- Post date:
- Wednesday, 14 February 2018
Meet the blind skiing team who are representing Great Britain in the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games.
Nineteen-year-old skier Menna Fitzpatrick from Macclesfield became the first British snow sports athlete to win a World Cup title in Aspen, Colorado in 2016. Menna has been visually impaired since she was born. She has five per cent vision in her right eye and is completely blind in her left.
Menna began skiing at five years old when her parents took her on a ski holiday to France. Now she’s busy getting ready for the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympics with her guide Jennifer Kehoe.
“Jen and I started working together two-and-a-half years ago,” says Menna. “At this point in my skiing career, I had taken a bit of a break to finish doing school and I wasn’t feeling the enjoyment of skiing anymore. And when I came back, Jen was without an athlete.”
Jennifer continues, “I’m a serving officer in the Royal Engineers. I was racing for the skiing team when our coach came over to me and asked if I had ever thought about guiding. I thought it was an amazing opportunity. I went to a trial and it went really well. And the rest is history.”
Jennifer skies in front of Menna in a bright orange jacket when they’re on the field and they communicate with each another using Bluetooth headsets inside their helmets.
“Jen tells me when to turn, whether it’s soft snow or icy, and all that sort of stuff while we’re skiing down,” Menna explains.
“We had one race, when we went out the start gate and Menna pushed out of the gates vigorously and her poles knocked the headset off,” says Jennifer. “I tried to turn it back on, and but she pushed it at the same time, so we were turning it on and off again.”
“We tend to crack on because can’t just stop the race,” says Menna. “There is a lot of pressure, but we just want to do as best we can. If that’s medal then that’s absolutely fantastic, but ultimately we’re there just to do our best.”
From Canterbury, Millie Knight first debuted at the age of 15 at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, making her the youngest Great Britain competitor at any Winter Paralympics.
Millie contracted toxocariasis (an infection transmitted from animals caused by roundworms) when she was only a year old, resulting in the loss of most of her vision by the age of six.
It was during this time that Millie went on a skiing holiday with her mum. She loved it and her passion transformed into an incredible career.
“Skiing is a very unique sport and the freedom I’ve gained from it since losing my sight is fantastic,” says Millie.
In 2016, Millie started working with her sighted guide Brett Wild.
“I got into it by skiing in the Royal Navy ski champs,” explains Brett. “I got an email from the development team who asked if I wanted to go for a trial period with Millie for the week. Millie and I got on exceptionally well and she asked me to go over to Aspen, America for the World Cup finals. We came back we three gold medals. I was allowed to go for three weeks, but thanks to those medals, I was released from duty for two years, so it’s been fantastic.”
Like Menna and Jennifer, the two communicate on the field using Bluetooth headsets.
“There’s a lot of trust between us. As a non-sighted alpine skier, communication is a big factor in our relationship. We’re open and honest about absolutely everything,” says Millie.
“If you’re sighted and the opportunity arises to give it a go, take it,” says Brett. “It’s so rewarding and such an eye opener.”
Team Leader, Penny Briscoe, has a background in canoe slalom. In 2001, she was looking to do something a little bit different and an opportunity came up at the British Paralympic Association, where she is now the Director of Sport.
“I moved across to what was at that time the dark side. I didn’t know anything about para sport. We had great athletes but nobody was really that interested – certainly not the media.
“It really was a strange time. I moved across from Olympic sport that had a lot of profile, into para sport that had equally good athletes, but very little profile.
“I remember my first Para Games was Athens 2004 and there were about 300 people in the Olympic stadium. I just scratched my head. It kind of felt like the world was missing out.”
Since then, interest and awareness of paralympic sport has thrived.
“This probably lasted through to the decision to host the Games in London in 2012. The fantastic coverage of para sport just brought images of such talented and incredible athletes into British homes. It helped raise awareness and created a new generation of sporting heroes.”
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