Skiing World Cup: Snow business suits Alcott

Model athlete is flying the flag for Britain and dreaming of a Winter Olympics medal
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The Independent Online

It would be many people's idea of the ultimate incongruity, this British Ski Association base in the Austrian Alps where Chemmy Alcott relaxes in the meeting room. The more cynical would, no doubt, imagine that it becomes, at times, a gathering place for embittered athletes, bemoaning the fact that they have grown up in a land which less resembles the backdrop from Ski Sunday than one where a heavy snowfall tends to refer to an inch of slush which halts transport and cuts electricity supplies. This is a location, you suspect, where hope far outweighs reality.

Britain is simply not a competitive skiing nation, and that will always provide a ready excuse if you do not perform. That may be a widely held perception, but it is an attitude that exasperates Britain's leading female race-skier.

"I understand what people say, but to be a champion you have to overcome so many barriers. That is just one of the smallest ones," says the 25-year-old from Twickenham. "Standing at the top of a downhill, knowing that you're about to come down at more than 90mph, is more of a psychological barrier than thinking 'Oh, I'm British. I'll never make it'. It sounds really harsh, but if you can't get past the whole 'British' thing, then you're not strong enough to get to the top of the sport anyway. We've got great sponsors, facilities, and a great home from home out here. There's no excuses any more."

Alcott also has a hugely impressive support team behind her which allows this veteran of two Winter Olympics – she finished 11th in the downhill in Turin in 2006 – to contemplate a place on the podium in Vancouver in 2010 as more than a mere fantasy, despite currently being ranked 16th in the world.

"I wouldn't be able to work as hard as I do without that being my goal," she insists. "It's in my dreams." Alcott, who races on the World Cup circuit every weekend in the season, and is competing in the Super-G at Sestriere in Italy today, adds: "I didn't want to feel bitter and end my career knowing that I could have done it. So I just had to find people who would help me."

She did so with the aid of Sir Clive Woodward, who assisted her to assemble a team of special- ists including the fitness expert Dave Reddin, nutritionist Adam Carey, medic Charlotte Cowie, sensory motor skills coach Tag Lamche and performance movement coach Joanne Elphinston.

The most significant area of improvement has been her feet. "I was born with banana-shaped bones in them which put so much pressure on the joints in my feet that they became open wounds and I had a lot of pain," Alcott explains. "I learnt to switch it off, so I couldn't feel the pain – but then I couldn't feel anything down there. Eventually, I had corrective surgery. But the trouble was that I had switched off all the feeling to my feet. It took me four years to ignore the pain. Switching that back on was not an easy process, but daily, with Joanne's help, I've felt things coming back."

The cost of her team, around £250,000 a year, is funded by Alcott and her backers, headed by the global investment firm Witan, her long-term personal sponsor. She has no compunction about capitalising on her glamorous profile, which often transcends the sports pages, to help finance her career. "I learned at an early age the help that my image could do – to get me the funding so that I could go out and employ these coaches. They're the best in the world, but they're not cheap. If I can go and do a photo-shoot and use my looks to make me a better athlete, then yes, that's fine."

Alcott, who has three brothers, has just spent a rare New Year in Britain. She had just become an aunt, twice over. "The babies are gorgeous and it's great that they've had them, but it's definitely suppressed my maternal instincts for another few years," she says with a laugh.

Sadly, her mother, Eve, was no longer alive to witness the occasion. Her death in 2006, at the age of 59, caused the skier to re-evaluate her relationship with the sport. "I still feel her presence very strongly, every time I have a good day or a tough day. She was so behind me in my goals and my dreams," says Alcott.

"But after she died, it was very difficult. I thought, 'Am I doing this for myself or was it for her?' I was always very driven, but I learned early on that it's not an attractive trait for a 12-year-old girl to have, so I hid behind my mother. I did all the things I wanted to do, but I made it look as though she was pushing me into it. It wasn't like that at all. I reassessed it all, and realised that I loved the sport for itself. In fact, I had my best season ever." Now Alcott has everything in place to ensure that trend continues.