Paralympic silver medallist and Downhill World Champion, Millie Knight, began losing her sight when she was a year old following an eye infection. As her vision deteriorated she discovered skiing and fell in love with the sport, quickly graduating to world class downhill and giant slalom ski events.
Millie, who skies with her guide, Brett Wild, is a two-time Paralympian and most recently took two silver medals and a bronze at the Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang. A hugely inspiring young woman, Millie chats about her training, juggling uni with athlete life, and how she’s still working to overcome fear and anxiety following a serious 70mph crash in training.
Where did your skiing journey begin and how old were you?
I was six and my mother thought I would enjoy skiing so we went to Meribel. I was put into ski school without telling them I was visually impaired, just in case they refused to teach me. I had a great instructor who made it fun – that was it, I was hooked!
Do you remember whether losing your sight affected your enjoyment of skiing or learning?
My visual impairment has never stopped me doing anything or bothered me. I was always encouraged to do anything I wanted to do, just like other children. That first ski trip cemented a true passion for the sport. I loved the feeling of speed and a certain amount of control. I would follow the instructor as if he was my guide. I’m not even sure I realised that I couldn’t see, nobody talked about it much – I just got on with it and adored skiing and the snow and the cold.
Meeting Paralympian Sean Rose when you were 11 changed your life. Was he a source of inspiration?
I met Sean in 2010, at the Ski Show in London. We chatted about how I could get to do a little racing. I was 11-years-old and had now been skiing for a few years – I wanted to do more and Sean talked us through the possibilities. He had just returned from the 2010 games in Vancouver, so I was hanging on his every word. Two years later, I was accepted onto the GB development squad. He is an amazing inspiration, our paths still cross quite often.
But there have been many inspirational people who have kept me going and encouraged me along the way. My mum, for one; none of it would be possible if it wasn’t for her. Brett Wild is my fabulous guide, he has a lot to put-up [with] especially when I am having doubts about a course or if I’m having an off day.
Was there a point in your skiing where you realised you were good enough for world class competition?
Yes, when I was about 11-years-old. I’m not sure I am so confident nowadays.
You found out you made the Sochi Paralympic team with only 6 weeks to go. Can you remember where you were when you found out?
It was the day of my 15th birthday, January 15th 2014 – it was raining. I got a telephone call during a geography lesson, so had to wait to the end of the lesson to return the call. It really was a complete surprise. My mum was waiting outside my study at school, as she’d heard the news earlier in the day. She had a T-shirt for me, saying #RoadtoSochi, that she had got printed that day. Things went crazy from then on. I was so excited; I was going to the Games, with no pressure to win, just to get the experience. I missed most of that term at school but King’s School Canterbury were amazing. I was so lucky to be given this opportunity at such an early stage in my race career.
You race with a guide, Brett Wild. Can you explain how this works?
Brett is in the Royal Navy and has been released to ski with me for the next four years, working towards Beijing 2022. He is the best guide I have ever had. He has a long history of ski racing and is a good racer in his own right. I have had many guides in the past, but he is by far the best – he’s a keeper! I have a lot of trust in him and know he will get me down a race course in a good time, safely and he will make me laugh. It’s a difficult job, it’s not just about being a good skier – that’s not enough, you have to be intelligent, patient and a great communicator. The job doesn’t just end at the bottom of the slope either. He has to guide me around after training and keep me safe, and he has to make sure I don’t accidentally put sauerkraut on my plate at the hotel buffet – yuk! I am lucky to have found him.
We ski close together, depending on which discipline we are training or racing. The downhill, for instance, is faster and straighter, so we ski a lot further apart than the slalom which is full of turns and faster commands so we are about two metres apart. We communicate with Sena Bluetooth headsets in our helmets and Brett shouts commands at me all down the course and I will confirm that I have heard him. It’s taken a long time to sort out our codes of communication and we are learning more all the time.
What is the limit of your vision – is there a range you can see in terms of distance?
