Team Chemmy: Bankrolling Alcott's blonde ambition
After impressing on a shoe-string budget, a chance encounter at a party has given the British skier the resources to add gold to glamour. By Nick Harris
Thursday 01 November 2007
If Olympic medals were handed out solely for hard work, enthusiasm and glamour, then Chemmy Alcott, Britain's best skier, would probably have a pile already. But coming from a nation not renowned for alpine glories, the 25-year-old from Twickenham has spent much of her career with a shared coach, few frills and bit of petrol money.
No longer. After a misunderstanding at a drinks party last year, she met someone who believes she has world-class talent and has backed it with funding. And with a team of 11 top-rank specialists now dedicated to her development, she is on the brink of a surge uphill.
Members of "Team Chemmy" (see below) now include: Tag Lamche, a former drummer with Ian Dury and the Blockheads, who works on sensory motor skills, including via juggling lessons; members of England's World Cup-winning rugby set-up from 2003, including fitness expert Dave Reddin and nutritionist Dr Adam Carey; and an Australian "performance movement" guru, Joanne Elphinston, whose aim is turn Alcott from "a bull in a china shop to a racer with the finesse of a ballerina".
Until the fateful party, which Alcott did not attend, she had had all the support that a Winter Olympian from these shores can reasonably expect: funding from the British Olympic Association for coaching, travel and race expenses on the World Cup circuit, and some living expenses and equipment from sponsors.
"I'd been skiing since I was 18 months old," she said yesterday. "I knew I had talent. In a way I'd had everything on a plate. Supportive parents, who also gave me financial support. I was determined. I worked hard. But it actually takes so much more than that to compete at the highest level."
So to the soirée, last November, when her sister-in-law's father fell into conversation with Matthew Stockford, a former Paralympic skier who now runs a successful London-based property business. Stockford said he wanted to put something back into skiing. Alcott's relative misconstrued the comment, thinking he was offering direct support.
Alcott called Stockford, only to feel embarrassed when she realised the truth. Still, her perseverance and Stockford's curiosity about her set in train a process where Stockford became her manager, building "Team Chemmy" with a three-year plan to reach the Olympic podium at the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
Sir Clive Woodward, now the BOA's director of elite performance, has also played a part, introducing Alcott to a variety of sports scientists. "In a sport where a fraction of a second makes all the difference, you can never do too much to improve," she says. "Clive made me realise I'd achieved a lot despite not using all the resources available. With them, things can only get better."
The cost of a "bare bones" set-up to fund a professional ski racer for a year is typically around £100,000. Alcott is still partially funded by the BOA, and by her long-term personal sponsor, Witan, a global investment firm, but Stockford has also secured cash from several private sources. The annual cost of the new set-up is £300,000-plus.
One rationale is that Olympic medals are priceless. Another is that Alcott has what it takes to beat the planet's finest. "I went around everyone in the ski world I knew to see if Chemmy had what it takes," Stockford says. "She has. She's not just gifted but works bloody hard. She'll be right up there with the best girls, I'm convinced."
Alcott's old-regime results were excellent by British standards. She has been the national champion for years, finished a creditable 11th at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin in the downhill, and halved her overall world ranking to 32 in the 2006-07 season.
All this after breaking her neck when skiing aged 11. She still travels with her X-rays at all times, in case of an accident. Medics might diagnose her old injury as new, and prescribe the wrong treatment.
She has also inspired a song, "Downhill" by the indie band, Three Litre, and even had a cheese named after her. (Alcott herself, incidentally, was named Chimene after Sophia Loren's character in the 1961 film El Cid).
Already in the fledgling World Cup season, which started with a giant slalom last weekend in Sölden, Austria, there are signs of rapid progress. After Alcott's first run, she was only 0.87sec off the pace, and faster than America's Julia Mancuso, her best buddy on the tour and the reigning Olympic giant slalom champion.
