A dedication to excellence; close-up; Emma Carrick-Anderson

Britain's best slalom skier is eager to preserve the passion of a colleague killed on the slopes. Andrew Baker reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT HAS not been a happy new year for Britain's top slalom skier, Emma Carrick-Anderson. Optimistic preparations for this week's World Alpine skiing championships were interrupted in the most terrible way a month ago when her childhood friend and British team colleague Kirsteen "Kim" McGibbon was killed on a downhill practice run in Alpenmarkt.

"Kim was so young," Carrick- Anderson reflected last week. "She was just 20, she had everything ahead of her." McGibbon had a motto: "Everyone who lives dies - but not everyone who dies has lived." Her philosophy has been inherited by the team. As Carrick-Anderson put it: "That just makes me think that it is so important to get the most out of every day, even if it is a bad day."

McGibbon's death was a crippling blow to a team that relies on morale and fellowship to compensate for inadequate funding. But they have found new strength in adversity. "I think in many ways it has brought us all closer together," Carrick- Anderson said. "It was hard at first. We went home for 10 days and it was difficult to get straight back into it." She still dreams about Kim, with whom she trained as a teenager in Aviemore. "But we've all talked about it among ourselves, and that has helped."

Encouraged by the positive attitude of McGibbon's family ("Win one for my girl", her father told the team), Carrick-Anderson was last week making her final preparations for the championships, which start in Sierra Nevada, Spain, today. Mindful of how important a good result would be to the team, she is wary of making any predictions: "I've made that mistake before," she said. "I'm not going to say, 'I'm going to finish here or there.' I'm going to do my best."

Her best can be very good indeed: she was eighth in the combined slalom at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, when she was 16. "After that, of course, people who don't know the sport were expecting overnight wins and top places in the World Cup," said Mike Jardine, chief executive of the British Ski Federation. "But that is not the way it happens. What you need is a good, solid progression, and that is what Emma has achieved, with good performances in the Europa Cup and just recently two wins in NorAm races in North America. She hasn't cracked the World Cup yet, but it's just a question of keeping on."

Kurt Scherl, the Swede who has coached the British team for the past four years, is convinced that Carrick-Anderson can make the breakthrough. "That girl, she's got talent," he pronounced. "She is just a little bit slower than she can be. There is technical work that we can do, but the big, big problem is mental. But she's getting there."

Nick Fellows, the Eurosport skiing commentator who is a friend of Carrick- Anderson's, agrees that her main problem is temperament. "Emma suffers from something rather like the British-player-at-Wimbledon syndrome," Fellows reckons. "As soon as a good skier comes along, the media go bananas, and that puts extra pressure on them and they crumble under that pressure."

Close observers of the skiing scene all agree that Carrick- Anderson is on the verge of World Cup success, having proved that she can beat the best at "second division" level in Europa Cup and NorAm races. But slalom skiing is an all-or-nothing sport where a millimetre makes the difference between a fast time and a fall, and confidence and calm are essential attributes. In Carrick-Anderson's second Olympic appearance, she skied out of the course on both the slalom and the giant slalom.

"Technically, I have to be quicker off the edge, to get the turn done quicker," Carrick-Anderson admitted. This is what she was working on last week. But there is another bugbear: "I must improve my technique on ice. They spray the course every night, and when it comes to the competition day it is just a sheet of ice, and that freaks me out. The only way to cope with an icy surface is to be more aggressive, more confident."

This disquiet about ice is nothing new: it is deep-seated, as Emma's mother, Fiona, recalled. "I remember that she didn't like ice when she first started. That was something she had to get used to." And how old was she when she first pulled on ski boots? "Two".

All the Carrick-Anderson family ski, and Emma honed her skills trying to keep up with her elder brother, Crawford, who was later to spend three years in the British team. Once she had come across Austrian and Swiss juniors in European races, Emma realised that if she wished to make real progress she would have to leave the family home in Dunblane, near Stirling. "She wanted to go to the Austrian ski school at Schladming," her mother recalled. "Well, as you can imagine, we weren't happy about that. But she persuaded us, and spent the last four years of her school life at Schladming."

From Schladming to Albertville, and that magnificent debut. What was it like to compete in the Olympics at the age of 16? "It was a great experience, to be honest, really wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed myself." But such an early initiation to the ultimate in sporting pressure did not provide any sort of immunisation, and Carrick-Anderson concedes that she can still be distracted at important events. "When it comes to big competitions like the World Cup you have to back off a bit mentally, as things can get so hyped up," she said. "It's difficult to stop. But that should improve with experience."

Nick Fellows suspects that she lacks self-belief. "She needs another link in the chain. In the qualifying competition for the top 30 places in the World Cup, she was a bag of nerves and didn't make it. But in a B Tour race soon after that she beat all the same women and a lot of the top names. It's just pressure. She needs to develop mental strength, she needs to develop focus."

Mike Jardine believes that Emma is going about things in the right way. "She knows what is needed to compete, and she is pulling together all those variables. Too often British skiers have got to a certain level and given up. Emma knows that skiers who get to the top are those who have worked slowly and steadily up through the system."

Carrick-Anderson goes to Sierra Nevada armed with patience, honed technique, and experience. And the determination to make every day count, as Kim used to say.

The rest of the British skiing team

Graham Bell (aged 29). In his 13th season on the World Cup circuit, but his first without the support of his brother Martin, who has retired. Best result so far this season was 26th in a tough downhill in Kitzbuhel. Plans to ski on until the next Olympics: "Any career plans can wait. After all, you are only a downhill racer once."

James Ormond (aged 22). Lives in Le Grand Bornand, France, and gained early experience with Megeve Club Des Sports. In his fourth year on the GB team.

Oliver Hall (aged 19). First appearance in the British team. Oliver is in his fourth year at the Oppdal Ski Academy in Norway. Represented Great Britain in the World Junior Championships in Voss last year.

Dan Walker (aged 23). Edged out his brother Roger for a place on the team. Third behind the Bells in the 1995 British downhill championship.

Shona Robertson (aged 19). A veteran of four World Junior Championships, she has been skiing full-time for three years. Skis three disciplines in the Europa Cup.