With one medal in the bag already, British athletes are on course for their best performance in 30 years at the Winter Paralympics. Yesterday morning, Millie Knight won silver in the visually impaired downhill event, hurtling down the slopes behind her guide Brett Wild – the first of the 19-year-old’s five events.
ParalympicsGB has sent its first snowboarding team, including Owen Pick, runner-up in last year’s world championships, who lost his right leg below the knee after stepping on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.
It marks the extraordinary growth of disability snowsports in the UK, with participation nearly doubling since the Sochi Games in 2014. And there are plenty more ambitious disabled athletes who are pushing to expand the Paralympics into new disciplines.
Marc Francis is one. He is paralysed from the chest down, the result of a car crash two weeks before his 18th birthday. There is no snowboarding category for people with his level of disability. People with more severe impairments have far fewer Paralympic options – but Francis, now 37, is hoping to change that. “The Paralympics are a massive inspiration,” he says. “What they’ve achieved is huge. I don’t believe in the word ‘can’t’.”
That Francis is on a snowboard is an achievement in itself. He had tried sit-skiing – facing forwards in a chair attached to a single or double ski – but his left side is significantly weaker than his right, which made steering almost impossible. In 2016, he discovered a new invention – an adaptive snowboard with a seat and handlebars.
“This is the only one in the country,” he says of the Prodaptive snowboard, created by Dutch freelance industrial designer Gina van der Werf. “There’s 15 in the world. It’s amazing.”
Key to Francis’s success so far has been his instructor, James Sterry. “Everything that James has put up with, all the blood, sweat and tears, to get me to this point,” Francis says. “He’s been absolutely incredible.”
Sterry is a ski school manager for Disability Snowsport UK, the largest charity in Britain helping disabled people on to the slopes, whether they have visual impairments, spina bifida, a learning disability or paralysis. DSUK runs British Parasnowsport, the governing body for disabled snowsports.
Sterry runs DSUK’s school at the Snow Centre in Hemel Hempstead – where Knight has trained – and has been Francis’s instructor on the artificial indoor slope. He helps Francis to the top of slope using the drag lift, snaring a button seat with his harness, which pulls them up.
On the way down, he helps Francis navigate the crowded piste, examining his student’s technique as he pushes the bars and leans back to shift the board from edge to edge. Two years after first strapping on his boots, Francis hit his first milestone – on a family holiday in the Andorran resort of Arinsal.
“I was there last week,” he says. “It was such a buzz. The adrenalin. The thrill. The freedom. The thrill of getting down the slope for the first time. That feeling of being free again.
“Taking part in something new was absolutely amazing. The look on people’s faces as they see me going down the slope – people are quite shocked. But then they figure it out, people are really welcoming.”
Francis hopes to demonstrate that snowboarding with paralysis is possible for enough people to create a new Paralympic category. Even acrobatic jumps are part of his plans.
“The idea is to get into snowboard cross, but it’s a few years away from that. You never know. We may be able to freestyle. My plan is to do freestyle.”
It’s a dream shared by Sterry, who leads a team teaching people with an enormous range of impairments at Hemel Hempstead, with other major centres in Glasgow, Manchester and Tamworth as well as at smaller operations in other indoor snow domes and dry ski slopes across the country.
“The Paralympics is really just the tip of the iceberg,” Sterry says. “Since Sochi there has been a huge rise in adaptive snowsports.”
Before the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Russia, DSUK’s instructors gave 2,116 lessons. Last year that had nearly doubled to 4,052. TV coverage by Channel 4, which is anchoring its programming from the apres-ski bar at Hemel Hempstead, has been a major factor.
“Eight years ago when the Winter Paralympics were in Vancouver, there was a one-hour TV show that came on after the Games,” Sterry says. “London 2012 was the catalyst for showing sports for people with disabilities more generally, and then you had 2014, which was really well publicised. It makes people realise that snowsports are an option for them too.”
Dave Goddard is at the Snow Centre for his first sit-ski lesson. He’s a former gymnast, who broke his neck in a bad landing, and is now a professional wheelchair rugby player.
“I’ve got a couple of friends who do it nearly full-time,” Goddard says. “When you see people with slightly less function than you have, you think ‘maybe I could do that too’.”