Surprisingly, I have never actually set foot on a rollercoaster, but after the season that has been 2018/2019, I really feel that I have been given the full experience. I have hit some of the lowest points that I could ever have imagined shortly followed by high points that no one could have predicted. It is immensely cheesy but I know that there are so many important lessons entwined into the last season and it has taken a great deal of scrutiny towards my feelings, emotions and actions to figure them out . So here is my attempt at gathering all of those days of heartbreak, anger, laughter, tears and elation together to make sense in what is hopefully an insightful blog attempt. (There have been many mind maps, drafts, lists and maunderings to get to this point– believe me)
Eleven races. That is all it has taken to make the 18/19 season my most successful so far. Seven of those races were slalom and from that we had three wins, two records and a smattering of personal bests along the way. These results comprise a 24th at the World Champs which were held in Are, Sweden mid-February, three continental cup podiums and a neat little slice of history as I became the first British woman to win a European Cup race which came mid-March in Folgaria, Italy. I need to take this chance now, to thank my family, friends, sponsors and team for getting me there. I am so grateful for their unwavering support; I truly have never needed it so much and have no idea how to repay the hours of phone calls and hundreds of hugs.
Looking back, embellished with all of the podium finishes, it is very easy to forget what I can only describe as the hardest few months that I have had to experience, and is a part of the season I am very keen to forget. The time that has passed since September last year has forced me to really grow both as an athlete and more importantly as a person. I got pretty good at hiding it but for anyone that spent enough time with me it was obvious that I was struggling, both physically and mentally. I was in a lot of pain with my back and was taking injury time out of the season for the fifth year in a row. Each time I have had an injury setback, I get better at knowing a system, who I should talk to and what I should prioritise but it also becomes harder and harder to deal with. The waiting around is frustrating and watching your friends and colleagues competing on TV rather than being there yourself becomes a real source of anguish and resentment. My lowest point came in November. I vividly remember phoning my Mum whilst out in Austria during an unsuccessful return to snow attempt saying “it’s really not worth it anymore; I hate skiing, my body hates skiing, I quit”. And for 2 weeks, I really quit. I woke up the next day and booked a flight home for that afternoon. I broke down in tears on the plane and spent the next while in a total state – my sister, Katie would be knocking on my door at midday asking if maybe I should consider getting out of bed and having something to eat at the same time? Perhaps I should maybe head outside? Then my boyfriend and I broke up. One of the people that had helped me the most was gone, right at the moment when I felt I needed support the most and for the next few weeks my entire world was a disaster. When looking at it now and writing this, it all seems very insignificant in the grand scheme of all of the problems in the world but I had lost any perspective in my life and I can safely say that my brief stint of retirement was hell.
I am still absolutely heart broken when I read my diary entries for that point in my life. I felt worthless and each entry would be filled with affirmations to tell myself that I was strong, that I was capable and that I should hold my head high and trust in myself and my own decisions. Without skiing, I had lost all sense of purpose in my life and very quickly, I also lost every ounce of self-confidence that I had left. I was filled with so much anger and bitterness towards ski racing and I felt as though I had spent my life chasing this dream of becoming one of the best ski racers in the world at the cost of far too much of my life. Whilst away skiing at that moment in time, I was living a solitary existence in an atmosphere where I was not comfortable, where I felt trapped and dreaded returning to. All around me I was seeing my friends moving on with their lives with “proper jobs”, starting families and buying homes. I felt hugely left behind and on doing some of my own reading, I believe that this is what they call a ‘quarter life crisis’.
Thankfully I am now looking at this from the other side, so what changed? The first step was that GB Snowsports facilitated rehab for my back down in London and I had the huge privilege of working with some of the best physical trainers, therapists and physios in the business. I finally had a team around me that believed in me every day and I knew were there for me every step of the way. The first day I walked into the Centre of Health and Human Performance (CHHP) in December, my physio sat me down and said; “we are not even going to talk about your back today, we are going to talk about you”. “How are you really doing?” at which point I promptly broke down into tears (again). That was a real turning point for me as during this conversation I began to realise the link between our mental and physical health. They are both so neatly intertwined and rarely can one heal without the other. Over the next two weeks, my training changed and I was being pushed to the absolute limits in the gym, something that I had really been missing. I started doing lifts in the gym that had been taken out of my programme years ago and I was really relishing being able to move like a “normal” athlete without the constraints of chronic back pain. I cried an awful lot less, took in everything that London had to offer, saw friends that I had been missing for years and things were really on the up. I finally had the belief that I would be able to race again and the goal: Be fit for World Champs. Retirement was over and a sense of purpose had returned!
