Support through Sport UK spoke to Claire Ryan about the role that skiing has played in her life ...
Hi Claire. Thanks for talking to us. Are we right in thinking that, throughout your childhood, you were an avid skier?
Yes, I was an advanced skier. It was the only thing I thought about and also the only thing that kept me on the straight and narrow! I learnt to ski when I was eight years old with my mum at Kidsgrove Ski Centre. Once I had mastered the basics, I helped coach adults with learning disabilities, some of whom ended up competing at the Special Olympics. During this time, I was also a member of a number of race clubs in Stoke-on-Trent, which meant I trained three times a week. As my racing skills developed, I started to compete in dry slope races across the country. Although I didn’t make it onto the podium that often, it was a real achievement just to take part because having Asperger’s / autism makes it more challenging for me to learn new skills and coordinate my limbs. At the age of 14, I got my club instructor qualification, which meant I was able to spend my Sunday mornings voluntarily teaching children to ski. I then used this new found confidence to teach adults too. Then, at 18, I got my Mountain Leadership qualification. This opened up so many doors for me. I'd get paid to guide school children around the Austrian mountains. I spent nearly four weeks at a time out teaching on the slopes, getting paid to do something I loved to do!
So it's fair to say that you lived and breathed skiing! However this all changed in your late teens, didn't it? What happened?
At 19, I wanted to do a winter season out in the mountains and so I was employed as a chef at a hotel in France. I was out there for just five days when, after a 14 hour shift, I fell on a dance floor and dislocated my right knee. This fall changed my life forever. I returned to the UK and had six operations - but all of them failed. A year later, I had tests and scans and, in 2011, I was told that I had something called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT) or Hereditary Motor and Sensory Neuropathies (HMSN). They are one and the same.
This must have been highly frustrating and you must have found yourself in a very dark place?
I was told I would never ski again, which broke my heart. I become very depressed and struggled to see the point in anything. I felt very lost and very angry with the world. I had lost something that I'd worked really hard to achieve. When any of my friends or family talked about going on skiing holidays, I felt very down and angry. It got to the point where I hated the word skiing.
Having CMT caused all my joints below my hips to dislocate and dislodge, which meant I became a full-time wheelchair user. I can no longer stand or walk because any little movement can cause my joints to dislocate. When this happens I am in a lot of pain and have to take very strong painkillers. In the early days I used to have to go to hospital to have my joints put back in place. Now I can do it myself.
When did you discover mono-skiing and can you tell us more about the sport?
I tried many disability sports but nothing compared to skiing; the thrill of feeling so free on the slopes, the adrenaline rush when I'd really push myself on a challenging run, the feeling of being fit. Skiing had given me a reason to get up in the mornings ... and it had given me a job.
In 2014 I was finally coming to terms with the fact that I'd never be able to ski again and so I felt that I could stand to watch some of the Winter Paralympics. I watched the skiers use adaptive equipment to accomplish a very high level of skiing.
During the commercial breaks, there were advertisments for disablity snowsports, which prompted my mum to find out more about Disability Snowsports UK (DSUK). I phoned DSUK and learnt that they cater for people with both physical and learning disabilities and so I booked up my first lesson at Tamworth Snowdome.
That first lesson took my breath away. I was able to be free from my wheelchair. I was able to feel the feelings that I thought I'd lost forever. The adrenaline rush was back and it felt fantastic. At the end of the lesson, I signed up for six further lessons. I picked up mono-skiing very quickly as the required skills and techniques are similar to those for able-bodied skiing.
In November 2014, my skiing had reached a level that meant I could join in with the DSUK Tamworth Local Group. The group meets every month to ski together socially. At first I didn’t really do very well, or enjoy the sessions, because it was very busy and meeting new people put me out of my comfort zone. However, after a few sessions, I became more confident.
In December 2014, I was voted Chairman of the Local Group. Also in December, I transitioned from being a group skier to a group helper. History was repeating itself as, once again, I was volunteering my time to help other disabled skiers learn to ski. It's a great feeling to know that I am giving back what I have learnt about skiing.
In late summer this year, I was spotted at a DSUK talent event and have since been invited to train with the British Development Paralympic ski team.
Wow. So, going forwards, what are your mono-skiing hopes and dreams?
I'm going to attend as many ski camps as possible to both build up my skiing stamina and gain more experience and technique in racing. I would like to specialise in Giant Slalom and Slalom, as the two go hand in hand. I'm hoping to be classified next year (put into the right skiing category), which will enable me to enter races all over the world with the Development team.
If anyone reading this is thinking that mono-skiing, or disability skiing, might be something that they'd like to try, what would your advice be on next steps?
I would advise just giving it a go! Skiing has given me another chance - a chance to get my life back on track. It has helped me to become a fitter and stronger person. No matter what your disability, skiing is open to everyone. Give the DSUK office a call and find out where your nearest slope is - then book a lesson and go have fun!
And, finally, can you provide us with some final words as to what sport has done for your life?
Mono-skiing has given me back my old life. I am no longer angry with the world. Rather, I want to tell the world what a great sport skiing is, even if you have disabilities. Come along to our snowdome and join is, either as a participant or a helper!
I would like to thank Tamworth Snowdome for helping me out when I go for recreational ski sessions. All the staff are very helpful, regularly coming to my rescue when I fall over, or when I am struggling to carry any of my equipment. They make me feel so welcome,
I also would like to thank West Midlands Race Club for letting me train with them. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn't get the time I need practising navigating around slalom gates each week. Some of the parents there think it great that I use a mono-ski and yet am still able to join in with the club as it shows their kids that having a disability shouldn't hold you back. They also are willing to help out whenever they can - even working as a team to pick me up when I fall over.
Most of all I would like to say a very big thank you to my mum for finding me the information on DSUK and for encouraging me to try mono-skiing, If it wasn’t for her, I would be stuck in a very big rut right now.
Thanks so much for chatting to us, Claire (whose website can be found here). And if anyone is inspired to give mono-skiing a go, you can find out more about the DSUK here.