Most inspirational Winter Olympic athletes
With the Beijing Winter Olympics starting next week, and a historic Alpine World Cup win for Britain’s Dave Ryding in Kitzbühel last weekend, we hope many more people will be inspired to try skiing, snowboarding and other snow sports for the first time this year.
While pondering Dave’s remarkable backstory — he’s now 35 and began skiing on his local dry slope — we started wondering what other inspirational athletes have blazed trails in winter sports, and came up with the list of names below.
There were so many contenders for our top ten most inspirational athletes though, who do you think we have missed out?
“I’m 35 now, but I never stopped believing, I never stopped trying, and to bring the first victory for Great Britain in a World Cup, in Kitzbühel, I don’t know if dreams are made better,” said Dave, after his historic win on Saturday (22 January).
Amazing words from a man whose childhood ambition was to be one of the world’s top 30 ski racers — and hasn’t that dream come true! Ryding started skiing aged six on his local dry slope in Pendle, Lancashire. While his family took annual holidays to the Alps, Dave did his first ever ski race on a dry slope at the age of eight. He was selected for the English Schools team aged 13, and for the British Alpine team aged 19, in 2005 — and it was 12 long years until his first World Cup podium, a second place in January 2017 (also in Kitzbühel). During the intervening years he briefly had his funding withdrawn, in 2010, the year of his first Winter Olympics (in Vancouver). Dave competed at the Sochi Winter Olymipcs in 2014 and at Pyeongchang in 2018 — it goes without saying that we will all be willing him on for success in Beijing 2022.
Few children who lose their sight at the age of six would think of taking up skiing at the same time, but this is exactly what Millie did. The Paralympic star describes her sight as “pretty rubbish” after eye infections during her very early years — but that didn’t stop her becoming “pretty obsessive” about skiing. Millie took up racing seriously in 2012, winning bronze medals in her first competitive races aged just 13. Aside from her visual impairment, Millie has battled several serious concussions in big falls on the racecourse to compete in alpine skiing in the slalom, giant slalom, super-G, super-combined and downhill events with her sighted guide, Brett Wild. The now 23-year-old from Canterbury, Kent, became the youngest British athlete to compete in a Paralympic Games at Sochi in 2014 and is now facing her third Winter Paralympics in Beijing.
Now aged 52, Tina from Sacramento, California, helped paved the way for women to become professional snowboarders during the 1980s, at a time when snowboarding wasn’t even considered to be a sport, let alone a sport for girls. Tina says double-edged comments like “You’re pretty good … for a girl” (the name of her autobiography) pushed her to go harder and faster than the men, creating female-specific snowboards and clothing lines that stood out from the baggy, grungy over-sized kit available for men.
Among Tina’s incredible achievements include being the first woman to successfully land a backside 720 in competition, at the 1998 Winter X-Games, which secured her win in the Snowboard Big Air. In 1996, Tina co-founded the not-for-profit Boarding for Breast Cancer and now, as an artist, works to raise awareness for scoliosis, a condition with which her daughter was recently diagnosed.
Tina says: “There’s been this whole revolution of women in all sports. My mom was a cheerleader in high school because that was the only activity that was offered. Nowadays it’s such a strong statement to be a female athlete and to be widely accepted.”
At the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the 38-year-old former DJ from Northampton will become the first ever athlete to represent Jamaica in an alpine skiing event. It’s been a remarkable journey to the Olympics for Benjamin, who has no full-time coach and only took up skiing in 2015. But remarkably, on 12 January this year he finished seventh in the GS at the Cape Verde National Ski Championships in Liechtenstein an incredible feat that has qualified him for Beijing. The engineering graduate says one of his biggest mentors during his journey was Dudley “Tal” Stokes, of the 1998 Jamaican bobsleigh team (about which Disney made the film, Cool Runnings). In Beijing, Benjamin will be the 15th athlete ever to compete for Jamaica at a Winter Olympics.
