Countdown to the Winter Olympics: Chemmy Alcott: 'Every race I'm in I seem to make history'
Brian Viner Interviews: Eddie 'The Eagle' made a success out of failure but a British woman skier could achieve the real thing at the Winter Olympics, which start in Turin today
Friday 10 February 2006
Chemmy Alcott is Britain's best female hope of an alpine skiing medal at the Winter Olympics, not least because she is Britain's only female hope. But this vivacious 23-year-old despairs of those who instinctively rubbish our chances in alpine sports, and laments the fact that most of her compatriots, if invited to name a British skier, would plump even now for the hapless ski jumper Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards. Not even Alain Baxter - Alcott's colleague in the Olympic squad, who made front-page news after being stripped of his bronze medal at Salt Lake City four years ago because traces of methamphetamine were found in his system - can quite nudge Eddie The Eagle off his perch as Britain's most famous man on skis.
"He's a lovely guy, and I don't mean to be rude," says Alcott of Edwards, "and it's certainly true that we needed someone to get us on map. It's just unfortunate that what got us on the map was a mockery. On the other hand, our record in this sport can work for us, because there are no expectations.
"Having no history can be a good basis to work from. In every race I take part in I seem to make history. There's always someone writing something down, that it's the best result for a British female since blah blah blah."
If Alcott has her way, then Eddie the Eagle's days as our best-known skiing sportsperson are numbered; they might even be numbered less than 15. For she has already finished ninth in a World Cup downhill race, and would have won it had she completed the course just a second earlier, such are the absurdly tight margins in ski racing. In Turin she will compete in four out of five Alpine disciplines - the downhill, the super-G, the giant slalom and the combined - and those who know the sport better than I do say that she is, that overused phrase, "the real deal". Yet to the inevitable question - can she win a medal this time? - she is equivocal.
"Four years ago when I went to Salt Lake I told the press that when I got to Turin in 2006 I would be a medal contender. But I was only 19 then, and naïve. The last four years have just blown up in competition terms, there are so many girls racing now. And I'm still only 23; the current world champion is 31. So I can still do Whistler [the Canadian venue for 2010] and perhaps one more after that. Which is not saying that my goals have changed, I'm just putting them on a higher stepping stone."
Alcott flashes me a huge smile. She has masses of blond hair under the headband bearing the name of her sponsor, the investment trust Witan, which she is obliged to wear even though we are not up an Alp but in the lounge of the Royal Garden Hotel, Kensington. She also has a mountain tan and almost preternaturally white teeth, so the only thing that stops her fitting the Identikit for a female ski racer is her nationality. Indeed, the hard truth of the matter is that young women in Kensington with winter tans and vowels as perfectly formed as hers are more likely to be chalet girls than girl racers.
She frowns, however, when I remark that she enjoyed a privileged upbringing. "I did, but I don't like to dwell on it, because then a lot of people think that you have to have money to ski, which is not so true any more.
"But yes, I was fortunate. My family always had ski holidays and owned a place in the Alps, a tiny apartment in Flaine. I had the perfect life for someone hoping to ski competitively, at least when I think of someone like Steve Redgrave, because his environment was all wrong. Rowing was Eton and all that, and he went to a state school so had an extra obstacle."
For Alcott there were no obstacles, except possibly her first name. "My mother is tall with long dark hair, green eyes, very chiselled features, and everyone used to say that she looked like Sophia Loren. So she thought that maybe her daughter would, too, and I was named Chimene after the character Sophia Loren played in El Cid. That's where it goes wrong. I'm blonde, kind of a bit on the rounder side, and I have blue eyes. I look nothing like Sophia Loren. But I like my name. I call myself Chemmy [pronounced Shemmy] because people have trouble with Chimene, but maybe later in life it will, like, suit me more. I feel sorry for my mother. She used to teach at Lucy Clayton's finishing school, and thought she'd have this girly girl. Instead, she gets a ski-racing adrenalin junkie."
She isn't kidding. Alcott has broken her left arm four times and her neck once, when she was just 12. "But I healed very quickly, which you do at that age. I was in a race, pushed too hard, flipped up and caught the back of my head on the gate. I now have a slight fusion and if ever I have a head injury and need an MRI scan, they're like, 'Ooohhhh' and I'm like, 'No, wait, that's an old injury, it's fine'. Maybe I should wear a necklace like some diabetics do. But I haven't had any knee injuries, touch wood, which are really common in skiing. My father was a rugby player, for Richmond, and my mother was a swimmer, and I think I have his knees and her lungs."
