Thursday, January 14, 2010

Winter Olympics: Kirsty McGarry

From the Irish Times, Monday 11 January

Seán Kenny talks to Dubliner Kirsty McGarry who will shortly represent Ireland in Vancouver at her second winter Olympics (edited).

When Jane McGarry was pregnant with Kirsty, she and her husband Ian made Chatel in France their home for the winter, migrating there seasonally, drawn from Dublin by their shared passion for skiing.
Until the age of 10, each winter Kirsty swapped home for the glacial white of the French Alps. The children of Chatel had a vast mountainside for a school gymnasium. Skiing was on the school curriculum; literally.

“I remember chasing the instructor there as a kid. You’d go off-hill and ski as fast as you could. Now I think of it, that’s such a good base; you’re not thinking about it, you’re just going. You get the speed, you’re fighting to get ahead of the kid beside you.”

When she was nine and her sister Tamsen was 12, they started racing. In 2000, Kirsty won the prestigious Ski D’Or slalom in France. Previously, Tamsen had won the same race. She had been booed. It was against the natural order of things that an Irish girl should beat natives of the French Alps in a ski race.

From the age of 10, Kirsty boarded in Rathdown School in south Dublin. She often played truant to go skiing in France, with the blessing of a generous principal. The competing demands of sport and academia were somehow balanced. She left with a good Leaving Cert, but the course she had set through her formative years led inexorably to one destination: life as a full-time skier.

“I went full-time at 17. I always considered it my job and I just wanted to finish school. But it did make it more difficult, because if skiing wasn’t going well, you always had school as something else to be good at. When it’s just skiing, and that’s all you’re working towards, if you have a bad day it’s a lot tougher.”

It was a peripatetic existence – suitcase, slope, suitcase. Racing here, training there. Apart from the family home in Dalkey, she had no base, travelling all over – North America, Europe, New Zealand. It was a life of rigorous routine.

“You’d either be training or racing during the day, doing your skis in the afternoon, doing video analysis, doing fitness training. Then you eat and go to bed.”

It can be an uphill struggle. If she were Swiss or Austrian or French, it would be different. She has not made money from the sport and is reliant on sponsors for equipment. She receives a share of the Irish Sports Council’s fund for elite athletes. There is a large shortfall, though: coaches and physios to be paid, travel and accommodation expenses. Her family have footed much of the bill for years.

In 2008, she came back to Ireland to study physiotherapy in the Royal College of Surgeons. She trains and competes depending on the academic calendar. It’s become fun again.

“I’m definitely more relaxed. I’m putting less pressure on myself, which probably actually helps my skiing a bit. I don’t take it as hard if I make a mistake in a run. I used to be very tough on myself. I decided I had to step back a bit and look more at the big picture, that every race isn’t the end of the world. It’s helped me get more of a perspective. I’m enjoying it more. When you do something every single day it’s a lot harder.”

Her otherness as an Irish skier is cast into stark relief by the support received by her competitors from Alpine nations.

“It’s tough sometimes because you’re watching and they have a ski technician, coaches, physios. And, if you’re having a bad day, you’re thinking: ‘How am I ever going to beat that?’ You look at the money that’s put into them, the support they have. But you try not to think about it.”

She grits her teeth and ploughs on against the circumstances.

“I know another girl from Belgium, where they have little support as well. She came up to me one day and said: ‘You know, we can never make it, because we’re from small countries. It’s not possible.’ I said to her: ‘Well, if you think like that, you’ll never do well.’ She has actually stopped skiing now. And you could see that coming, because if she thinks like that, it’s not going to happen.

“I tend to think of it as a case of looking at how far I’ve got with what I have had. Imagine how far I would have gotten . . .”

She pauses, letting the words trail off into the icy remembered air of a hundred ski hills.

“But with the lack of training and the lack of support, if I’ve gotten this far, it’s possible.”

This far is further than most get. As far as the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, where she finished 32nd of 65 competitors in the Giant Slalom and 42nd of 64 in the Slalom. She has won several medals, golds among them, in FIS (International Ski Federation) alpine races. And now a place on the Ireland team competing in the Vancouver Olympics.

At home, she trains in the Ski Centre in Sandyford (run by the McGarry family). When she gets back on a mountain now, there are still moments of sheer adrenalin. “It’s a rush in Super G , when you’ve to turn your skis and go straight down the hill, just force yourself to do it. Your body is thinking: ‘Why are you doing this? This is dangerous!’ I sometimes just have to force myself to do it, so that’s even more of a rush.”

She is working with an experienced and supportive Canadian coach in the run-up to Vancouver. Too often in the past negative coaching trampled on her confidence. Her winter ’09-’10 schedule: Christmas and New Year in the French Alps. Return to Dublin for exams. Then back to France for more racing and training, prior to Vancouver in mid-February.

“The fact I’m not putting as much pressure on myself now helps. If you’re focused more on the run than on the outcome that’s definitely going to help. That’s really the aim, to just focus on the technicality of the run and not think, ‘Oh, what happens if . . .’

“In the last Olympics I came 32nd in the Giant Slalom, which is my favourite discipline, and which I was ecstatic with. Especially with not being full-time at the moment, to do the same, or hopefully better, I’d be happy with.”


KIRSTY McGARRY (24) is set to become the first Irishwoman to compete in successive Winter Olympics. Raised in Dublin, she spent childhood winters in the French Alps, where her parents ran a ski school.

Her elder sister Tamsen became the first Irishwoman to compete in the winter Games, when she skied in Salt Lake City in 2002. Kirsty carried the Irish flag at the opening ceremony of the 2006 Turin Games, where she finished 32nd of 65 competitors in the Giant Slalom and 42nd of 64 in the Slalom.

Having been a full-time ski racer competing internationally for five years, she returned to Ireland in 2008 to study physiotherapy at the Royal College of Surgeons.

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