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Words: Yusef Sayed
Photography: Lincolnshire Sport
Featured in the May 2014 issue

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During this year’s Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi, the nation’s attention turned to Lincolnshire’s Jade Etherington, a visually impaired alpine skier with a strong ambition to reach the podium after a year of setbacks.

Along with her guide and close friend Caroline Powell, Jade excelled on the slopes, winning three silver medals and one bronze. She is now the country’s most successful female Winter Paralympian.

Aside from her obvious talents on the snow, Jade’s confidence and her warm personality have won the admiration of many people, not least in Lincolnshire. She has become the first person ever to be given the freedom of Bourne, in recognition of her achievements, and has enjoyed sharing her memories of Sochi with her fans since returning to the UK. Lincolnshire Life spoke to Jade at the end of her celebratory open top bus tour of Lincoln, which welcomed her back home to the city.

Following a sixteen-mile route, greeted by schoolchildren, fellow athletes, council representatives and other well-wishers, Jade brought sunshine to many people on what was an overcast, windy Friday morning. Giving admirers the opportunity to feel the weight of her prized medals and happily interacting with members of the community young and old, Jade certainly seemed at ease with her recent success.

“I love talking to people. I love getting the reaction back from everybody, seeing the medals, and hearing about when they were watching, and what they were feeling,” said Jade. “Also, speaking to the visually impaired children. One little girl asked me whether she could start skiing, and I said ‘Yes you can. You can do anything!’”

Jade’s achievements in Sochi are all the more remarkable given the uncertainty she faced, just twelve months ago, as to whether she would be able to compete. Lacking a guide, enough funding and recovering from a physical problem, which put her in a wheelchair for some time, the determination that Jade showed in the run-up to the Games is nothing short of inspiring. “You have to be pro-active,” she said. “You have to be the one who goes out to do it. Nobody else is going to do it for you. I feel I’ve done, every day, everything I could to get those medals.”

The open top bus tour was organised by Lincolnshire Sport, with the help of local businesses including Stagecoach and the DoubleTree by Hilton Lincoln. Lincolnshire Sport’s Elite Athlete Programme (LEAP) has supported Jade for three years. This local funding and dialogue is vital, especially since Jade must make huge financial and personal sacrifices in order to train abroad. And it is not only Jade’s phenomenal result in Sochi that have made them proud, but the performances of all of their athletes at top international sporting levels.

Speaking about the benefits of the LEAP programme, Jade said: “LEAP has enabled me to meet other athletes interested in different sports; to meet those who have already been to the Olympics. I have done a lot of workshops. I have given advice to others about the education and sport balance.”

The flat countryside of Lincolnshire may seem an unlikely place from which a Paralympian skier would emerge, but it only takes a few moments in Jade’s company to believe that anything is possible. Her family moved to the Deepings when Jade was seven and she was educated at the Deepings School, before going on to complete a degree in Education and Geography at Bishop Grossteste College, Lincoln. 

Jade began skiing at the age of eight, while on holiday. Her father Andrew would regularly guide her mother and her three sisters, though Jade was soon developing her own, profound love for the sport. I asked Jade what it is about skiing in particular that drives her passion.

She said: “You’re out in the mountains, in the fresh air. You’re in snow that’s always there; often in Britain snow’s a bad thing – you get traffic, delays, it’s all muddy… It’s not like the snow when you’re skiing.

“When I’m racing I really feel the skis and feel the power and energy building up. When it’s released, I don’t feel disabled in any way. You can feel the reaction you’re getting back from the snow. It’s all you. It’s such good fun. And then to put the racing element into it… I’m competitive.

“When you’re a VI skiing, you’re with someone else so you get to share the experience. Usually skiing is such a lonely sport. It’s brilliant to have a guide, to banter and vent together, or enjoy how good a run was. It’s not like anything else I’ve ever done.”

