The recent Winter Olympics and Paralympics were hugely successful, with the Games gripping the nation once again. Channel 4 has been championing disability sport for many years now and this year saw them present coverage of the Paralympics in PyeongChang, in which GB won a total of 7 medals including gold in Para-Skiing. Someone who was involved in this coverage and is no stranger to disability skiing is Charlotte Evans. Having won Great Britain’s first ever gold medal in the Winter Games, she told me about her career and how she became a sight guide.
Charlotte started skiing at the age of 5 when her father wanted an activity the whole family could do, though she admits she wasn’t initially very good at it. Even then when she went on to start competing, Evans said: “I wasn’t any good”. However, at the age of 13 it all changed when things started to fall into place and Charlotte began seeing more success in competitions. “I started to win all my age (group competitions) on the dry slope and then went onto snow at about the age of 14 years old,” she told me.
Continuing to take part in events, her career in the sport started to gain momentum and in 2009, at the age of 18, she went to the English Championships. “I always knew if I skied a good run then yes (I could do well), but I just never seemed to deliver on the right day or time,” Evans explained. However, this race was a different story as she managed to beat the rest of the field and be crowned English Champion. “This was a really great day for me and something that showed me I was going in the right direction with skiing. I was shocked at first but it wasn’t really celebrated because my coach would say ‘would you win the Olympics with that run?’ I would obviously say ‘no’ as I was young and new to snow and so it took away how big it was for me. When I got home my family made it a big thing though,” she said.
However, a knee injury not long later then put her career in jeopardy. Wanting to return to the sport she loved as soon as possible meant Charlotte followed a strict and regimented rehabilitation schedule. During this time, a friend of hers approached her about an advert for a sight guide he had seen. “I was on holiday and I got a phone call from a photographer that did able bodied skiing and he said ‘I have seen this advert and I think you would be good at this, because you are so patient, why not give it a go’. I initially said ‘no thanks’, I was only 18 and didn’t even know there was a disabled team,” she explained. After thinking about it for a few hours, she decided she may have made the wrong decision. Not long later she was attending a welcome event at Bath University, then a week later training in Austria. Even at this time, Evans still was expecting to return to able-bodied skiing, saying: “I joined the disabled team with the intention of just doing for a year whilst I recovered from the injury and then I would go back.”
After meeting Kelly Gallagher, they formed a formidable partnership, meaning she chose not to return to solo competing after her recovery. “You are now a team and no longer just thinking of yourself,” Charlotte told me. “As an individual you have to be quite selfish and the environment is quite harsh because you all want top spot, whereas when guiding, you are a team and you have someone to support you through the good and bad days.” She discovered that working in a team was much more enjoyable, especially with Gallagher. “I saw something in Kelly, which was guts. She couldn’t technically ski, but she had guts. It is the hardest thing to gain, whereas technique is just practice and good coaching,” she explained.
This successful partnership continued into the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi. The duo went into the Winter Games with hopes of achieving something that British athletes hadn’t done before: winning a gold medal. In the Women’s Super-G, Evans and Gallagher managed to fight off stiff competition to be crowned Paralympic Champions. “It was a very proud moment because you work so hard for so long and dedicate your life to something and finally you feel you get the reward that you always wanted,” Charlotte told me. “In para-skiing, the guide is sometimes more respected than the athlete because of the guiding they do. This is really nice to be congratulated at the same level. When I first began it was very much perceived as a carers role and Kelly and I totally changed that to showcase you are an athlete too, we just compete together.”
Following their success, Charlotte has used her new-found fame with the general public to inspire young people. She now visits schools speaking to children about the opportunities available to them. “I think it is important to not always showcase your sport, but to give the children a chance to know what is possible, in whatever they want to do. I work with a lot of vulnerable and deprived children, and my sole goal is to inspire them to set their mind on something and they will see that they can achieve things,” Evans said. This is also extremely rewarding as she gets to share her story of how she ‘fell into’ being a sight guide and has had a huge amount of success since.
Only a few months ago, the Winter Paralympics was again on our screens, with Channel 4 and Whisper Films broadcasting a brilliant array of disability sports. Fronting the coverage was Clare Balding along with Lee McKenzie, and many experts such as Johnnie Peacock, Ade Adepitan and Charlotte herself. “It was so much fun but so strange being on the other side of the sport,” Evans said. “I was now seeing it from a totally new perspective. I am really comfortable talking about disability skiing so I found it fun. I would love to do more and hopefully in the future there will be opportunities to do this.”
Charlotte Evans made history along with Kelly Gallagher as the first Winter Games athletes to win a gold medal for Great Britain. Having never considered being a sight guide, she epitomises the ethos of taking every opportunity that comes your way. Although initially she thought it would be short-term, it became her new passion, finding comfort in skiing with someone else who could share both the highs and the lows of elite sport. Now she visits young people aiming to inspire them. “I think you don’t know what you can do or achieve until you try,” she said of the advice she gives them. “The best thing is to watch and see what sport you find interesting and then give it a go. Paralympic sport has totally changed from when I started. We are developing so much thanks to programmes showcasing disability. I think it just shows anyone can do anything if you just try.” With the UK loving disability sport, it seems the Paralympics, both summer and winter, are beginning to be seen on a par with the Olympics. This normalisation of disability is not only important in sport, but also daily life, making every day easier of millions of people.
(all photo credits: http://www.char-evans.com)