During the rehab period, I also had the good fortune of making the decision to “f**k it” and just enjoy everything that the festive period had to offer. So that meant Christmas, Boxing Day, all of the family activities, a lot of mulled wine, a proper 25th Birthday celebration, New Year and even drumming lessons with my neighbour! I said yes to every opportunity that came my way. I headed back out to snow in January with much the same attitude. If there was something that I wanted to do (within boundaries of course), I was damn well going to do it – one of those things, being just a simple day of fun, unplanned, unrestricted free skiing! It was epic. It seems so simple but I just needed to learn to let ski racing take a back seat every now and again. I had forgotten to just do things for myself and I found that when I did that, I had so much more energy to inject into ski racing and getting up every day to train was exactly what I wanted to be doing.
So this created the biggest lesson that I needed to take on board: my skiing to life balance needed to be addressed. I had to learn that it was ok to still see my friends, party, go to social occasions and essentially have some fun. I had been micro-managing so many aspects of my life in pursuit of becoming a better athlete and faster skier, that I had absolutely lost sight of the bigger picture of simply allowing myself to do things that I really enjoyed. I now know that I am happiest and most productive working in a big group with others and a shared goal. It makes total sense, I grew up in a big family and at school had a close group of friends and played a lot of team sport. It has taken me months to draw this conclusion and became most apparent to me on a quick break that I had in London to see physio before I headed out to The World Champs. I was so busy for that 5 days doing physio, training, having dinner and drinks with friends and heading up to Leeds to see my brother that on the plane back to Austria, I fell asleep for the entire duration. I knew that potentially my physical recovery had been compromised but mentally, I was completely fresh and was feeling the best that I had felt in years.
Without realising it, I had found a formula that really worked for me. I went out to world champs, continued in the same vein and made a personal best. I returned to Austria where I poured my new found energy everything on and off the piste. Everything flowed. I trained, I turned up to races and I went for it. Even if I skied awfully in warm up (which I did, often) I was so much more comfortable within myself that I could easily reset and knew that this is just ski racing and that life was still good no matter the result! Standing in the start gate for the second run of Europa Cup finals, sitting in second place, I knew that the course was soft and that many girls were moving backwards in the standings, I had only 3 hundredths on the girl in third, I had never been in this position at Europa Cup before. I didn’t feel nervous until I was actually getting my skis on and then my heart rate was through the roof! I could feel my heart beat in my throat and had to unzip my race suit a little from my neck to give me some space to breathe. All that was going through my mind was – ski like you know you can, keep your left arm moving through the turn and stay loose in the ankles. You have done this hundreds of times before! I had visualised certain sections of the course so many times during inspection and I had a clear course report from my coach, everything was in place. The confidence in my skiing was there, I raced and somehow, I was on top of the podium. I felt like crying then and there, to think of where I was in November to get to this huge PB was just proof to me that no matter what, persistence pays off.
The highlight of the season on paper was this win. But the real highlight of this season was the rediscovery of my self-belief and how that has come to impact the energy that I have every day and the enjoyment that I have for the complete lifestyle that comes with being a full time ski racer. I have been told so often to just believe in myself and to have confidence. However, it is now very apparent to me that confidence, self-belief and worth doesn’t just reappear, but unwittingly, in my case anyway, it is learned and worked for.
As athletes and especially as winter athletes from the UK, we are really living outside of the ‘comfort zone’, we dedicate all we have in the pursuit of achieving our goals under the scrutiny of everyone around us. Only now have I realised that this is exactly where personal growth happens. I tried for so long to dodge my way around unpleasant situations and obviously I let it get to me. But without this, without my ‘retirement stint’, without being left on my own, I would never have been able to go through this chapter of my life and come out the other side a far stronger person. I know that I have overcome a mental battle and it is one that I will most likely have to go through again, albeit hopefully in a different form – nothing is plain sailing, especially when you are going against the norm and in a highly competitive environment. But I suppose that this is the point of resilience, I will be able to take all of these lessons that I have learned and have the ability to come back stronger and stronger every time. I put myself out there and faced up to problems and with the support of those close to me, I have overcome them. I am now closer to those people, I know myself so much better than I ever have before and I know now to relish and look for a challenge because that is the only way I am ever going to grow and become the ski racer that I have always dreamed of being.