Geriatric super-G force

Britain's most decorated skier is not quite ready for the Chelsea Pensioners yet
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The Independent Online

You've never seen him schussing down the mountainside on Ski Sunday, nor does his name ring any bells this side of the Jungfrau, but Jim Woolgar is surely the most successful skier Britain has ever produced, a world champion, no less, on three occasions and winner of so many gold medals that he gives most of them away. He is a former paratrooper who competes on the Alpine slopes throughout the winter and spends the summer months windsurfing and, as he puts it, "watching the girls go by". He is also 84.

You've never seen him schussing down the mountainside on Ski Sunday, nor does his name ring any bells this side of the Jungfrau, but Jim Woolgar is surely the most successful skier Britain has ever produced, a world champion, no less, on three occasions and winner of so many gold medals that he gives most of them away. He is a former paratrooper who competes on the Alpine slopes throughout the winter and spends the summer months windsurfing and, as he puts it, "watching the girls go by". He is also 84.

They say old soldiers never die. In Woolgar's case, he has put the skis on and become the best of British. Literally so. Recently, at a slap-up do in the West End of London, he picked up the main prize in the veterans category of the Great Sporting Achievements Awards. These achievements included winning the World Cup three times in his age group, in 1994, 1998 and again last year, and seeing off a whole host of Continental rivals, some of them ex-champions, in aseries of races which embraced downhill, the slalom, the giant slalom and the super-G.

Not bad for a Brit whose only previous experience of the snowy stuff was on active duty as one of the liberators of Norway in the Second World War. "That was a bad one," he winks. "We were only allowed two blondes apiece."

To say that the ex-Red Beret Warrant Officer is a remarkable old boy is an understatement. He has been skiing only for the last 18 years of his life, taking up the sport as an Army pensioner after a tragic accident which left him as a widower soon after he had left his regiment and was working for the Naafi. He had been married to a German, Helga, for 17 years and he brought her from England to a new apartment in Hamelin. On her arrival, she fell on the outside steps and died in hospital two hours later from a fractured skull.

Born in Hove, Sussex, Woolgar spent 33 years in the Army after jumping ship as a cabin boy on a private yacht. "The bosun gave me a hard time," he said. He served in the Western Desert, took part in the Rhine crossing and won the Military Medal at the D-Day landings. He also has the British Empire Medal and Coronation Medal. He was with the Royal Sussex Regiment, then became a driver with the Royal Signals before switching to their Airborne Division as a paratrooper.

It was after his wife's death that skiing became his own new way of life. "As an Army pensioner I had decided to base myself abroad and I had always been interested in ski-ing." Basically self-taught, he bought a Fiat camper van, turned it into a mobile home and for the past 17 years has toured the Alpine ski resorts, training for and competing in the International Masters competitions. He has become something of a celebrity in the valleys, where he is treated almost as a guest. At present his "caravan" rests outside the five-star Alpine Sporthotel in Muteberg, Austria, a few kilometres from Innsbruck. "Up the Brenner Pass and turn off right."

The surrounding mountains, including the Stubi glacier, provide the preparation for his coming assault on the next Veterans' World Cup. He is, he says, determined to regain the crown from the Austrian, "a young lad of 80", who beat him into second place last winter, thus thwarting his coveted three in a row. "I'm slowing down a bit now," he confesses. "But I still reckon I'm good enough to get my revenge." Veteran skiing, he says, is great fun, yet intensely competitive. "I'm about the only Brit left now in the 80-85 age group. They all seem to pack up in their mid-70s. But I've beaten skiers from France, Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland, a lot younger than me. It makes you feel good because most of them were born into it and many have competed in the past at top level. When I first won the World Cup they simply couldn't believe a Brit had done it.

"It's a wonderful life. They all know me here. All I have to pay for is my breakfast at the hotel and they let me use their facilities. I'm used to fending for myself and though I'll be 85 next August, I don't feel like an old man at all. Skiing keeps me young at heart."

Windsurfing, too, which he took up as a 65-year-old. This he does in the Baltic, off Germany's north coast near Rostock in the summer. "I have a board which I carry around in my camper but I wouldn't risk going out in anything stronger than a Force 4. Most of the time I sit on the beach and watch the girls."

It was the Parachute Brigade who paid his fare to London to collect the Best of British Award, presented by Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards on behalf of the sponsoring Banana Group. The £500 that accompanied it will be handy to supplement the Army pension on which he lives. While he was in London he also took the opportunity to visit the headquarters of the Chelsea Pensioners. He's been promised a bed there when he hangs up his salopettes.

"I'm three years behind schedule for them, really and they're getting a bit niggly now. They say, 'Look here, Jim, isn't it about time you packed up this skiing lark and joined us?' but eventually I will end up with the boys."

Woolgar's camper is also a familiar sight at the Alpine Centre in Bavaria, run by the British Army, where his two sons work, one of them as a mountain guide. "As a soldier, Jim did the lot," says Major Tony Willmore, who is is charge of the centre. "He's a wonderful character and generous too. He donates his cups and medals to our trophy cabinet and insists we give them away as presents whenever anyone leaves. He's the old-school Army veteran. When he comes in here he clicks his heels, salutes and it's, 'Yes Sir, No Sir'. He's a real old soldier, absolutely, and he will be to his dying day."

For the moment, the grand old man of the Alps skis onwards and downwards. He's not ready to be Chelsea Pensioned-off just yet.

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