Tess Arbez’s complex path to Pyeongchang is now all downhill

Irish skier is following in family footsteps by competing at the Winter Olympics

Tess Arbez of Ireland: “I’m better in giant slalom but I try to do both. GS is more technical but you have to be even stronger for slalom.” Photograph by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Next Monday Tess Arbez will become only the sixth woman to compete for Ireland in the Winter Olympics and her heritage underlines just how arbitrary our life paths can sometimes be.

Her surname (the z is silent) is not Irish and neither was her upbringing in the small town of Vetraz Monthoux in France’s Haute Savoie, close to the Swiss border.

But her mother Marguerite delights in explaining the serendipitous nature of her Irish-Belgian-French heritage and a family history that combines Ireland’s political history with pure French romance.

In the mid-1920s, the first post-independence Irish government sought economic development and figured sugar beet had potential.


With no manufacturing expertise here, and long before the term ‘public-private’ partnership became de rigueur, they commissioned a Belgian company called Lippens to set it up.

Lippens chose Carlow as the site for Ireland’s first sugar factory and brought over master craftsmen to develop it and train indigenous workers. Hence the local Strawhall Villas became colloquially known as ‘the Belgian Houses’.

Marguerite's paternal grandfather, Auguste Neerman, was among them and her dad Francis was born in Carlow before his family moved to Blackrock.

Among the Neerman's Dublin neighbours was noted Trinity history professor Jean Paul Pittion, a Frenchman, a brother of Marguerite's mum.

“My uncle married this Irishwoman – my aunty Aideen – and my mum went there to learn English and fell in love with my dad, their next-door neighbour on Clonkeen Road!” she explains.

She grew up in Essex but, when her father died prematurely when she was just 10, her mother moved the family back to her native France.

As a genetic scientist she is proud of her Irish heritage and especially that it has allowed both of her children, Tess (20) and Maxime (18 months older), to ski for Ireland.

Their talent, she insists, comes from their father Jean-Max – “French-Italian and a crazy ski maniac!” – who provides his own genetic twist.

“His uncle was actually a ski jumper in the Grenoble Olympics (1968) so now, every 50 years, there is an Arbez at the Olympics!” she quips.

Yet history and genetics are worth nothing if you’re not willing to put in the graft.

“I knew Tess was motivated when she was less than two years old. We put her on a cross-country slope first and she just went down and said ‘more, more!’ every single time even though it was cold and wet and horrible.

Tess Arbez with parents Jean-Max and Marguerite Arbez.

“She’s got the talent but that’s not enough at this level,” she acknowledges. “She has had set-backs, been kicked out of a few elite training groups and got back in again. She could have abandoned it a couple of times when they say ‘you’re not good enough for that race’ but she never gave up. Tess was always willing to work to do the extra mile.”

Skiing is the Alps’ version of the GAA, ultra-competitive and based on a vast network of clubs and regional development squads so parental intervention and dedication plays its part. From the age of 14 the Arbez children went to a secondary school near Chamonix that specialises in ski training.

“They have to be recommended by the local committee, the school has to take them on and they have less classes in Winter. They more or less had two afternoons off a week to go skiing and also raced after school every day, but in this programme your [academic] results must also be good to stay in it.

“The sporting culture in France is very competitive, very elitist, because the numbers in skiing are so huge,” Marguerite observes. “They test kids at 10 to 12 years of age.”

Tess now trains with a club in Brides Les Bains, below Meribel, and is funded largely by her family with support from the Olympic Council and Snowsport Ireland.

She was 29th in slalom at the World Junior Championships in 2016 and just outside the top 50, in a field of 125, at last year’s senior World Championships in San Moritz.

“I’m better in giant slalom but I try to do both. GS is more technical but you have to be even stronger for slalom,” Tess explains.

She also races downhill at speeds of 130km so how terrifying is that for her parents?

“Well it’s better than ski-jumping, that’s what they were both doing at one point,” Marguerite jokes. “Yes downhill is quite scary but they don’t go straight into it. There’s years of slalom training beforehand, it is very progressive.

“And Tess is a warrior,” she smiles. “She’s so brave. If she’d been scared she would have stopped right? It’s her choice in the end.”

Tess Arbez of Ireland: “I’m better in giant slalom but I try to do both. GS is more technical but you have to be even stronger for slalom.” Photograph by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Tess bagged the necessary Olympic qualifying points in South America last September which allowed her start in university but, after two months, she deferred her law studies to concentrate on Pyeongchang.

Marquerite feels competitive sport has been a massive asset to her daughter.

“I think strong is beautiful, it gives you power and independence and Tess has that. Sport has brought her to a very healthy place.

“So many things can go wrong between [ages] 12 to 18 but skiing has kept her fit and healthy in her mind and body – all the things you need in life to get on.

“Sometimes she’ll go up the hill at five in the morning and there’s too much wind and everything is cancelled and the day is ruined. It doesn’t go right all the time, that would be too easy! If she doesn’t get a good result she’s unhappy and that contaminates the mood in the house but you can live with that.

“As parents you have to trust her and put trust in others too like her coaches. She only turned 20 on December 1st and last winter came back from Chile all on her own. She already has experience that a lot of girls don’t have at 20. She is learning about the world and now she is going to the Olympics! We are so proud.”