For two young skiers aiming for glory in Beijing, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdowns could have been a roadblock – but strong partnerships behind the scenes kept their dreams firmly on track.
Freestyle skier Kirsty Muir and para alpine skier Neil Simpson are both hoping to take to the slopes in China in 2022 for the Winter Olympics and Paralympics respectively.
When the first lockdown struck in March 2020, it looked like these hopes might be put on ice – but their sporting pathway continued thanks to the support of GB Snowsport (GBS), Snowsport Scotland (SSS) and the sportscotland institute of sport (SIS).
Kirsty, 17, explained: “When lockdown happened, I was training in Switzerland, so there was a sudden rush to get home. At the time, I had very limited gym equipment – literally a couple of kettlebells and a bar – so Dave Boyd at SIS made a home gym plan making use of what I had and I trained outside in the garden three times a week, which was good.
“GBS also helped with Pilates and other online support to keep me going, which was really useful and I was also supported with nutrition, which I hadn’t done much of before.
“It was all totally different. I learnt lots of different things, other aspects of training – anything I needed to talk about really.”
For Neil, from Aberdeenshire, the online support he received during first lockdown was also invaluable. The visually-impaired 18-year-old said: “Lockdown put a real damper on things, but it did allow me to focus entirely on strength and conditioning (S&C) while I was at home.
“I had remote catch-ups with [SIS senior physical preparation coach] Dave Boyd, which were really helpful. We had workarounds for some exercises because we didn’t have the equipment, but overall it worked well. We bought a squat rack just before lockdown which I used in the garage, and the system to track progress was already online, so it was quite seamless.
“GBS also provided mental health awareness and support sessions, along with yoga and interview training. Their nutritional advice was also helpful as it provided different ideas – it’s all about getting extra knowledge and refining certain aspects of what you do.
“I also had weekly sessions with [SIS physiotherapist] Kelly Horne, working on exercises, yoga and monitoring my progress, so it was all made to seem as normal as possible and we just got on with it.”
Thanks to this combined support, the duo were able to stay on track with their training – and when restrictions eased, the strong partnerships enabled them to hit the slopes again.
Kirsty said: “I got back on the snow with a few trips in August, September and October 2020 and had my first competition in November. GBS really helped with sorting out all the logistics, which was great; it’s good to know you have such a great team behind you.
“I was also able to hit the gym with Dave again and we pretty much picked up where we left off, getting straight back to lifting and so on – hitting the weights is what I enjoy. I had to combine training and competitions with studying for my highers too.”
Neil was also grateful to his backroom team, adding: “GBS did the work which allowed us to head out to Hamburg and concentrate on our training and also kept us up to date as things changed. SIS also kept up the S&C programme and again Dave did a good job of that.”
More bumps in the road
In a world changed forever by Coronavirus (COVID-19), this support continued when there was another bump in the road with more lockdowns over the winter, albeit with exemptions to travel restrictions negotiated with the Scottish Government.
Kirsty said: “Lockdown number two felt slightly more normal – by that time I was getting used to living in bubbles with the team, continual testing and travel restrictions.”
Neil added: “The support was a bit different as, unlike the first lockdown, we did manage to train and compete. We were also able to go back to the gym after lockdown, with testing in place to try to keep everything safe.”
The hard work paid off when Kirsty picked up silver in the ski slopestyle event at the World Cup in Aspen, Colorado, in March 2021. While Neil’s success came at the Para Alpine World Cup in Leogang, Austria in January 2021, where he won three gold and one silver medal.
Although competing on different parts of the slopes, both young athletes agree on one thing – the value of good coaching and support on a sporting pathway that has been slightly more unusual than most.
Kirsty said: “In every sport you need a good coach to progress. I have been working with Joe Tyler from JT Freeski Academy since I was 11 and continue to do so alongside GBS, SIS and SSS, and training at Aberdeen Snowsport Centre when I’m home. So many people have helped me along the way and each one brings different things to what I do. As a group of athletes we support each other too which I think had been really valuable.”
Neil agreed, adding: “Good coaching is massive. Without it you’re not going to learn the techniques to progress.
"Dave Boyd at SIS has also been a huge help; he’s completely changed what I’m capable of doing physically. The performance coaches at GBS and Gordon Skiers have given a broad range of skills and techniques, that has helped improve my understanding of how and why we do things.”
As the world slowly moves towards ‘the new normal’, both teenagers now have their sights set firmly on continuing their sporting pathway to Beijing and beyond.
Kirsty said: “The Olympics would be amazing and it would be an honour to take part. I never imagined where it could lead to when I started skiing – I just love doing it. I’ll just try my best this season, have fun and see how it goes.”
Neil agreed, adding: “Going to Beijing would be a massive reward for the hard work we’ve all put in over the past few years. The World Championships are also in February 2022 so we’ll focus on that too – it’s all about trying to peak twice in one season.”
Success in Beijing would be another high point for the athletes after their World Cup medals, with Neil also being nominated for BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year.
Kirsty revealed: “The World Cup was amazing. It was my first time in America and I had the most fun week’s training I’d had all season. I was a bit nervous during the competition itself but I was also having so much fun, which certainly helped.”
Neil added: “Being nominated was very surprising and I wasn’t expecting it at all. My family and friends were proud, although I’m not sure they were as surprised as I was!”
Whatever the future holds, both young skiers are grateful for all the support they receive. Not least from the other Scottish skiers and snowboarders on the same pathway, and the peer group learning environment that created.
Kirsty said: “Due to the Covid bubbles we’ve become closer and have been together all the time. We go and cheer each other on when we’re not competing – everyone just wants to see each other do well.”
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