Eddie the Eagle
Michael David Edwards (nicknamed “Eddie” by schoolfriends) barely needs an introduction — in case you haven’t seen it, a film has been made about his life. Cheltenham-born Eddie first went skiing on a school trip when he was 13 and became hooked. After failing to gain a place on the British downhill squad, Eddie switched to ski jumping during the 1980s, deciding he stood a better chance of making the Winter Olympics as he was the only Brit competing in the discipline at that time. At Calgary in 1988 Eddie became the first Brit to compete in Olympic ski jumping since 1928, despite being 9kg heavier than any other competitor and being totally self-funded. He also had to battle “fogging” of his glasses, being very near sighted, a problem with which many other skiers who wear glasses will identify. Eddie’s 71m jump at Calgary was a British record, putting him in the top six of British ski jumpers, and although he sadly failed to qualify for any subsequent Winter Olympics because the rules were tightened, Eddie won a firm place in the British nation’s hearts for his dogged determination and good-natured enthusiastic love of the sport.
This inspirational man was the first and is still the only person to have undergone an organ transplant and subsequently compete in an Olympic Games. But Klug went one better — by winning Olympic bronze, too. The now 49-year-old received a liver transplant in 2000 when he was 28 and critically ill, but was back on his snowboard just eight weeks after his operation. Two years later, Chris went on to compete in the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, winning bronze in the parallel giant slalom. He says meeting the parents of his donor the day after his win was as a more emotional experience than winning bronze. Chris, who now lives with his family in Aspen, Colorado, wrote an inspiring book about his story as a transplant survivor, and in 2003 formed the Chris Klug Foundation. He works tirelessly to raise money and awareness, inspiring people to register as organ donors — and is well known as being one of the nicest guys in winter sports.
Seun Adigun, Akuoma Omeoga and Ngozi Onwumere
Together these women formed Nigeria’s first ever bobsled team and competed at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. While the trio drew comparisons to Jamaica’s first (male) bobsled team who competed in 1988 at Calgary, there was a difference. Not only was this team female, but all three trailblazers were summer athletes — runners, to be precise. Seun Adigun even represented Nigeria at the London 2012 Olympics in the 100m hurdles. In order to compete, the trio had to form a governing body in their country — so in 2016 created the Bobsled and Skeleton Federation of Nigeria and subsequently raised $75,000 in just over a year to pay for their campaign. While they sadly finished 20th out of 20 teams, Adigun said: “This is a huge milestone for sports in Nigeria. Nothing makes me prouder than to know that I can play a small role in creating opportunities for winter sports to take place in Nigeria.”
An incredible 22 Paralympic Winter gold medals have earned this Norwegian Nordic skier the title “Queen of the Winter Paralympics”. Despite competing for the first time in her 40s and retiring after the 2002 Games, Ragnhild (now 78) remains the most decorated Paralympic athlete of all time, with 22 golds, three silvers and two bronzes to her name. Ragnhild suffered polio as a child, but started her medal spree at the 1988 Calgary Games with five golds and one silver. She continued to medal every year, at five Games, until Nagano 2022, where she increased her tally by another five golds, competing in short, middle and long-distance races, as well as cross-country, relays, biathlon and ice sledge speed skating, too.
Norway has produced another inspirational athlete in Marit Bjørgen, who holds the title of most decorated Winter Olympian of all time — with 15 medals to her name. Eight of these are golds, not a bad haul for a farmer’s daughter who learnt to cross-country ski as a child. Marit, a Nordic skier, began competing internationally at the age of 19 and bagged her first Olympic medal at Salt Lake City in 2002, as part of the Norwegian quartet in the team relay. Now retired, her tally is an impressive one and still unbeaten.
Not content at being at the top of her game in one Winter Olympic discipline, this 26-year-old Czech from Prague won gold medals in both skiing and snowboarding events at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Aged just 22 at the time, Ester took gold in skiing’s super-G event and gold in snowboarding’s parallel giant slalom. In doing so, the young Czech made history — becoming the first person to win two golds at the same Winter Olympics using two different types of equipment and the first woman to win gold in two separate disciplines at the same Winter Olympics. Ester took up skiing at four and snowboarding a year later, winning her first gold medal at the age of 17, in snowboarding parallel slalom event the Junior World Championships. Not a bad feat, we think she’s definitely one to watch at Beijing 2022.
Check out Natasha's homage to GB Snowsports athletes; the new Snowsports mug - featuring Downhill, Slalom, Freestyle, Snowboard, Cross Country and Ski Jumping ⛷