All sport is a chance to savour bravery, whether your own or other people’s. A couple of weeks ago we were revelling in the courage of the downhill skiers at the Winter Olympics. There’s a lot more courage on show in the next few days.
The idea of downhill skiing is scary enough – but imagine doing it blindfolded.
Jade Etherington has no need to imagine: she’s done it, and she’s won it. With only five per cent vision in both eyes, she competed at the Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi four years ago and won four medals, making her Britain’s most successful female Winter Paralympian.
Now she’s retired and working for Channel 4 as a pundit for its coverage of the Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang – despite feeling “a little bit itchy” in her competitor’s heart.
Part of her would love to be out on the slopes doing it all again; apart from anything else, it would be a chance to prove even more people wrong. Etherington learned to ski on family holidays with her mother, who is totally blind. But then a hereditary condition caused her own eyesight to deteriorate.
When, at 17, she went to a trial day with the British Paralympic skiing squad, there was an instant appeal: “The other athletes inspired me.”
Progress wasn’t always smooth: “I’ve had many crashes. Many. But never too bad an injury – the worst was a fractured knee. In a way it’s a help if you can’t see it coming – you’re more relaxed at the moment of impact.”
As she developed, she found that her taste for competition sharpened. Her waning vision meant there were increasing limitations on what she could do. But the defiance of apparent limitations is something of a common factor in athletes who have disabilities.
“It’s important to be comfortable in the whole environment, not just on the slopes. Even before I put a ski on, I have to adapt to the light. There are good and bad eyesight days, but once I’ve made the adjustment I can ski with commitment and confidence.”
Her performance in Sochi was a reflection of her skill – and also of her relationship with her (sighted) skiing guide, Caroline Powell. “On the hill, the guide is in charge. Off the hill, it’s me. It’s about getting that balance right. Caroline always wanted the same thing as me, so we were able to push one another.”
They won silver in the downhill, the combined and the slalom, and bronze in the super-G. “Skiing competitively allowed me to find a stronger mindset. I’m more determined to prove people wrong. I’m not ‘disabled’ – I’m just Jade.”
Now 26, Etherington is married and a geography teacher at a secondary school. Daily life has plenty of challenges but she still has a nostalgia for the simpler challenges of sport – and the pleasures of winning.
And that’s always the essential truth about Paralympic sports. The first thing you notice is the disability, but you soon forget it. And what matters is not what divides us but what unites us: the basic human urge to dare, to risk and to win.
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