Photo Credit: Sungod
Ahead of the winter snow season, which kicks off imminently, a host of Britain’s top snow sport athletes are back in the UK for the Telegraph Ski and Snowboard Show at London’s Battersea Park (it runs until this Sunday 29 October – get your tickets here). I grabbed a chat with show regular, freestyle skier, halfpipe boss and 2018 Olympic medal hopeful, Rowan Cheshire.
With the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang just months away in February, it’s nearly four years since Rowan Cheshire took a serious fall while preparing in Sochi for the 2014 Olympics, days before she was due to compete. Suffering three serious concussions in succession over two seasons put an end to Rowan’s Olympic dream and wrote off the best part of two years of competitions.
Now recovered and with the 2018 Olympics firmly in her sights, I chat with the 22-year-old about her recovery, training and upcoming freestyle ski season.
Let’s rewind – how did you get into freestyle skiing?
My dad was into skiing when he was younger. He used to go on school ski trips and away with scouts and with my uncle. We live really close to the Stoke Ski Centre anyway and used to drive past it all the time. My brother, Harry, had asked to go one time when my mum and sister were busy. Dad ended up taking all of us because Harry really enjoyed it, and he wanted to go on family holidays. So he took us down to the ski centre every week for lessons. And we worked our way through classes.
How did you go from skiing lessons to freestyle and the Salomon grom camps?
We saw all the big kids doing freestyle at the Stoke Ski Centre and they ran a few freestyle camps so we started going there. It’s a very, very small community, freestyle skiing. Not a lot of people do it, so you tend to know everyone and all the things that are going on. The guy at the ski centre knew about grom camps and knew my [now] coach, Pat, so he was like, why don’t you tag along? Anyone can go to these grom camps; it’s for any level, any age. You just have to sign up. So I started going to those and we went every single week and then we started doing national comps like the British comps. It was just a hobby really, just something we really enjoyed that we did every single week! [Laughs]
At what point did you realise this could be your career?
I’m not entirely sure. I’m a very competitive person, and it’s quite a competitive environment [skiing], but it was always a hobby, something we enjoyed. And you always think, ahh it might turn into something, because there was the X-Games. But never the [idea of the] Olympics. I never really had that in my head. It was just something that I really enjoyed and I spent all my time doing. I think that when I started winning a few of the British comps and my coach, Pat, was always telling my dad ‘She’s got this talent, she’s really good’, I thought perhaps it could be in my future.
Was it freestyle skiing you got into straight away?
Yeah, I never really got into the racing, it was always freestyle. I kind of liked the adrenaline and the fear factor and how cool it looked. When I saw people doing it, I was like: That’s so cool! I want to be cool! Obviously, once you’ve tried it you kind of get that rush and it’s just such fun. There aren’t really any rules; you just play around and have a laugh. I don’t think it’s as serious as other sports, so you can always have a laugh with the people you’re with. I’ve made such good friends through it.
Fast-forward to Sochi and falling on your head in training. Can you remember anything about it?
No, not really. I vaguely remember the daytime but my crash was at night time, so I don’t really remember that much. I get quite confused because I’ve seen videos from that day, and bits that people have told me, so it’s quite hard to know what’s my imagination and what’s my memory.
Photo Credit: Ilanna Emily
How long did it take you to recover from it, physically?
Oh god, physically it didn’t take too long – about five months before I was back on skis again. But I’ve had concussion since then, three [bad concussions] in the space of two years after the Olympics. Those ones were quite hard. The physical side of things, when you get back to feeling more normal, comes relatively quickly. But it’s the mental side of things that’s quite hard to recover from.
How did the falls affect you, mentally?
It did really affect my confidence. The concussions I had were quite bad ones, but the last two [head injuries] were only really taps to my head – so I had that fear that I only had to tap my head a little bit [with a fall] and it would send me really loopy. So that was a big fear. After that, it was just building up my confidence to know that I can fall and not really hurt myself massively. It took a little time to build that up. It was baby steps, basically.
Was it fear of hurting yourself or of another concussion?
