Speed demon following the guide

Menna Fitzpatric and Gary Smith. Photo: ParalympicsGB

On the slopes of Yanqing National Alpine Ski Centre, Menna Fitzpatric starts at gradients of up to 70 degrees and reaches high speeds in the Super-G and the Downhill. You can understand why she utilises the tag #speeddemons in her Instagram account. Just ahead of her at the slope is her guide, who “is her eyes” on the steep slope.

Menna has had her visual impairment since birth. She has a few percent vision in one eye and so can follow the guide’s movements. The guide is wearing a pair of dark ski pants and an orange jacket. The contrast with the snow is as great as can be and the difference in colour between trousers and jacket makes it possible to discern the guide’s movements better.

Menna Fitzpatric won a silver medal in Super-G and a bronze medal in Super combined (Downhill and Super-G) at the Paralympics in China in early March 2022. She is one of the most decorated Paralympians of all time with four previous medals from Pyeongchang 2018.

Menna isn’t just following her guide. They must trust each other 100 percent for their run to be fluid. If the guide warns of something on the slopes, Menna’s reaction must be expected. The relationship between the skier and the guide must be stable and based on trust.

For many years, Menna and her guide Jennifer Kehoe were a team. So, when Jennifer decided to quit in 2021, it was naturally a big change. Menna herself has written about her relation to her guide on bbc.com. There, she also writes about the challenge of finding a new guide. Not only does this person have to be someone she trusts, but also someone who can go fast enough and who comprehends the challenges facing someone who can’t see. Understanding the challenges is not something you learn, she writes. You either understand or you don’t.

Ahead of the 2021/2022 winter season, Menna began skiing with Katie Guest. By December, they had worked together for six months and were getting ready for the challenge of the Paralympics. But when the trip to China drew near, Katie’s COVID test came back positive.

Instead of Katie, Gary Smith took over. Menna and he have skied together but are of course not as accustomed to racing together as she and Katie are. Still, the pair managed to take several medals. Impressive.

Follow Menna at @mennafitz.