From her mother Amber, Jade inherited glaucoma and Axenfeld Syndrome which caused her eyesight to deteriorate considerably from the age of seventeen. But there is certainly no person who has been a greater inspiration in Jade’s life. Encouraging her family’s active pursuits and letting nothing hinder her daughters’ ambitions, it is clear that Amber has shaped Jade’s strong character:

“My mum is completely blind. She has never seen my face. She has driven our family. My family don’t think I’m that special because my mum skis. I feel like I’m the ‘fake one’,” said Jade. The medals which Jade has brought home to her family even have Braille on them, so that everyone can treasure them.

In order to distract her from the frequent hospital visits that she had to make as her condition worsened, Jade joined the British Disabled Ski Team’s development squad. It was not long before she progressed to international competitions. Though her performance at the Winter Paralympics has seen Jade gain more public and press attention than before, she was no stranger to the medal podium in the lead-up to Sochi. At the 2013 IPC World Championships in La Molina, Spain, she achieved a bronze in the women’s Super-G, along with her then-guide John Clarke.

Newly qualified for the Winter Paralympics, but without a guide for the competition, Jade was teamed with Caroline Powell. Despite the short amount of time that they had to work with one another intensively, the two have quickly become firm friends and a fearless duo. The combination of physical exertion and moment-to-moment decision making that must be made during runs of up to 70mph means that a high level of trust and a very personal language has to be developed. The two communicate via Bluetooth enabled headsets and I asked Jade to give me a sense of their interactions while hurtling downhill.

“I can see a black blob in front of me. I get Caroline to wear dark, so she’s in contrast with the white snow, and I can see her moving. We both have radios so I can talk to her and she can talk back to me. We’ll say, ‘3, 2, 1, Go…’ – she goes on 1 and I go on ‘Go’, so she’s in front of me. Then she’ll say ‘And tuck. And turn. And up. And down. And turn. And 3, 2, 1 jump…’ I try and say ‘Yes’ after every turn, or ‘Wait’ – when I say it once she’s just a little bit too far. We have different sounds for how long you have to hold the turn for.

“It’s so technical. You have a lot to deal with. You have your communication, you have your skiing, you have your distance, you have your line that you have to work out. And then on top of that I have to learn how to ski better. I’m thinking about my arms, about the pressure, about my outside ski. Am I looking up?

“No one ever has a good, solid run, because there are so many different variables. Your position is never going to be perfect. You get feedback from the snow and the course changes every time someone goes down it. It’s whoever makes the fewest mistakes wins. There’s an Austrian expression that means ‘free of failure’.”

Waking up on her twenty-third birthday with her first silver medal, Jade was so exhausted from the previous day’s run and too focused on the next challenge to take her foot off the pedal, relax and spend her day celebrating.

“Everything went really quick for me,” she said. “Because I was racing the next day, I was just thinking about the next race. I hadn’t really thought about what had happened. I went out to watch the boys race. I loved that, it was so much fun, being on the other side and cheering everyone on. I realised how emotional and how much fun it is – and how scary it is!”

I asked Jade what memories she thinks will remain the strongest from the Games, once the media attention begins to ease and she has more time to assess her achievements.

“I can’t even remember half of it!” she said. “I never remember a race. I always remember crashing though! And being on the podium for the first time was really emotional; I had to try really hard not to cry. But I still don’t feel like I could have felt it enough. In a way you don’t feel it; it’s really hard to describe. It’s not like when you’re excited to get a new car or something. You’re just floating. It’s like you’re looking at someone else. It’s quite surreal. I don’t really believe that those medals are mine. 

“I don’t know why I’m so good at it. Maybe it’s because I can’t see how fast I’m going; I can’t see how scary it is. Anything that I want to do I want to do the best that I can. And I want to have fun. I’m not really a big worrier.”

It is not only athletic training that has been occupying Jade in recent years. After obtaining her degree, she enrolled in a teacher training programme which was due to be completed within ten weeks following our interview. Her long-term interest in teaching is not unrelated to her love of skiing either. She told me of a favourite Geography teacher who inspired and supported her as she developed in her sport, and from whom Jade enjoyed learning about the different places that she began to visit as her sporting life took off.

“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. Travelling, Geography and skiing, all put together: that’s just Jade. That’s all part of me.”

Aiming to teach secondary school and A-level classes in the future, there is no doubt that Jade will continue to inspire others, whatever path she pursues.

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