The Warrior

 

Since I started out on my journey one immovable object has been looming on the horizon, something I had thus far managed to avoid for my entire life but that now I would have no other choice but to be embrace: Lycra.

 I have always been a fan of loose fitting clothing. But if I have to wear the stretchy stuff then I want it to be meaningful, after all I have spent thirty four years avoiding it like the plague. Finally now with a bespoke design complete and manufactured I could not have wished for more. A genuinely heartfelt thank you goes to Carrie Skeen who has created a work of art and also to Vist for producing it especially. Thank you. I am proud to wear it and tomorrow when I become the first Tongan to race at the Alpine Skiing World Championships I will carry with me over three thousand years of history and tradition.

 I’ll let Carrie explain the rest.

Ofa atu

Kasete

 Background

 The Kingdom of Tonga is steeped in cultural tradition, respect and ritual. The nation has a history of seafaring and war. The Tongans championed star navigation to effortlessly sail vast distances in their explorations of the largest expanses of water on the planet. They transported sufficient warriors in their double-ended Kalia war ships to conquer their neighbouring island countries – creating the most far-flung Polynesian Empire.

 

 As with the sea, tattooing has been a part of Pacific Island cultures since the first island communities arose. Various traditions tell of different ways in which tattooing was born or brought to each island. Other stories tell of cultural heroes and gods who propelled tattooing into spiritual and political realms. But most importantly, tattooing for islanders was a unique mark signifying their inherent role within the society that raised them.
The traditional Tongan word for tattooing or skin marking is made up of two words: ta – to strike, hit, or tap; and tatau – same, similar, symmetrical, balanced.

 Tatatau was a specific tradition that was both home-grown and influenced by other Pacific Island cultures. Tonga’s history is full of maritime voyages and intermarriages between island chiefdoms. Tattooing was an art that was heavily influenced by these maritime exchanges, most notably with Samoan tattooing.


 Tonga adapted the unique tradition of Samoa that elevated tattooing to one of the highest symbols of manhood and societal reciprocity. Most often, these tattoos were between the waist and the knees. The evolution of the tatatau and its resurgence has also evolved to take on a deeper spiritual and cultural meaning for Tongans. The revived tradition has become a vaka, or vehicle, for reviving the past. Individuals who wear the markings serve as reminders for Tongans to hold close to their cultural traditions in the rapidly changing world. Ta Vaka has been adopted as the journey of completing the traditional Tongan tatatau. As the vaka once carried Tongans to far off destinations and served as the medium for manhood explorations, so too does wearing a traditional Ta Vaka symbolize that ancient journey from the past to the present.

 THE WARRIOR DESIGN 

 The Warrior is based on the tradition of Tongan tatatau. It holds Kasete’s story; the journey he is currently taking, his country and culture and his family. The design represents a Tongan Warrior gifted with speed, agility, strength and flight. 


 The Warrior’s arms are wrapped in war clubs and elevated by the double wings of the manuula.


 His right shoulder carries his nation; the six-sided star containing the red cross. The Warrior carries his Kingdom with him, providing strength and inciting fear (sharks teeth) in his opponents. 

 On his left arm, the Warrior carries the support of this family; 3 wolves heads on 3 daggers, representing the bare-handed victories which provided the Skeen family with their name; the epitome of bravery and courage


 Across his back is ‘Lomipeau’; the legendary sailing canoe of the Tu’i Tonga.


 The Warrior has strong, bold legs; providing speed and agility, support (Fata’o Tu’i Tonga) and balance.


 Spearheads down the length of his body strike fear and deliver courage and strength. They also provide symmetry to the design.
The Warrior wears the Tongan national colours red and white and integrates the black of tatatau.

 Kasete is the Warrior. His markings are a reminder to hold his culture close. The design carries his support systems, and provides the vehicle by which he will journey from past to present in this challenge. The design calls to the fearsome Tongan warriors of his ancestry to be with him. To offer him their courage, their insights and their speed.

Carrie Skeen

© (30/12/2016)
 

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Camp as Kühtai

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So much has happened since my last post. I’ve traveled up and down Europe, staying in five different countries, skiing in three and changing accommodation seven times in just over a month. There are other significant events that I will write about later but for now finally I have settled in Pampeago, part of the Latemar ski resort in Val di Fiemme, Trentino, Italy. It’s a truly beautiful part of the world set amongst the limestone formations of the Dolomites. Bright blue bird days and near perfect piste conditions have thus far made for a stunning start to my stay.

