Friday 16 November 2018

WINTER SPORTS: It's no joke

Have you heard the one about the Kerryman who lived in a converted chipper to pursue his Olympic skiing dream?... Read on

Cliona Foley

IF the writers of award-winning British comedy 'Little Britain' ever came across Thomas Foley they would rub their hands in glee and immediately invent a new sketch.

Working title? Easy. 'The only Irish ski racer in the village.'

'Thos' Foley is actually not just the only Irish ski racer living in the Swiss resort of Verbier, he's the best one in Europe.

Based on points earned on the international race circuit, Foley is currently the Irish Number One and in line to get the one male place that Ireland is entitled to at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Turin in February.

He already has the qualification standard in one event (Giant Slalom) and is still chasing it in another (Super Giant Slalom).

Irish ski racers are obviously a rarity and there are only a handful of them. Yet, what makes Foley particularly unusual, is where he's from.

Most hail from Ross O'Kelly-Carroll's beat on Dublin's Southside, where, as kids, they have easy access to Ireland's only artificial ski-slope in Kilternan and progress through the Irish Ski Club's races and clinics.

Foley, who started skiing on family holidays aged 10, has a soft Kerry accent, miles from 'Dortspeak.'

He's a 26-year-old from Kenmare, where his family's famous seafood restaurant 'Packie's', has garnered more fame than his unusual sporting talent.

He may have spent the last three years of his schooling as a boarder in Castleknock but his life on the international ski circuit for the past seven years has certainly not entailed any silver spoons.

While the top echelon of pro skiers have personal entourages of coaches, masseuses and ski technicians, Foley is a one-man band whose efforts sometimes have to be diverted off-piste to help, financially, keep his head above snow.

He recently spent most of one day off the mountain "lugging logs around" and most of the next evening at Verbier's annual ski bum sale, selling off last year's equipment to help him fund this season's racing.

Last summer, figuring that spending it training on glaciers in Europe would be a cheaper option than following the usual European skiers' routine of going Down Under to ski in New Zealand, Foley and his Scottish skiing flatmate Angus Morrison came up with a solution to live as cheaply as possible while seeking specialist training in Austria.

"We bought a camper van - well it was actually a chipper! - down in Wigan and Angus's dad helped us convert it with beds and a cooker," Foley explains.

It wasn't exactly the 'Bodemobile' - the infamous megabuck trailer-home that his sport's biggest name, American Bode Miller, uses when he's in Europe that Foley likens to "something out of MTV cribs" - but it did the trick short-term.

It allowed them link up with Austrian Racing Camps in Hintertux, a ski racer's boot camp run by former Austrian great Hugo Nindl and his son Oliver where champion racer Stephan Eberharter once trained.

Foley believes this will return him to the level he was at before last season was ruined by knee cartilage injury and he drifted into the plus-800 rankings.

With 60,000-plus Irish people going on skiing holiday each year, there may be lots of piste-Paddies thinking they could match him.

Forget it. No matter how good you are most social, 'tourist' skiers are to ski-racing what Eminem is to the Kilfenora Ceilí Band.

Professional skiers, even in the Giant Slalom event, zip along at speeds up to 70mph. In downhill, that eyeballs-out straight blur of a run to the bottom, they reach closer to 90mph-plus around lethal corners and jumps. Only the exceptional survive.

So how close is what Foley does to 'Ski Sunday?'

There are four divisions in ski racing and he competes in all but the top level. "The lowest is Citizen, then there's basic FIS, then there's things like Continental Cup and then full World Cup," Foley explains.

"I've done up to Continental Cup, including World Championships. My best results have been second in the Scottish Championships in Meribel (an FIS race) and 51st in a Giant Slalom in Meribel," he adds.

Qualifying for the Olympics is based on your two lowest points of the year and you must have 120 points or lower. Two years ago Foley was close to 100 - the barometer of a decent racer - before injury intervened.

"But there's a big difference between an FIS race and a World Cup race," he admits. "We might race on the same course but start lower down on it and the speeds wouldn't be the same."

Still, the principles, skills and potential for injury, are the same.

Foley has escaped with only one major accident so far.

On downhill races skiers are sent off at 40-second intervals. He was racing in Austria once when the stewards failed to flag him in time to let him know the man immediately ahead had come a cropper.

So whizzing around a corner he promptly ploughed into a stationary group on piste, ending up tangled in the nets, the safety barriers designed to, well frankly, stop out-of-control racers falling off the side of mountains.

"Anyone who's skied knows what you do wrong. Your immediate reaction to trouble is to lean back. A top skier might have gone even more forward in his boots and flown past somehow but I didn't! I went back, a ski popped off and I hit these guys. Fortunately no one was badly hurt, I was so full of adrenalin I actually didn't feel anything at the time," Foley says, adding nonchalantly that he only needed a few stitches and expressing disgust that the organisers insisted on stretchering him down the mountain as a precaution.

