With Christmas upon us there is nothing nicer than the thought of being whisked away to an alpine chalet, deep snow on the roof and a roaring log fire greeting us in front of which we can sit and enjoy a glass of our favourite tipple.
For some though the call of the alpine is nothing to do with this cosy scene and everything to do with the mountain vistas and exhilarating ski runs that deliver excitement, adrenaline and challenge. Chemmy Alcott, Britain’s greatest female skier is one of those who is at the top of the list when it comes to being part of this group.
Born in London, Chemmy Alcott started skiing at the age of 18 months and continued to become a 4 x Winter Olympian. Alcott achieved a career high ranking of 8th in the World, 7 x British National Overall Champion and the only British female skier to ever win a run in a World Cup. In a time when competing at a Winter Olympics was unusual for a British athlete, Chemmy defied the odds, pioneering a skiing movement that has inspired a generation.
What does it take to achieve this? What challenges have to be faced and overcome and what can we learn to take into our lives and our businesses? We caught up with Alcott to find out.
You undoubtedly have a lot of natural talent but how important was the support from your parents?
“Yes – massively but it was always about having fun and about family skiing, my elder brothers were already racing so I naturally followed them and progressed into racing as soon as I could. My parents were both athletes, and knew what it took. It was always something I was doing at the weekend and in school holidays so I didn’t commit to it as a life choice that early but I just knew that I loved it and I wanted to be good at it.”
You had your challenges early on with the very tragic accident when you broke your neck aged 11. That must have been incredibly scary and also very challenging especially to get skiing again?
“Yes although I guess when you are that young, you don’t overthink things and you are able to bounce back quicker because you just get on with things. I think the injuries I had later on in my career were not about coming back physically but also mentally. Bones and ligaments heal but it’s about having the confidence to throw yourself down the mountain at 90 miles an hour. After the accident at 11 years old I was skiing again eight months later. I still have my neck fused together now so there is a bump on the base of neck at the top of my back and you can see the fusion.”
Travelling to New Zealand every summer to train for eight years must have taken a lot of commitment?
“Yes although I didn’t see it as a commitment as I loved it. It was a chance for me to do a really long block of training on real winter snow. I used to cry on the ‘plane back home as it was the dream programme and I was really lucky to be able to do that which is why when I set up our business, one of our first camps, in fact it was THE first camp, was to New Zealand because it was such an important part of me growing as an athlete and a person. I wanted to share that experience with other athletes.”
How did you manage to balance education and your sporting commitments?
“It teaches you skills to prioritise and staying in the present. I do quite a lot of mentoring talented athletes at schools and I always tell them that it’s a very busy programme that they’re on but they need to try to stay in the present and not to let stresses linger, be those stresses from not finishing their schoolwork or not feeling they’re doing well with their sports training. They need to stay in the present always and they will be amazed at how much they can achieve.”
Not many people know that you had a talent in another sport!
“Yes – my other sport was tennis. I love tennis and played county level tennis; I used to think I’d be a tennis player in the summer and a skier in the winter! Then I realised that the commitment required to be and succeed as a professional meant that it wasn’t going to be possible! I had to realise where my real talents lay. In tennis it was a battle against the girl opposite me. Skiing is different – there’s so much respect for your peers and them going faster than you because they’ve skied on the edge of their limit that you actually create amazing friendships. I don’t regret my decision and I still love tennis.”
You competed in four Winter Olympics, a huge achievement. Your mum died after your second winter Olympics in Torino. That must have been devastating for you?
“She was such a driving force in my career. The last time I saw her was at the bottom of an Olympic run and it was one of the best days in my life because my whole family were there. In hindsight it was the last time we’d all be together. I’d had an amazing run and was in third position until the last split when I’d made a mistake which meant I was in eleventh, but still that achievement was something that was really unexpected. Then I didn’t see her until the end of the season when I drove home. She passed away the day after I got home and it was really brutal. A lot of people thought that because of my mum’s driving force that maybe I would not have the drive without her. I took the time to have surgery on my feet – I was born with banana shaped bones and had surgery to re-align my bones. It meant I had time away from the sport but it was soon very apparent that I was doing the sport for me with her support, not because of her. When I came back I had one of my best seasons ever after that without having skied all summer.
My mum is always there, the house I live in now, the day after I walked into it, all I could feel was her presence and the time I miss her the most is around Christmas time. She was a massively vivacious, positive influence on me and she lived really hard. Our business is called “Carpe Diem Coaching” because she said that to me every day – whatever comes your way you seize it, grasp it and if you make a mistake, you learn from it. So, she is still very much present.”
Four Olympics, seven World Championships and 49 bones broken – that must take a huge amount of determination?