Back in early December I departed Hintertux just as the season kicked into gear and made my way one hundred and fifteen kilometres to Kühtai to train for a week with Austrian Racing Camps. My journey had been weighed down quite literally by the eighty kilos of luggage I had endeavoured to carry across Austria, this despite Steve kindly driving down from Munich to relieve me another eighty kilos deemed surplus to requirements for my forthcoming travels. My connections were tight and if I was to make it to Kühtai without you incurring an expensive taxi ride I would need to make each one. Disaster! I had unwittingly boarded a local train. As it stopped at every provincial outpost between Jenbach and Innsbruck I calculated that I would not have time to walk from the platform to the bus terminus, laden as I was, and make it to the bus in time. I would head it off at the pass, the pass being Völs just two stops down the line. Out of the train I staggered and as much as I was able to run I ran. Down the stairs, under the tracks, up the stairs, out of the station, down the drive and to the bus stop. I checked the time table; three minutes to spare. I breathed a sigh of relief. There minutes passed. No bus. My experience of Austrian buses had been favourable, I waited expectedly. Ten minutes past; doubt began to take root. I stared hopefully down the dark and empty road. The next bus was due in an hour, it was minus six. Worse still the next bus did not go all the way terminating two stops shy of my destination. Two stops could I walk that? With my bags… two stops in city maybe but two stops along rural, mountainous roads? I phoned the local taxi company, the voice at the other end seemed interrupted presumably from his dinner, it was not as listed a taxi company but someone’s home. I resolved to get the bus. Wherever it ended I would find a way, hitch a lift, find a hotel, a strangers house for a nights shelter if need be. As we drove up a winding and climbing road the other passengers departed one by one until I was alone. I scoured my sat nav and trawled the internet in search of a solution but then nothing. I had entered a land of no mobile telephone signal. I sat staring into the onrushing darkness searching in vain for a clue. The bus stopped, the doors opened and an awkward pause ensued…. “Is this the end?” I nervously ventured. We were nowhere, in the dark, a bus stop in space and time yes but not a space and time shared by anything else. “This is the end” came the unsympathetic reply. I hauled my bags off, the doors closed behind me, remorselessly the bus departed and I was alone. Just along the road a clutch of farm buildings offered a morsel of hope. As I approached a figure appeared out of the gloom. Clad in overalls and carrying what appeared to be a bucket of feed the figure flung open a door and the pungent smell of livestock filled the air. “Excuse me! Errr I need to get to Haggen” I shouted.

“Haggen! Where are you staying?” He spoke English!

 I didn’t have an address. The name of the hamlet where supposedly I was to stay was all I had and without mobile signal it had been impossible to find out more “Errrr a hotel…”

 “Who are you staying with?” He shouted.

 “I’m not sure, a hotel in Haggen!” I shouted back.

 “There is nothing there… who are you staying with?”

 Nothing there! “I’m staying with Austria Racing Camps”

 “Austria Racing Home!… It’s here”. YES! 

 I couldn’t believe it. Armed with little more than the belief I would find a way blindly and fortuitously I had stumbled across my final destination.

 “You go down there take a left then a right and it’s fifty metres at the end. I would help you but I have to feed my sheep”

 I arrived elated, slightly cold and fully laden to a warm welcome from the house hosts and a hot dinner.

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Until now I had trained alone, a solitary skier sliding the slopes with only my thoughts for comfort and company. As I walked into the the dining room for breakfast I was greeted by Iker Gastaminza a talented skier from the Basque Country and Robert Pinsent a man with a mission not dissimilar to my own who’s goal is to represent Thailand in Pyeongchang.

 “The Three Musketeers!” Our host proclaimed with a hearty chuckle and so we were. To finally be able to share a bond of cameradery, to share frustrations and failings, jokes and jibes, came as a great release. Each morning we changed in what became affectionately known as The Palace Of Smells. Each day I watched as Iker eagerly consumed a whole pizza for lunch and each afternoon his performances improved. It was a strategy I knew would not work well for me. Later we were joined by Alexia Schnenkel a skier of great promise who also represents Thailand. Together we ate, slept and skied and the evenings scoffed peanuts… well mostly Iker who guarded them jealously. The rest of us made good with what we could steal.

 And so when the week finally came to an end we bade our farewells and vowed to meet again in Pyeongchang. Before me lay a three thousand kilometre journey up Europe stopping at Munich before finally making my way back to Åre the place where less than a year ago I had finally decided to embrace my dream to ski.

