“I’m not one to focus on the Olympics”
Dave Ryding tells me as we zoom (literally and technologically) towards an Olympic winter. Team GB’s best ski racer is as cool as a cucumber when we meet in the autumn and, considering his intense training programme ahead of the Winter 22 season, this interview is a real coup for our little resort magazine.
At the age of 36, ski commentators argue that The Rocket gets faster with age. He finished the 2021 season 12th in the slalom standings, a gradual improvement on previous winters and he knows everything is possible. “I still think I can get there…” he tells me. ‘There’ being the top step of the podium.
Dave hails from Bretherton in Lancashire and took his first dry slope turns on Pendel ski slope, aged eight. “We wanted to go on a family ski holiday but my parents couldn’t afford the ski schools abroad (and they didn’t want to wait for me!), so I had no choice but to learn on the dry slope,” he recalls. Despite being 12 years old when he first skied on snow, Dave and his younger sister Joanna progressed onto the slalom race team while also getting involved in loads of other competitive sports. I wonder if Dave views those other sports, such as football and rugby, as a benefit to his career as a ski racer? “100%, because these sports don’t just develop you as an athlete, they also made sure that skiing was never the ‘be all and end all’ and gave me a good athletic ability; the foundation if you like.”
Our interview takes place after Dave’s return from a training camp in Saas Fee. He’s home for just 12 days before returning to the mountains for more pre-season training. What does the average day look like for a ski racer, I wonder? “I try not to mong out on YouTube for too long after my breakfast before heading into the gym (that’s my garage!) at about 9.30am. Lunch comes with endless emails and travel arrangements, then I help in the cafe that I run with my fiancé. I’ll have an afternoon session on the bike for an hour and a half. I’ll usually train at least twice a day while I’m at home, but when I’m in the mountains I’ll ski all morning and then do more training in the afternoon.” But which does Dave prefer? “Skiing, of course! That said, after the season I’m sick of it, but at this time of year I’m desperate to get out of the gym and off this bike!”
With an anticipated global audience of two billion, there’s no doubt the 2022 Winter Olympics will inspire a whole new generation of ski racers, freestyle snowboarders, ice skaters, bob sleighers and more. The Beijing Games will be great for our industry, but are they the be all and end all? “I focus on the World Cup. This is my first priority. The Olympics is what it is – it comes around every four years in a February – but I like to compete week in, week out and do my best in every single race, rather than having this one goal every four years.” But surely Dave has dreamed of winning an Olympic medal at some point? “As a kid I never even dreamt of an Olympic medal, it’s not massive to me,” he explains. “If you have a bad World Cup run, you’ll go into the Olympics not that confident, but if you have a good World Cup you’ll go in confident and with a good start number. Then, come February everything ramps up – pressure, expectation. I’ll save the stress until then!”
“I focus on the World Cup. This is my first priority. The Olympics is what it is”
These are wise words from a three-time Olympian who wore his first GB bib at the Vancouver Games in 2010. I wonder how Dave’s Olympic experience will filter through the rest of the team? “For the younger guys especially, those that I’m training with at the moment, they’ll probably look to me for advice and experience and if they want it, I’ll give it to them! I always believe in figuring things out for yourself and learn what you can from others when you need to.”
British winter sports athletes are often regarded as being heavily disadvantaged by geography. As Billy Morgan, Lizzy Yarnold, Laura Deas and Izzy Atkin returned home with five medals between them from the 2018 PyeongChang Games in a range of winter sports, British Olympic chiefs were forced to defend the 28 million winter sports development fund. I wonder how Dave views the funding situation at the moment – have the goalposts changed following our Olympic success in recent years? “Unless you live in the Alps, you’re always going to be at a disadvantage,” Dave believes. “The most important thing for any aspiring athlete is to accept that fact – to recognise the disadvantage – and follow a pathway that’s designed to get you to the top, maybe four or five years later than other nations.” Does that explain why there are no other 36 year old ski racers on the world circuit? “If you come to the competition later, you’re motivated for longer, with more experience and this helps in the long run. I believe there are ways around the fact that we don’t have much snow in the UK! And we have a strong team now with lots to look forward to.”