The odds were always against her being a "girly" girl. She first skied at 18 months old, "on little plastic skis with clowns on, hand-me-downs from my three older brothers. There was 12 years between me and my eldest brother and by that time he had already started racing. Two of my brothers were in the England Alpine squad, but for boys it's different, because the moment it's no fun any more, and they have to start thinking about things like nutrition and fitness, they give up. I shouldn't be sexist about it, but to girls all that comes more naturally because we have, like, more weight issues."
Paradoxically, it was a nasty injury sustained on a dry slope at Sandown Park that made Alcott concentrate on becoming a skiing champion. At the time she was also a decent tennis player, possibly good enough to turn professional, but at Sandown she broke her humerus and couldn't play tennis for 18 months.
"That's when I decided to focus on skiing, and I got tremendous help from my parents. As a swimmer my mother only just missed out on going to the Games herself. It's kind of tragic, actually, and she doesn't talk about it. She broke her ankle before the Olympics and that was it, career over. When I was younger, people said I was fulfilling the dream she'd had for herself. I don't think that's true, but they were certainly incredibly supportive. Luckily, I have been able to pay back all the money they put into my skiing, because although I come from a comfortable background, my father was in property so the Nineties weren't very good for him. Around the time that I started making money, they started struggling."
As a professional skier, she adds, she makes a decent living. "I am basically in the right place at the right time, because there aren't many females in any arena in British sport right now, and I do quite well out of that. I have a great relationship with Witan. I went to Surbiton High School and a parent there put me in touch with the marketing director there.
"They're very British, which I like, and not obsessed with results. They support me because I have potential. Then my skiing costs are mostly paid by the Lottery, and I have other sponsors as well. I've done some modelling for Marks & Spencer. In fact, I'm a bit of a hypocrite, because although I don't like to dwell on my background, my sponsors like me to have an upper-class image." Another dazzling smile. "And that's fine."
The quicker Alcott goes downhill over the next fortnight, the steeper her earning power will climb. But money is the last thing on her mind in her final week before Turin, closely followed, oddly enough, by the competition itself.
"Home for me is the British Olympic base at Lofer, near Salzburg, and on Austrian television they are literally counting down the days. I take a more relaxed approach. I don't want to think of it as something special because I don't want to put pressure on myself. I need to ski in a kind of Zen bubble, mainly because I'm a very impatient person and that shows when the snow is slow. I try to build up speed, and I'm not very good at just gliding.
"In fact, Finlay [Mickel], our men's downhiller, and I have exactly opposite talents. We're both 25th in the world, but he's the best glider in the world, who maybe needs to work at being more aggressive at turning. I'm the opposite. For me, the steeper the better. That's why I was worried when I saw the [Olympic] course last year. It was too flat, a lot of the girls thought so, and we signed a petition asking if we could race on the men's hill in Sestriere. That wasn't possible because the programme had been done, but instead they took bulldozers to the hill over the summer and changed the terrain, making it much tougher. So nobody's skied it, which is good. Otherwise the Italians might have been allowed to use it in training for the last four years."
As for more illicit means of stealing an advantage, Alcott is vehement in her condemnation of drugs, but equally vehement in her defence of Baxter, whose "crime" was to use a Vicks inhaler that in Britain had been ruled safe.
"I left Salt Lake before the closing ceremony to go to Europe for the world juniors, so I was in transit, in Denver, when I found out he'd got a medal.
"It was a huge surprise, the greatest thing that had ever happened to our sport, followed by the trauma he had to go through. I knew he was innocent.
"When you live with someone day in, day out, you know what kind of person they are. There are those out there who could potentially go over to the side of wanting help from drugs, for sure, but he is definitely not one of them, and the saddest thing was to see how many people who'd supported him when he got his bronze medal then dropped him straight away."
Alcott is suffering wisdom teeth problems on the day we meet, but with Baxter's ordeal still all too fresh in the memory, has no intention of tackling the problem except by gargling with salt water.
"There is, however, one outside agency on which she will be relying as she takes her place at the starting gate next week: turquoise knickers.
"I used to have lucky turquoise underwear, at least until I realised that it wasn't hygienic, because I only had one pair, and it was kind of time-consuming having to wash your underwear every single day. The thing is, I wore it twice and skied really fast, and I was, like, it has to be the underwear. Also it was seamless, and really comfortable, but I'd got it from Victoria's Secrets in America and I wasn't going back there for the rest of the season which is why I had to make do with one pair. Luckily, I have now come to realise that it wasn't that particular brand, it was the colour! And I can buy turquoise underwear at Marks & Spencer."
And with that deft plug for another of her corporate backers she excuses herself politely and heads for the loo, perhaps to adjust her turquoise undies, perhaps to gargle salt water, perhaps to check her headband, before stepping out again on to the affluent streets of Kensington, where she looks far more at home than she feels.
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