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Irish skiers in peak condition as they seek Olympics qualification

Tess Arbez and Emma Ryan hope to represent Ireland at the 2018 Winter Games

Tess Arbez competes in the Women’s Slalom during the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Switzerland. She one of Ireland’s two Winter Olympics hopefuls. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Ask most Irish people to explain the terms “slalom” or “giant slalom” and chances are they’ll struggle. “Is it a type of… exotic sausage? A Hebrew greeting, perhaps?” It is not.

Instead, slalom refers to a type of alpine skiing, which sees skiers weave in and out between plastic poles or gates on a slope until you reach the finish line. It’s rife with danger and there’s a propensity for a lot to go wrong very quickly, such is the quick tempo and short distance between each obstacle. In the faster events, skiers can travel at speeds up to 128km/h.

For most of us, that description alone induces butterflies. For Tess Arbez and Emma Ryan, two of Ireland’s Winter Olympics hopefuls, it’s just another day at the office.

You see, at an age when most of us are still grappling with the tricky logistics of walking, Ryan and Arbez were out finding their feet on the ski slopes and discovering what would ultimately wind up being their passion.

Ireland’s Winter Olympics hopefuls Emma Ryan and Tess Arbez. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

“I started when I was two,” explains Ryan. “My parents would just take the family up to a mountain in New Hampshire called Waterville Valley. I just learned to ski there and I always loved it. For some reason, I was never really bothered by the cold as much as my other siblings were. I joined the local ski club, started racing at seven and from there, my passion took off.”

Ryan is the daughter of two Irish emigrants. Her mother is from Keadue, Co Roscommon and her father is from Dublin. The pair met while studying in UCD and moved to the United States after winning the green card lottery. They settled in Massachusetts – first in the Boston area, before relocating to the seaside town of Duxbury – where they continue to reside with their three children.

Ryan continued to ski throughout her childhood and started participating in competitions. A few years ago, Ryan started competing on a more elite stage. “When I was 13 – that’s when you can start competing on a national level – I was competing with the US,” she said. She qualified for the United States National Championships when she was at U16 level for three consecutive years. She switched nationality and started competing for Ireland last summer.

International competitions

Around that time, Ryan acquired her FIS (International Ski Federation) licence, which allows her to ski at international competitions and any other races sanctioned by the International Ski Federation. Since then, she has competed in the likes of New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and Canada, and earned her first overall FIS win in January, a feat she describes as a career highlight.

At just 17 years old, Ryan is still a year shy of graduating from high school. She is enrolled at a winter sports academy in New Hampshire, designed for student athletes pursuing skiing and snowboarding. The structure enables her to attend international competitions, while staying on top of her schoolwork and she counts members of the US freestyle skiing team among her classmates.

“They’re set up to allow us to do these things. The teachers are very understanding. But it is a lot of work. I do have to bring all my work on the road with me, and learn through online materials and stuff.”

Tess Arbez on the slopes. By the age of four, she was ski racing and by the age of 10, she was competing at a high level. Now, at the age of 19, she looks set to represent Ireland in the Winter Olympics. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Once she graduates, she plans on attending college – she’s about to face into the daunting applications process – and intends on skiing at an intercollegiate level with the NCAA (National College Athletics Associations), which she says is often more competitive than the FIS circuit. She hopes to pursue a career in either medicine or science and recently completed an internship with an orthopaedic surgeon at Tufts Medical Center.

The Winter Olympics weren’t on Ryan’s radar until last summer when she joined the Irish team. After a few good performances in the FIS series, she thought to herself, “I should go for this. I think I could actually do it.” At present, she has achieved the “B” standard and will work over the next few months to improve her ranking and hopefully get inside the top 500. “I have a pretty good plan in place,” she says, confidently.

Ryan says her parents, who ski recreationally, are “very proud” of her achievements to date even if they’re still “learning as they go”. As for her decision to ski for Ireland? “My heritage is Irish,” she explains simply. “It felt more right to be with the Irish team.”

Family legacy

A quick look at Arbez’s upbringing and you can’t help but feel that a career in skiing was inevitable. She was raised near Chamonix, a ski town in the French Alps, which just so happened to be the site of the first Winter Olympics in 1924. Additionally, her paternal grand-uncle was a ski jumper, who participated in the Winter Olympics in 1968. Fifty years on, Arbez is eager to carry on the family legacy.

Arbez took up skiing when she was “very small” at the behest of her father and took to it like a duck to water. By the age of four, she was ski racing and by the age of 10, she was competing at a high level. Now, at the age of 19, she looks set to represent Ireland in the Winter Olympics.

Arbez’s mother is originally from Dublin and moved to France when she was 10 years old. Arbez switched nationality a few years ago to honour her mother’s Irish heritage. “I’m proud to race for Ireland for her,” she explained. Earlier this year, she was one of five Irish Winter Olympics hopefuls to be awarded financial aid by the Olympic Council of Ireland to assist with qualifying for the Games in Pyeongchang.

She has now attained the “A” standard in the slalom and giant slalom events and is also working on qualifying for the super-G, a speed event. Over the next few months, she has plans to train in Sweden before returning to France for the beginning of race season.

Arbez spent her childhood watching both the Summer and Winter Olympics, so this is the culmination of a lifelong dream. “I think it’s the main goal when you start a race career,” she says. “I think the Olympics is a big dream.”

Participation

The significance of racing for her mother’s home country on the 50th anniversary of her grand-uncle’s Olympics journey isn’t lost on her either. “That’s why it’s special,” she says, happily. “For my dad, it’s the Olympics. For my mum, I race for Ireland.”

Ireland hasn’t produced many female skiers over the years – Kirsten McGarry and Florence Bell remain our sole Olympic representatives in that regard – and Arbez is eager to see more participation among young women in Ireland.

“It would be great if we could bring more girls into alpine skiing in Ireland,” she says. “It’s an amazing sport so maybe they can try on, I don’t know, the plastic slope in Ireland.” (There are two artificial ski slopes in Ireland, one in Sandyford and one in Kilternan.)

Her pitch is solid – you make friends, you travel to interesting places and, if you’re lucky, you go to the Winter Olympics – but it’s clear that Arbez still derives the most joy and pleasure from the act of skiing itself.

“When you’re skiing, you have an amazing sensation,” she concludes. “You can feel the wind on your face, you can feel the snow under your feet and that’s just amazing.”