Thursday, 05 August 2021

Learning to ski with the help of British Olympian

AS all my holidays have always involved sunshine and beaches, I’ve never seriously entertained the idea of going skiing.

AS all my holidays have always involved sunshine and beaches, I’ve never seriously entertained the idea of going skiing.

A week on the icy slopes also sounds expensive and a lot of effort that could be better spent relaxing by a swimming pool.

However, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity of a free lesson with one of the best skiers that Britain has produced.

Graham Bell competed at five winter Olympics and achieved 12th place in the infamous Hahnenkamm Race in Kitzbühel, Austria. To be taught by him would be a privilege.

The classroom was Skiplex, a dry ski slope in Woodley, Reading.

I begin by slipping on the heavy, reinforced plastic boots that force you to lean forward and drag your legs around with the grace of Ironman.

The skis are clipped to the bottom of the boots and Graham warns me not to try to cross my legs or I will fall over, which is exactly what happens.

The slope works like a giant treadmill and when the carpet beneath me starts to move as I try to walk I am sent straight to the floor. I feel like a baby taking its first steps.

Gripping a bar to steady me, all I need to do is hold my position with my legs apart and lean forward.

Taking your hands away from the bar is a key psychological hurdle to overcome, like a child riding a bike without stabilisers for the first time. My first attempt results in another visit to the deck. I realise why people come home from skiing holidays with broken limbs as you can be sent in all manner of directions when you fall.

Thankfully, manufacturers know this and the bindings that connect the boots to the skis now have automatic release functions for when you fall.

Eventually I manage to let go of the bar and stay on my feet.

Expecting to remain by my safety device, I suddenly find myself being whisked to the top of the slope and am as apprehensive as if I was on Mont Blanc.

Now what do I do? I’m not supposed to be up here yet.

“It’s okay, you’re fine,” Graham assures me. “Just keep your core engaged.”

Later, he tells me that it is at this point that many people automatically fall over because they feel they ought to.

“The first time they come off the bar they will reach out for it but it’s too far away so effectively they throw themselves to the ground,” he says.

After several successful attempts, my confidence grows but it turns out there’s a whole new position to come to terms with.

The snowplough is an essential component of skiing as it is the braking system. It involves bringing your knees together and putting pressure on the big toes to create an arrow shape with the skis.

Now I’m really starting to feel pain in my legs.

My right leg is more dominant than the left, which wobbles as I try to balance my weight. Graham calls this the “Elvis knee”.

I know I’m doing it right when I go flying backwards once more and fall over at the top of the slope so Graham turns the speed up.

No one really likes to see themselves looking a fool but the giant mirror at Skiplex gives me no hiding place.

When I’m not like a goalkeeper facing a penalty from bending so much I am making a swimming stroke with my right hand as if trying to move in the right direction.

I know I am doing it but can’t stop my Rebecca Adlington impression.

Controlling your direction turns out to be the most enjoyable aspect of the session. Graham uses cones to create a grid that I have to stay inside.

I use the snowplough as I move from side to side and forwards at the same time.

By this time my knees and legs are aching so concentration is very important.

Graham becomes excited as I complete about three lengths from side to side, moving at considerable speed for the last one before I go head over heels once more.

“That was brilliant — it shows you’ve just gone up a couple of steps,” he says.

“You often find that someone does something amazing and immediately falls over. It’s because you just upped your level of ability by a couple of notches.”

They say it’s always best to go out at the top so it’s at this point that I put my aching body to rest.

I’m astonished at how far I’ve come in such a short space of time. When most people turn up at a ski resort for the first time they will spend up to three days learning what I was able to master in 90 minutes on the dry ski slope.

Having one of Britain’s greatest downhill skiers as my personal trainer certainly helped but not having those seemingly endless journeys back up the slope in the ski lift after each run allowed consistency.

Graham says: “Dry ski slopes are useful for beginners as well as for fitness. Even if you’re a competent skier you can go as long as you like and there’s no end to the run.

“Skiing is a very anaerobic sport. You tend to ski for no more than a couple of minutes before you have to get back on the ski lift.

“At the top level it’s a power sport. You need to be fit in order to ski well because your recovery time is done on the chairlift.”

The next step in my journey would be to actually go out and ski on some snow. I would learn how to ski parallel and add some speed and style to the mix.

Graham explains: “The snowplough is quite uncomfortable. It’s something you learn and then after the first two or three days you start to unlearn it.

“But the skills you learn from the snowplough you continue to use. You just stop doing it and do parallel turns instead. The quicker you come out of the snowplough, the faster you are learning.”

Graham believes anyone can ski, saying: “There’s a mental barrier but I’ve seen children as young as two or three and people in their sixties learn.

“A lesson makes a huge difference if you’re a complete beginner or haven’t skied in a while. If you have one lesson at the start of the week it will give you something to work on for the rest of it.”

I must surely be the proof. I was hardly skiing down a mountain like James Bond but I certainly learnt a new skill and would feel more confident when confronted by a real slope.

Now all I need to do is book that holiday.

For more information about Skiplex, visit

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