Thursday 5 December 2019

Chill factor: the man making Irish skiing sexy

Irish celebrity ski coach Warren Smith is helping to put Irish snow sports on the map. He tells Catherine Murphy about his A-list clients and his hopes more Irish kids will get serious about skiing

Life after The Jump: Irish ski instructor Warren Smith
Life after The Jump: Irish ski instructor Warren Smith

Catherine Murphy

Warren Smith is many things; pro skier, celebrity ski coach, entrepreneur, charity patron. He's a ski instructor to the stars - counting model Claudia Schiffer, James Blunt, Ronan Keating, Vogue Williams and rugby player Gareth Thomas amongst his clients.

He has coached members of the British royal family, including Prince Harry and Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, whose wedding he attended last year (just don't ask about Prince Andrew).

Smith's success in the ski business has been substantial. In 1999, he became the first person to set up a foreign ski school - the Warren Smith Ski Academy - in the Swiss resort of Verbier, catering mainly for British skiers.

Ronan Keating and Storm skiing.JPG
One of Warren Smith's students, Ronan Keating and his wife Storm, skiing in the Swiss Alps

In 2017, his company was one of the first to establish a position in the growing Chinese ski market, with a single TV appearance by Smith garnering 98 million views.

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He's a patron of the Snow-Camp charity which works to get disadvantaged kids on the slopes and an ambassador for climate advocacy group Protect Our Winters (POW).

But he's perhaps best known as head coach on TV series The Jump which aired between 2013 and 2017. The entertaining series, devised by Channel 4 after it failed to secure rights for the Winter Olympics, was axed due to the number of injuries suffered by celebrities during filming.

Warren skiing on Mont Fort near Verbier in Switzerland
Warren skiing on Mont Fort near Verbier in Switzerland

Smith's role in the TV series led to a three-year relationship with former glamour model Melinda Messenger and accompanying appearances in Hello magazine.

Smith is also Irish, although few in the international ski industry know it.

His father Michael's family hailed from Inniskeen in Co Monaghan, the birthplace of Patrick Kavanagh. Warren travels with an Irish passport, teaches with both Irish and Swiss ski instructor licences and says he feels more Irish than English, despite having grown up in Hemel Hempstead, just north of London.

"It would be a shock to some that there are people at a high level in the ski industry from an Irish background," he says. "It might also be a surprise to some of my sponsors that they are supporting an Irish citizen with an Irish ski-instructor qualification.

"I'm on the Völkl pro ski team with Paddy Graham. While I'm switching to a more educational role within the team, Paddy is one of the top freeskiers in the world at the moment, and is also an Irish citizen through his father. It's unique that there are two Irish citizens on a pro ski team."

With no ski culture due to a lack of snow-capped mountains, Ireland has long been the poor relation of the ski world. Talented Irish skiers like Patrick-Paul Schwarzacher-Joyce, Patrick McMillan and sisters Kirsten and Tamsin McGarry have ably competed at international level and flown the Irish flag at the Winter Olympics, but there has always been a whiff of "what could the Irish possibly know about skiing" in the air.

That has now changed. Irish skiing is enjoying a new respectability and Warren Smith is part of it.

During the past few years, the Irish Association of Snowsports Instructors (IASI) has grown massively, largely due to the work of Dubliner Derek Tate and Hemel Hempstead Snow Centre boss Pete Gillespie, also an Irish citizen. They have been the driving force in creating the content and direction of the association's ski-instructor qualification model.

The association's membership has jumped to 500 and there are now 50 IASI courses across all instructor levels run each season, from just four or five courses each winter a few years ago.

Success story

Brexit is part of IASI's success story. The highly respected British Association of Snowsports Instructors (Basi) has traditionally been the organisation of choice for British and Irish instructors to gain qualifications from.

But when Basi wasn't invited to the most recent European meeting of common ground training for ski instructors, there was shock in the industry. IASI's membership jumped again as instructors moved to protect their right to work in Europe.

To borrow a historical phrase, Basi's difficulty is IASI's opportunity.