“Yes, definitely – especially when you consider that I never won. I wasn’t driven by the fact that I was getting gold medals on the world stage left right and centre. I was driven by the fact that I was able to keep doing my best and to show that we can be talented in winter sports in the UK. I love skiing and if I could ski every day, I would – it’s my absolute passion and that’s why I was able to come back and have the longevity that I did.
It was more of an internal competition where, as a professional, you wake up every day of the week thinking how can I be better, stronger, faster today. How can I be a better version of myself? That body awareness and self-knowledge and honesty of how you can work at your very maximum capability is amazing.”
You mentioned a moment ago about chucking yourself down a mountain at 90 miles an hour which I can imagine must be very scary but there must be some addiction to speed?
“Massively! The adrenaline you get from throwing yourself down a mountain is very hard to replicate. I used to try – I did multiple sky dives and everything and the only other sport that I found that comes close is surfing. And that’s because I’m not very good so I try and charge and I’ve had a few crashes. It’s hard to replicate in retirement as well.
When I retired I wanted to keep doing something competitive so I signed up for quite a few challenges. I did the world’s toughest ski race across the artic and I did one of Britain’s hardest one day events – it’s called the Artemis Quadrathlon. It was important for me to still have a goal to aim for.”
Is having the right attitude more important than just being talented?
“Yes – I really feel that for all my achievements in skiing, I didn’t have as much talent as I did that “British grit” and it was that grit that kept me competitive. I think that at that top end, talent is marginal; it’s about who believes in themselves more and who’s ready to push themselves more – it’s massively psychological.”
In light of Ellie Soutter’s death, are we doing enough to look after our athletes’ psychological health as well as their physical health?
“The one thing I’d say is that it’s massively changed throughout my career. The awareness of the vulnerability and loneliness of being an individual sporting athlete was highlighted a lot back in 2000. I think that in extreme sports a lot of people don’t admit to their fears and vulnerabilities because they’re almost seen to be superhuman so they keep them buried. When you keep them buried and don’t have the confidence to talk about them to even your close team around you, then they can become quite dangerous. It’s really difficult to know who needs help and who doesn’t.”
What inspired you to create the X-Elle Scheme?
“After the London Olympics, I was very excited because we’d been very successful as a British female sporting community and I hoped that that would kind of develop all the way down to interest at grass roots levels and in schools. I do quite a lot of speaking in schools and I was shocked at the amount of young girls who were bunking off sports who were not understanding the value of sport and so not putting it up as a priority. I thought this was a massive opportunity. We’ve got role models such as Jess Ennis-Hill and people that they can aspire to be. It actually turns out that all of the fans of the Olympics, especially the young female fans, thought that they could never be her so what was the point of them going to their gym class that day. I wanted to re-educate on the value of the confidence and life skills that sport gives you and that’s where X-Elle started.”
Why did you chose “Right to Play” as a charity?
“I understood the value of sport and the opportunities that I’d been given in my life because of sport. Then I found out about “Right to Play” which uses sport all round the world to teach these life skills. Now we’re at a stage where they have programmes for 2 million children each week throughout the world. It’s just something that’s a no-brainer for me. It’s amazing seeing the good development of these young people in societies where they are deprived of so much and yet they are learning and developing because of the Right to Play programme.”
Now you’ve retired what do you try to bring to the viewers in your TV and media work?
“Passion I think! I’m willing to go out there and share the feelings of what is going on inside . The fear of that race when the start gate opens and the fear of failure. A lot of things that I learnt throughout my career. Obviously I’ve got a lot of knowledge in the area as I spent so long doing it but it’s about sharing it with passion and the love I have for the sport.”
In 2012 you competed in ITV’s Dancing on Ice. How was it?
“It was a very surreal and crazy time for me. I did it because I needed and wanted to get back to skiing and I saw it as a way of working on my weaknesses as I wasn’t very good at skiing on flats. I thought if I could work on skating on blades that it would set me up much better for my sport. I needed to increase my profile to get a sponsor to get back into skiing; it was both crazy and amazing fun! I definitely didn’t understand the entertainment side – I just thought I was learning a new sport. That was tough but I really enjoyed it and I’m so grateful to Torvill and Dean for everything because I was able to come back to racing because of it.”
What advice would you give anyone on life?
“My life motto is that I never lose. Either I win or I learn. That’s something I’m really adamant about because I want people to learn to push themselves to get rid of the feeling of limiting their capabilities and to find their growth mindset. So in doing so they might find their way but they might also make a mistake. If they do, then if they learn from that mistake and go on and follow a different path, they will become an improvement of who they were yesterday.”
Editor in Chief