Indeed, there’s lots to look forward to, but let’s look back for a moment. Can you guess Dave’s career highlights to date? “Winning the Europa Cup back in 2013 was a massive highlight for me, as no Brit had done that before,” Dave explains. “Then all three of my podiums are highlights, each one for a different season. The first was obviously my first, so that was special. Then in Adelboden this year (2021), to be back on the podium in a classic slalom was one hell of a feeling. I took a lot of pressure of myself then, I proved that I could do it again, four years after my second podium. I know I’ve still got a whole lot more to give this sport.”
This winter I’ll watch my little boys and their friends race around the Pleney with their instructors. Some of them will be fast. Some of them will be very fast. Some of them will come to the attention of coaches and trainers, some will be tipped as future racers. What advice does Dave have for the parents of the next generation? “There’s a lot of risk in sport, and that’s fine, whatever. But there’s also a lot of risk in sitting at an office desk doing a job you hate,” Dave believes. “A life or a career in sport is hugely positive for anyone. Learning to deal with disappointment, pressure, sacrifice, dedication, how to prepare for things, how to be disciplined. My advice would be to take each year as it comes and enjoy it.”
The life of a ski racer certainly seems all-consuming by this stage in our interview. We discuss how to avoid injuries (“stay strong, stay focused”), Dave’s favourite course (Madonna di Campiglio for the night slalom), going though the motions on the morning of a race (he’s is too experienced in the repertoire to feel any nerves), but there must be some down time, no? Something away from skiing and training? “I like to make sure my fantasy football team is as good as it can be, but it doesn’t feel like I’m dedicated to the sport. This is just my life now, training, sleeping, skiing.” What about ski holidays? Surely? “Never! I met my fiancé ski racing and we’ve only skied for two mornings together in ten years! Those days will come…”
If you were previously unconvinced about the thrills and spills of watching live ski racing, either in person or on TV, I hope I’ve convinced you to tune in this winter. The slalom coverage on BBC Ski Sunday in the UK is a weekly highlight in my house and it certainly seems that Dave’s improving performance has us all enthused. But who else should we be looking out for this winter? “All the Brits on the World Cup team are in a very good position to perform. The girls are in their prime and everyone is getting better,” Dave believes. “We’re so fortunate to have always had Ski Sunday on the BBC, it’s massive for the sport. You need to have someone competing on the world stage for people to get involved,” he continues. “Look at cycling as an example. The sport didn’t have much of a following before 2000, then the likes of Chris Boardman, then Cavendish, Wiggins. Now cycling is huge in the UK. This is what my sport needs – someone doing well, someone they can get behind.”
I’d hoped to end this interview with a set of objectives for you to get behind, but “I don’t have any set goals for this season,” Dave tells me. “I achieved all my goals five years ago. There’s always something in the back of my head that wonders… can I win one? I’ve been really close, and I do have the speed to do it. But can I get it out in two runs on the right day for me? Unlike Marcel Hirscher who can do it week in, week out, I need a few things to align. I’m as fit as I’ve ever been. There’s no reason why I can’t do this.”
“If you come to the competition later, you’re motivated for longer…”
I won’t speculate on whether this will be The Rocket’s final season in top class ski racing.“You never know what you’re going to get with this sport,” Dave explains. “There are so many variables. It’s exciting to watch, especially the second run when we’re counting down to the leader. Hopefully our team can perform, we should get behind them, every gate, every split and live this experience with them.” And as for retirement… “Obviously the Olympics is an easy target to aim for. But what comes after? That’s a natural question for me. If my body’s good and my mental drive is still there, along with the results, then I’ll carry on. I expect I’ll feel it when the time is right to stop.” I’m thinking of Dave’s fiancé Mandy working long hours in their busy cafe when he admins, “I obviously also have to think about my fiancé and having a family is something we’ve put on hold. I don’t think it’ll just be my decision alone after this year!” Dave calls skiing his ‘job’. What kind of jobs come after this one? “Running a business for the first time was an eyeopener! I could ski coach, become a brand ambassador within the industry, or do something totally different.”
Until Dave unclips his race skis for the final time, please don’t miss the opportunity to watch him compete on the biggest stage this winter. He’s thrilling to watch on the slopes and a really nice bloke off them.
Dave is supported by – Fischer skis and boots | Obergergl | Zanier gloves | Fusalp | Leki ski poles
| Yniq Eyewear | Quinn Estates | Kandahar Ski Club