'My life is skiing... and I want PyeongChang podium' - Dave Ryding opens up
Dave Ryding provided one of the stories of the winter when he came second in Kitzbuhel. Ahead of the final slalom of the season in Aspen on Sunday, Ben Dirs speaks to the man who had to do it the hard way, and is now dreaming of a podium at the Olympics in 2018.
Dave Ryding puts his success down to “getting my head down and chipping away”, which will probably deter others from following in his carvings. “Getting one’s head down and chipping away” doesn’t sound sexy, conjuring as it does images of tunnelling through rock with a penknife. But Ryding no doubt felt quite sexy, standing on the podium in Kitzbuhel, listening to 60,000 Austrians clanging cow bells, having done what a Brit is not supposed to do.
“I’d never even dreamed of being on a podium, let alone in Kitzbuhel,” says Ryding, who finished second at the legendary Austrian resort in January, so becoming the first Briton to finish in the top three of a World Cup race since Konrad Bartelski in 1981. “It was just a ‘wow’ moment. I’d only ever thought about being ranked in the top 30. I was just amazed at what I’d achieved.”
Dave Ryding of Britain celebrates at the end of the race
Image credit: Reuters
There is a photograph of Ryding looking up at his time after his first run, clinging onto a cameraman and looking like he’s going to faint, or spontaneously combust, or both. The locals had come to see Marcel Hirscher, the greatest alpine skier of his generation, see off the challenge of the usual assortment of Swiss, Italians, Germans and Norwegians. Some bloke from Chorley in Lancashire wasn’t really supposed to be part of the equation.
“You can’t not be aware of the noise around you as you’re pushing out of the gate, it’s just so loud. And it only gets louder. But it’s a pretty cool environment to be in. You have to just deal with it and make it work for you.”
Ryding led the field after that ballsy first slalom run at the Wimbledon of skiing, only to be overhauled by local hero Hirscher in the second. But the 30-year-old’s runners-up finish still caused something of a media sensation.
“It wasn’t so much a case of ‘who is this guy’, but there were a lot of surprised people. The reaction was great. They showed a documentary about me on an Austrian TV show, all about how I came to be a skier from England. There was nothing patronising about the coverage, they just thought it was a cool story.”
While sections of the media might have been tempted to dress Ryding up as the second coming of Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards, the truth was very different.
Ryding had been very good at what he did for quite some time. In 2013 he became the first Briton to win an overall title in the Europa Cup, the second tier of international competition. In 2014 he finished 17th in the slalom at the Olympic Games, having also competed for Great Britain four years earlier. Ryding kicked off the 2016/17 season by finishing sixth in Finland and seventh in Croatia. Getting his head down and chipping away was paying dividends.
Most others would have chucked it all in years ago, having become tired of slogging uphill while the Hirschers of this world were whizzing past.
“I started skiing on dry slopes at Pendle Ski Club, just so I could go on the annual skiing holiday with Mum and Dad. Ski school in the Alps would have been a bit expensive and they didn’t want to be waiting around for me anyway. So it was a case of learn to ski or be left behind. That was a good incentive.”
Ryding didn’t start training on snow until he was 12, an age when most future stars of the sport are already technically proficient. But passion and enjoyment combined with grit and determination meant he soon started closing the gap.
There have been metaphorical moguls along the way. In 2010 Snowsport GB, the governing body, went bust. Ryding was insulated by sponsors – “if it wasn’t for them, I’m not sure I’d be where I am today” – but admits that he trod water for a couple of seasons. The turning point came when he was 25, when his coaches decided that he should focus almost exclusively on slalom.
“Other nations think it’s crazy to train in just one discipline. But if that’s what my coaches thought was best for me, I was happy to go along with it. There are so many variables in skiing – it might be raining, snowing, windy, icy – and I wasn’t exposed to all those different conditions when I was younger. So it took time to build the complete skillset and catch up to the rest. But I worked and worked on becoming technically sound until this season it clicked into place.
“There was a time when I thought ‘I’m not sure I can do this’. But most of the time I didn’t think about whether I’d make it or not. It was just what I wanted to do. I enjoyed it and I wanted to be good at it. If I’d stopped skiing, I’d have thought: ‘What the hell do I do now?’ My life is skiing and nothing else.”
Dave Ryding of Great Britain celebrates after placing second in the Men's Slalom event of the FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup at the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuehel
Image credit: AFP
On Sunday, Ryding competes in the final World Cup slalom of the season in Aspen. Asked if he’s desperate to bag another podium finish, just to prove Kitzbuhel wasn’t a fluke, he says he’s just desperate for the season to finish.
There will follow a short break, before he gets back to training, with one eye on the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games. He couldn’t, could he?
“My target is the top 10 but I wouldn’t write off a podium finish. I’ll just have to see what my form is like going into it. I’ve certainly got a better chance at this Olympics than I did at the last. I just have to keep believing in myself and keep working hard. That’s what you’ve got to do to get to the top in anything.
“It’s been a long road but I’ve shown what’s possible if you’re prepared to put in the effort. It’s not as if the Austrians have any kind of genetic advantage over the British. We’re all born the same. I’m sure over the next few years there will be other British skiers doing what I’m doing. Good things can happen if you just get your head down and chip away.”