IASI's success has also been helped by the fact that Warren Smith took on the qualification model for his academy's gap-year courses, having run them under the auspices of Basi for many years. His was the first company to do so.

"We were the first to have the balls to take on the IASI model," he says. "People were asking 'how will you sell a less well-known course'? But it's a fully recognised qualification in Switzerland and throughout Europe. IASI is still a relatively small association compared to others, but it has made connections with other nations whilst remaining humble and friendly.

"It offers exactly the same levels as Basi but with different content and a different approach. It's more flexible; if you fail an IASI module, you just have to repeat that module; with Basi you have to repeat the entire thing.

"There will always be people trying to put Irish skiing down, sniggering politely out of the corner of their mouth," he says. "But IASI has earned its stripes. It stands."

Smith knows all about standing firm. His ski business success and celebrity status couldn't have been foreseen as he grew up on a council estate in Hemel Hempstead, putting 50 pence pieces in the gas meter for his mother, always conscious that there wasn't much money to go around.

Getting away from a life where money was tight proved the motivating force for his success. He got his sporting talent from his father who was about to have a trial with Chelsea when injury put paid to his footballing dream.

"He hit the booze and didn't make much of his life afterwards," Warren says. "I understand what he went through; I know how it feels when I'm not able to ski."

His future was more or less set by local decisions. He had spent many hours at a skate park near his home, practising BMX skills. When the skate park was knocked down and replaced by a dry ski slope, he switched to skiing with his pal Pete Gillespie.

Off-piste skiing

"I was lucky, the ski slope was right on my doorstep," he says.

"And the fact that I had skateboarded and BMXed definitely made it easier to cross over to skiing. It's worth reminding people that the transfer of skills from skateboarding, surfing and BMX to skiing and snowboarding is really easy."

Straight from school, he began instructing at Hemel Hempstead and in the Austrian resort of Seefeld. In the mid-90s, he brought clients to Verbier, a mecca for off-piste skiing. Within four years, he had set up the Warren Smith Ski Academy.

Being the first instructor to set up a non-Swiss ski school in Verbier required tenacity in the face of opposition.

"Like anything," he says. "It's about tapping away at it until something gives - and not giving up when you hit obstacles. I think people don't try hard enough.

"If you want something, keep tapping away, that's key."

Smith's parents split, but when his paternal grandmother died in 1992, Warren travelled to Monaghan to meet her side of the family and to reconnect with his Irish heritage. Being introduced to Irish history by his Monaghan relatives awoke something of a nationalist spirit in him.

"At the time, Pete Gillespie and I really got into our Irish roots. We were hanging out with my dad a good bit. I started listening to Christy Moore, Paul Brady, Shane MacGowan and The Saw Doctors. It was around the time when films like Michael Collins and In the Name of the Father were out. I've been in situations in my life where I've been stitched up so I relate to those films."

In 1996, he got his first Irish passport.

"I guess you could say I'm Irish and English but I have a stronger feeling of being Irish," he says. "I don't follow English soccer or this, that and the other. I definitely latched on to Irish mannerisms and I like Irish ways and values; loyalty is very important to me. That's why I think IASI has become successful, because of where it has come from."

Each winter, Warren travels back and forth between Verbier, Cervinia in Italy and the UK, where he spends time with his 18-year-old son. This winter, his busy schedule includes client trips to Japan, Whistler and a heli-ski trip, also in Canada.

He doesn't have time to get involved in IASI business but he's enthusiastic about encouraging more Irish people into skiing and snowboarding.

"The Ski Club of Ireland's slope (on the Co Wicklow/Dublin border) at Kilternan is one of the best maintained in Europe," he says. "The amount of effort and passion that goes into running it is great but I don't think Dubliners realise this amenity is on their doorstep - they should make more use of it. London doesn't have a dry ski slope for example.

"Young Irish skiers need role models to be inspired by but I don't think they realise there are Irish citizens performing at such high levels in the industry.

"If there are Irish kids who seriously want to break into the industry, I would say go and do a ski season, reach out for help and support, get to know the right group and hang out with them. If an Irish skier was to break into the Freeride World Tour, it would really get noticed as there's no one from Ireland doing it at the moment".

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