He will not be the first Irish skier to race in the Winter Olympics.

There was a seven-strong team at the last Winter Games in Salt Lake City and the Americans particularly loved showman and defiant Irish downhiller Pauli Schwarzacher-Joyce, whose mother hails from Clontarf.

His equally extrovert dad has an antiques shop in St Anton and PSJ (15th in the Combined event in the Nagano Olympics) is something of a local celebrity. Since retired, he is a now a fitness coach with the Austrian ski team.

Completely homegrown are the McGarry sisters. Their father Ian is a director on Fair City but also a ski coach who, with mum Jane, ran specialist ski clinics in France for years until Tamsen and Kirsten began racing fulltime.

Today Kirsty is Ireland's best skier, ranked 370th in the world in her best event and, like Corkman Rory Morrish, who lives in Norway and competes in cross-country, has also already clinched qualification for Turin.

At 16, Foley met the McGarrys who invited him to ski with their daughters and do some racing clinics with them in Chatel (France).

He went to New Zealand with Tamsen that summer to do more specialist training and from there it has all, literally, been downhill.

"I have very liberal parents!" he quips of his decision then to tell them that he was deferring a business studies place in UCG to try skiing fulltime, a wintersport dream he still continues to pursue.

The Irish Snowsports Federation are the ones who can grant an international (FIS) racing licence so, eventually, Foley had to join an Irish Ski Club camp in Europe to convince them he was good enough and since 1999 he has been racing non-stop while supporting himself with off-season jobs, often at the family restaurant.

A chance meeting with Schwarzacher-Joyce at the Irish Championships one year was another lucky break.

"Pauli had lined up this 24-hour race in Aspen (Colorado). It was most unusual. You skied non-stop for 24 hours but of course it wasn't really because you're doing two and a half minutes of skiing following by 10-13 minutes on a ski-lift to bring you back up! Great fun."

It was the kind of thing that attracted publicity and clinched him vital equipment sponsorship, initially with Pauli's sponsors Fischer and currently with Dynaster and Scott USA.

Before his recent success Bode Miller once raced with a 'For Rent' sign on his helmet and Foley knows how that feels. Despite free equipment, he still struggles financially. He spends more than he earns most seasons and will end this one owing his Verbier flatmate Morrison a whack of rent.

"I'm fortunate to be Irish because I get to go to a lot of events. There's lots of skiers in England and Scotland - Angus for example - that are a lot better than me but they're all fighting each other for race places which I don't have to do.

"For the last two years I got ?3000 from the Irish Sports Council and I'm really grateful because ?1000 is a lot to me. I did look for personal sponsors for a while but I gave that up." "There's lots of guys like me around, there's a guy from Morocco, one from Ghana and another racer from Greece. You'll see all these bizarre nationalities who don't have wealthy federations to support them. We're all in the same situation, we're pioneers I suppose. We're in the sport for our own personal goals.

"I started out full of confidence and belief, wanting to see how far I could go. Sometimes it has been really difficult and you wonder what the hell am I doing here? I must be mad!"

With his girlfriend Sophie and 18-month son Liam back in Kenmare, it is a lifestyle that is increasingly difficult and Foley admits that this is his make-or-break season.

"Realistically, unless I improve this year it will probably be my last but my knee is holding up and I'm really excited right now about my skiing," he says.

"Working with Austrian Racing Camps is the first time I've had fully timed practices and detailed video analysis and already I'm feeling the difference. In my first race in Bormio (Italy, a CIT event) on December 12 I finished in the top 30 of 60 racers.

"But in this sport you're really racing against yourself most of the time," Foley says. "And you've also no one to blame except yourself."

SKI SPEAK

Your guide to 'Ski Sunday' and the Winter Olympics

SLALOM: The shortest course in alpine skiing. Skiers must pass around a series of alternate and closely assembled gates, losing as little time as possible in the turns. Overall time is based on an aggregate of two runs.

GIANT SLALOM: Known as GS. Fewer turns than a regular slalom but gates are spaced at bigger intervals on a longer course, so that turns are wider and smoother. GS results are also based on an aggregate time from two runs and the course is changed for each. As with slalom, the faster you go on the first run the earlier you get to go on the second; a big advantage as the course cuts up badly with use.

SUPER G Short for Super Giant Slalom. Combines some of the speed of downhill while testing the technical turning prowess of the skier around slalom poles set further apart than on a normal slalom course. Winner is based on just one run - fastest past the post - with maximum speeds on top courses of 70mph.

DOWNHILL: The Big Daddy of skiing, only for the very brave. A test of controlled speed, with no gates to negotiate, just head first, full speed ahead down a wide, long course with sharp corners and jumps. Top male skiers reach close to 100mph. Downhills are also decided on just one run only.

COMBINED: Just what it sounds. It is the combined scores of two slalom runs and one downhill run. This is designed for more versatile skiers so it is held on different, shorter courses, often on different slopes if a resort allows.

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