My vision is pretty rubbish. I have scarring on both my retinas. I have no central vision, and a little peripheral sight in each eye. I can’t see much when I’m skiing as everything is moving. What sight I do have, is clearer when I’m stationary.
What do you love about downhill and slalom skiing?
I used to love the speed and living on the edge, but I’m definitely more cautious since I had a bad crash last year.
It was a pretty serious crash at 70mph – has it affected how you feel about competing?
The last 18 months have been so difficult, to be honest. It took me six months to get back on snow after the crash and during this time I also had to do my A-levels. We then followed the bad weather all through the season. World Cups were cancelled and training days were snowed off. It was the worst season to rehab back and the worst build-up to the Paralympic Games that I could possibly have had – it was a nightmare! I needed training and some confidence-building but it was not happening. I was actually amazed to be selected for the Paralympics GB Team. I’d had really poor results all season and was not skiing confidently at all. My confidence was super-low going into the Games. I was actually frightened and very anxious.
That first race in Pyeongchang was awful. I stood in the start gate not wanting to point my skis down the mountain that I had crashed on the year before. Luckily, something inside me took over and I took a deep breath and launched myself after Brett – we won a silver medal. That silver felt like a gold. It was the hardest medal I have ever fought for. I had overcome fear, albeit temporarily.
We’re approaching the winter season. What does a typical week of winter training look like?
The training never really stops, we train on snow throughout the summer too and obviously we have a strict fitness regime. When we’re home, Brett and I are lucky to be able to train together every day in the gym at the Scottish Institute of Sport. These are pretty tough sessions. We also ski at the Glasgow Snowfactor once a week with Mike Crawford our UK coach. Otherwise we will train in Europe wherever our lead coach, John Clark, thinks the snow is best.
What kind of work do you do in the gym?
Brett and I are so lucky to be part of the Scottish Institute of Sport. Their expertise on fitness is second to none. We have four strength sessions a week for about 2 hours at 7am, before I start my Uni lectures, and two conditioning sessions on Tuesday and Thursday. It’s pretty much the same when we’re training in Europe.
You’re currently studying psychology. How is university life, and is it easy to fit your training in alongside your studies?
It’s definitely not that easy to be a fulltime student and a fulltime athlete at the same time. Although, I’m lucky that the Scottish Institute of Sport is located at Stirling University. Every bit of spare time is spent catching up with lectures and seminars. I always seem to be one step behind but I am enjoying my course.
Do you get nervous before big competitions?
I never used to get nervous but after my crash and as I get older, I definitely have fear. But I’m a very determined person and seem to be able to push out the start gate and get down the race course. Music is my go-to relaxer. I’ll listen to music right up to the moment I move up to the start gate – I love the Script and The Kooks.
Do you have any pre-ski rituals that you always do before you start a run?
I will always listen to ‘The Hall of Fame’ by the Script. Otherwise, I am too focused to think about superstitions.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
My boots and skis are the most important part of ski racing. I use Head skis and boots as these are the best, without a doubt.
Are you sponsored by anyone at the moment?
I am lucky with my sponsors. UK Sport provide our biggest funding, closely followed by Get Kids Going who have sponsored me for many years. I have lots of local sponsors from the Canterbury area as well as some good kit sponsorship for skis, helmets goggles… etc. We are always happy to chat with anyone who might be interested in sponsorship, especially in the build up to the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics.
What’s on the horizon for you this winter?
This winter is the second biggest event in the Para alpine ski calendar. We have the World Championships in January 2019 in Slovenia and Italy. There will be three speed events in Italy and two Technical races in Slovenia. We will be training on snow from the end of November, right through to the event, which ends on the 2nd February. I will then have a loads of uni work to catch up with. Other than this event there are numerous World Cup events around Europe. We will be training were the snow is, so are a little nomadic during this time.
Millie is proud to be supported by Get Kids Going! a national charity which gives disabled children and young people the opportunity of participating in sport. www.getkidsgoing.com.