On her second run, Alcott was going even faster when a freak accident ended her day. "I was in the transition phase of a turn when I hit a bump. My ski came off. It was so irritating. It's never happened to me in competition before."
Mancuso went on to finish second. Alcott will go forward with enthusiasm when the season gets into full flow at the next race in Panorama, Canada, later this month.
"The best thing about Sölden was proving there's some substance to the talk," Alcott says. The circuit has been abuzz with her improvement, fuelled by comments from Germany's team coach, Christian Schwaiger, after Alcott had trained for a month in Argentina with his side. "He came back bigging me up and joking his own girls sucked," laughs Alcott. "It's nice to hear whispers but then the last thing you want to do is choke. I didn't."
Nick Fellows, a former British skier who is now Channel 4's face of the sport and will present their World Cup programmes this season, is among those who rate her. "I've been following her career since she was 10," he says. "In the past perhaps she'd be inclined to accept results and say 'Oh well, never mind'. Not any more.
"She's a serious professional racer, a young woman who's come of age," he adds. "There's a positive aura. She could really do something this season."
Alcott herself believes that the sudden death last year of her mother, Eve, 59, also helped her come of age. "My mum was a huge driving force," she says. "Some people might have seen it as pushy. I didn't. She was determined to help me realise my dreams. But still, when she died, I did ask myself 'Is this what I want, or what mum wanted?' Even my coach had questioned whether I was skiing for me or someone else. When mum died I came to the realisation pretty quickly. This is for me."
"Team Chemmy" have identified three key areas for improvement. Honing strength on her starts is one, general consistency another. But the real biggy is "feeling on the flats", or in other words, translating her power to greater effect on slower parts of the slopes.
Alcott has long had problems with her feet that led to surgery before last season. For years, incredibly, she had little sensation in them, and was unable to tell the difference between walking on grass or concrete.
"It was like the sensation had been switched off," she says. What Joanne [Elphinston] has effectively done is help me switch it back on. That could be worth a second and a half alone. It's been massive. I've gone from skiing in black and white to skiing in multi-colour."
Alcott's arsenal: Who's who in the support specialists
Tilston, a former performance director of Snowsport GB, the governing body for snowsports in the United Kingdom, has been Britain's head skiing coach since last year. Has overall responsibility for Alcott's programme towards the 2010 Olympics.
Greber, a former member of the Austrian ski team, has been Alcott's personal coach for six years. His main area of responsibility is technique, across all disciplines.
Assistant ski coach
A former ski-racer, Austria's Larl was recruited this year to work with Alcott alongside Greber on the mountain during race weeks and in the gym as Alcott's physical trainer.
Frankhauser has been working with Alcott for two years and is a key member of her full-time team on the circuit, preparing and waxing skis at every event through the season.
A former Olympian with the Australian ski team, Korten is another 2007 recruit and travels full-time with Alcott during the season. Responsible for maintaining race shape and preparations in the start hut.
Reddin was the head of physical development for the England rugby team at the 2003 World Cup. Hired in May to design, implement and monitor Alcott's physical fitness programme.
An Australian specialist in muscle balance, Elphinston has been working since March to ensure Alcott's power "is transmitted to the snow with the finesse of a ballet dancer".
Sensory motor skills
Hired in June, Lamche, a former Ian Dury and the Blockheads drummer turned visual awareness coach, introduced juggling to professional football training and works with Alcott on freedom of movement, rhythm and coordination.
Dr Adam Carey
Dr Carey, also a nutritionist to the England rugby union team, has been working with Alcott since March, advising not just on diet but hydration, sleep efficiency and blood composition.
Dr Charlotte Cowie
Has been working with Alcott since April, principally as a first point of contact in the event of traumatic injury, but also as monitor of Alcott's health and well-being.
Timson, a former performance director for the British Bob Skeleton Association who now works for the England and Wales Cricket Board, is a highly regarded psychologist who has been working with Alcott for four years.
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