have completed their run, or time trial, there are points and penalties and curious calculations before the winner can be established.

I admit I find it difficult to follow Grace’s explanation of how the system works – ‘It’s complicated’, she says, again – until I realise that the aim is to lose points, not to win them. One thing I do get, however, is that Grace is clearly good. To win gold in her first season is an outstanding achievement. She looks slightly embarrassed. “Yes,” she says, “but it’s the one thing in life I love to do… and winning things makes it worthwhile.” She particularly enjoys the training, for the pleasure of focusing on one thing, and the races for going “just as fast as possible.”

She’s been skiing since she was a child – “it was a big thing in our family” – and, in fact, learned (aged four or five) from an ex-Olympic race coach, who always saw potential in her. But life and school and exams always got in the way of taking it more seriously…until last year. Via some clever networking, she got into the British Parasnowport training squad in the summer and started racing with the team ‘unofficially’ (it’s an invitational sport) in November. She’s been officially on the team since April. I express surprise at the informality of some of this, and she shrugs, with a smile. “It’s complicated.”

It’s also expensive – “desperately under-funded”, in Grace’s words – and out of the reach of many people. Moreover, since I met her, Grace has learned that her specially-adapted motability car (on which she relies to get her and her equipment around) may be withdrawn as a result of recent government cuts. She’s naturally distressed that her ability to train, and to represent her country, may be in jeopardy. When we spoke, her plans were for perhaps another ten years on the slopes. “Whenever I take on a task I always want to be the best that I can be: that’s my motivation,” she says, and, unsurprisingly, she is powerfully in favour of para sport. “It’s so important to give disabled people an opportunity to compete and feel a part of mainstream society”. In fact, she has established a charity, the Dave Stanley Ski Trust (in memory of her first instructor, who passed away recently) to help other disabled youngsters learn to ski. “I am so grateful to him for giving me this opportunity in life.”

With the 2017/2108 season already under way, her recent training trips have taken her to France, Austria and Norway for time on the slopes, and to Holland and Germany for indoor work. She enjoys it, of course, but it’s no summer holiday. When she’s with the team they’re up at 6am for a mobility session, with lots of stretching, before breakfast. The next three or four hours are spent at the gates on different exercises and drills, before gym routines and time spent servicing the skis: sharpening and waxing, and making sure the edge angle is set for speed. Then it’s dinner, and bed, and the same early start the following morning for 10-14 days.

At home, she’s in the gym three times a week, and reports her general levels of fitness each day to her trainer via a smartphone app called Snow Sports Wellness Diary, grading her responses from 1 to 10 to questions such as ‘How well did you sleep?’ (where 1 = ‘dreadful’ and 10 = ‘brilliant’) and ‘How do you feel today?’ (1 = ‘bad’ and 10 = ‘awesome’).

She tells me she doesn’t really like being the centre of attention – one of the benefits of skiing is the anonymity of the helmet, and she doesn’t even let family or friends watch her compete – but I rather think she’s going to have to get used to that, if her progress continues at its current rate.

When she’s in the UK, home is with her family in Bushey. In fact, she’s local through-and-through. She went to St Hilda’s School on the High Street and then on to Aldenham School. She was studying Mechanical Engineering at Oxford Brookes University – “I’ve always liked cars, always been practical and maths-orientated” – when the permanent pull of the slopes finally became irresistible, and she decided to defer the remainder of her degree. This year’s success has justified that decision. “It was a relief to win… all the training paid off.”

Grace is keen to acknowledge all the help that she’s received, from her occupational therapist and her physiotherapist, for example, and from her coaches – Euan Bennet, Nick Fletcher and Fred Pellerin – but the people to whom she pays the greatest consistent tribute are her parents, Jean Conway and Keith Murray. “They’re the most important people in my life… I cannot thank them enough.” Without them, Grace says openly, she wouldn’t be where she is today, and that’s not only because of the emotional support that they have given her. “They are always there to guide me,” she explains, “but they have also been able to fund my dreams”.

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