It was the fear knowing that I would hate to have to go through another concussion and the whole mental and emotional side of that. It’s a really tough thing to recover from. It’s very mentally taxing, so going through that again… I really would not like that.
Is it correct that you took up gymnastics to help build your confidence back up?
Yeah, my psychologist wanted me to start doing bits of gymnastics. So, doing tricks that I would do on skis, on the trampoline. Little bits on the floor. Just general gymnastics as well to try and get my spatial awareness back and build my confidence about being able to flip around and do these things without hurting myself. It massively helped. After brain and head injuries your spatial awareness is off, and spatial awareness is very important in our sport. So it helped massively that when I got back on snow. I felt like I was ‘with it’.
Presumably, the gymnastics helped your freestyle skills at the same time?
Yeah, 100%. Even though you’re not doing the same tricks, and it’s obviously not the same on the trampoline, you still get that muscle memory. Your body gets used to throwing that movement and the rotation of what to do, and when it goes wrong what to do to fix it. It does definitely help doing gymnastics, trampolining and even floor work.
You had around two years away from competing following your accident?
I had the first bad concussion in the February , came back for the summer, ended up hurting my head again in September/October  and then it was a whole year off, then the next year I had another concussion. After that one, I took six months off, if not longer, because it really affected me. Even though it wasn’t such a bad crash, it was like ‘Shit, that’s not very nice.’
When I got back into it, it was less about competing and more just to stick my toe into the water and see how my head was going to react.
How did you find your return to skiing?
Very intimidating. It was quite scary to get all those feelings back, because I hadn’t done it properly since the Olympics [Sochi 2014]. And seeing the whole set-up brought back some anxiety. It built up, the anxiety side of it, just seeing the set-up. I had loads of tips from my psychologist to try and get over that which really worked. One was ‘practise makes perfect’, and the more I was put in that [skiing] environment, the better I became at dealing with it.
Did your psychologist gives you plenty of strategies to help your anxiety?
Yeah. I think a lot of time with anxiety you don’t help yourself – you kind of make it a little bit worse in your head, so it’s just telling yourself that you’re ok and it’s not as bad a situation as you think it is. Keep telling yourself it’s actually alright and it’s normal to get anxious or upset. That worked wonders and was a really good tactic.
So you had your first competition back – and came fourth!
Yeah, the 2016/17 season, that was when I was back competing fully and obviously had to try and do well [laughs] for all the qualifiers. I got a 4th place and felt good about that – it set the season off to a nice tone.
What’s your favourite freestyle skiing trick?
I think it’s a 450 but really big, with a tail-grab in it. Yeah, a really stylish 450 with a tail-grab.
When you were starting out freestyle skiing, did you find any tricks challenging?
When everything’s new, you have to get used to it all, but I found rails quite tricky – going sideways onto the rails, the finishes and stuff. I was very scared of rails [laughs].
Photo Credit: Tommy Pyatt
What is it about the halfpipe you enjoy so much?
I think it’s because it flows together really nicely: you have to land a trick and go straight into the next one. You have to make it flowy and pretty and look nice. And there’s not that much time to think once you’re in there – when you set off, you’re in the zone and it’s very, very quick. You can be terrified about doing a certain move that’s part of your run when you’re at the top, but as soon as you set off you just get in the zone and it’s very flowy and fast. It’s just my thing [smiles].
You’re heading to Austria soon. What’s a typical training day on snow look like for you?
It’s normally early mornings, so we’ll probably get up around 6am and try to get to the lift around 7.30/8am. It depends on the day and the weather but it’s always early mornings – when the weather is best, the snow tends to be fresh and the halfpipe tends to be untouched, intact and not slushy. We’ll have a warm-up and get the day on the road, then we’re normally back at the house at 2pm. So that’s when we’ll have lunch and go to the gym or have a gymnastics session, something like that. We’ll have free time and chill time in the evening.
Who do you live with when you’re away?
When we’re away we stay with the halfpipe team – so that’s usually Murray [Buchan], Pete [Speight], Molly [Summerhayes], sometimes Maddi [Rowlands], and we’ll have the whole team and coach there.
You’re a big gym fan on Instagram. What kind of gym work do you do?
Yeah, I love health and fitness. I really enjoy it. I do quite a bit of mobility work, strength training and a little bit of endurance as well. Strength definitely helps with skiing – obviously the stronger you are, the more you’ll be able to take the impact of landings. If they go a bit wrong you’re more likely to be able to pull it back together, but as well, I do enjoy it. I like being strong.
We have specific things we do that are going to benefit skiing, like squats, deadlifts, various types of lunges and single leg strength work as well. And a lot of glute activation exercises as well as mobility work, box jumps, plyometrics and stuff. Strength training 100% helps with skiing.
What do you do before an event?
I’m a big fan of having music. I listen to more calming music, and talk to myself. Things like: ‘You’ve got this’.
The Winter Olympics is just round the corner. How are you feeling about it?
I’m very excited. I qualified – I’ve got the results I need, so I just need to keep in the top bracket of athletes which I’m well in at the minute. It’s quite nerve-wracking to think I messed up last time [at Sochi by crashing in training] – I have to pull it together this time. It’s nerve-wracking because obviously I don’t want the same thing to happen again. It’s a dangerous sport and injuries do happen, so it’s about trying to stay fit and healthy in the run up to it.
Do you feel under pressure from yourself to perform after having to miss Sochi last time?
Definitely. I try and stamp it out a bit and keep it chill, but obviously it’s such a big competition and a big opportunity – everyone wants to do well, everyone wants to medal. It’s the dream, really, so you put a lot of pressure on yourself because this is what you’ve been working towards for the past four years. I’ve been through a lot, so it’s like: I’ve made it, let’s try and pull it together now!
I’m very excited.
What are your favourite pieces of kit for training and competing?
I’ve got a Superdry jacket which is really cool – their new jackets have got all the pockets so they fit loads of my stuff in really nicely. They’re really cool. Fitness-wise, I have these thick resistance bands I take away with me called Thera-bands. I always take those with me because they’re just awesome – you can do so many exercises with them. They’re really good for travelling, so if you’re in a hotel and it doesn’t have a gym, or you’re on a plane even, they’re really useful pieces of equipment. You could put them in your pocket, they’re so tiny.
Who are you sponsored by at the moment?
Rossignol skis and boots, Superdry clothing, so that’s skiwear and gymwear, Extreme Sports Channel – they’ve partnered with Black & Decker, the power tool company – and Sungod Eyewear.
Where are your favourite places in the world to ski?
I really love Whistler in Canada and Wanaka in New Zealand – we go every year, it’s a really great place. It’s cool.
Do you get to ski with your family?
No… if we were to go away on an organised family holiday, I really don’t think I’d want to go skiing. I’d go to the beach! Otherwise, it’s like going on holiday for my job!
What’s next for you – where are you once the season kicks off?
In two weeks’ time, I go to Austria. Now the season’s kicked off, we don’t have time to stay in places for months at a time, so we’ll go to Austria for two weeks, come home for three days, go to America for 2 or 3 weeks, then come back for Christmas. Then we’ll follow the competition circuit after that. Then obviously the Olympics is in February, so it will just be January competitions before that. It’s scary just saying my plans out loud and how quickly it will fly by!
You’re at the Ski and Snowboard show this week. Why’s great about it?
I think it’s a really great place to find new brands – brands you might not have heard of, whether it’s ski holiday or snowboard brands, or clothing. You find really quirky things there that you wouldn’t necessarily find otherwise. I’ve been for the past three years. Even if you’re not the biggest ski fan, there are loads of stalls where you can find out about new places to go, there’s clothing stands that are really cool. And obviously you can watch everyone do the demos. I’m not doing any demos, just be doing interviews and having a nosy around. There’s loads of fun things going on.
Photo Credit: Tommy Pyatt
You can follow Rowan’s Olympic journey via her social media feed: www.facebook.com/rowan.cheshire, www.twitter.com/rowancheshire and www.instagram.com/rowancheshire . You can also visit Rowan’s website at www.rowancheshire.com.
The Telegraph Ski and Snowboard Show runs until Sunday 29 October at Battersea Park, London. www.skiandsnowboard.co.uk