Hintertux Redux (Part 5: From Recreation To Racing)

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By the end of my time in Hintertux mild cabin fever had begun to set in. In between bursts of training with Hermann I had spent most of my time alone. Skiing along, eating alone… Skiing alone. What little human interaction I had was invariably centred around skiing and even this had mostly been with Hermann, luckily we get on well. Occasionally an exchange with a stranger across a frost bitten T bar would bring into focus my isolation yet also provide relief.

A brief episode of respite came when Vist invited me to their ski test at the Schnalstal Glacier in Trentino, Italy. Crossing the boarder felt like I’d been let out of a pen. As we stopped for coffee at a gas station deep in a fir lined Alpine cleft thick flakes of snow fell silently from the ski. We journeyed on and soon the valley was lined with vineyards. Through Bolzano and Merano, past the regimented orchards of South Tirol; as we arrived in Val Senales a storm swept in and took the glacier in it’s icy grasp. That night as the wind wailed at the windows of our hastily arranged accommodation I was warmly welcomed into the Vist family, at the head of the table Elmar Stimpfl played host and courteously held court. The next morning we ascended through the clouds up to the glacier to find massed ranks of racing gates and a plethora of skis to scan and enjoy. After a busy day of skiing, filming and interviewing we let loose one last time down a deserted piste to a cold and isolated rendezvous. As we stood alone with the mountains it felt as though we might never return. In the distance a piste groomer gently invaded the silence and upon it’s arrival the driver jettisoned a tow rope. We each took grasp and up we went as the sun settled into a pink purple sky. That night high on the glacier in a creaky wooden lodge that smelt of old pine and home cooking stories of skiing were shared and heartfelt sentiments declared. At noon the next day we made our way home and soon the orchards flickered past the window giving way to first to vineyards and then steep fir lined valleys.

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And so by the end of November I was ready to move on. I was now fitter and stronger, well adjusted to the varying pistes and snow conditions, my skiing had improved significantly and I had started training in Giant Slalom gates.

My first entry into the gates had been cautious, technically poor and slow. Most ski racers have been race training since they young children and have grown up sliding past the plastic poles at increasing speeds and with increasing ski lengths. For me the sudden demand to turn where I had to as opposed where I wanted to was a new and disorientating challenge. Bad habits I thought I had banished re-emerged, but with each run slowly I made progress. Getting into the gates had been a significant milestone, my first step into racing territory and an experience that I quickly wanted more of. With each run I built my confidence and as it grew so my enthusiasm followed. As a musician the act of repetitive practice is not unfamiliar to me and I get an immense sense of satisfaction from repetition and improvement, each scale and each run becoming smoother, faster, and increasingly internalised until it becomes an unthinking action.

Another milestone had been the purchase of my Atomic Redster racing boots. In the warmth and shelter of the Atomic Performance Centre the boots had been fitted, adjusted and tuned. Leo my technician had been sceptical about the stiffness and had suggested a slightly more supple flex. However I decided that buying the right boots for now might not be right for the future. Such has been the rate of my development it has been important to stay on the front foot, to think about the approaching hurdles whilst conquering the current challenges. After spending two hours making adjustments he suggested I skied with them and if I felt they needed further adjusting I should return. They were a size smaller than my old boots, they were tight but felt good. Out on the frozen piste the boots showed there true colour and it was a shock. The sub zero temperatures made the plastic even harder and now they gripped my ankles and feet like an iron maiden squeezing the blood out until all feeling had disappeared. In the forty minutes before I lost communication with my feet the sense of control had been startling, my skis were now an extension of my legs and feet with every slight movement transferred directly. My old Atomic Magna Hawks boots were soft and warm like a favourite pair of slippers which I had traded in for a vice intent on making me suffer for my ambition. The pain increased exponentially with time. A noticeable difference was how much harder I had to work to ski with them. My thighs fatigued faster and the onset of lactic acid swifter and more drastic. It’s fair to say the first days had not been amicable, we had not made friends, but every now and again there were signs of the power they had to offer. Hermann was not impressed. He thought I had bought boots that were too hard, my technique was regressing and I was struggling to stay in them for any meaningful length of time. I had returned from Atomic buoyed and excited but that eventually surrendered to feelings of despair and frustration and I hit my first genuine low point of my time in Austria. I would return to my slippers and with them slowly I began to work my way back to my previous form, rebuilding my confidence, strengthening my resolve and trust in myself.

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Because of my lack of experience any change in equipment is significant. At each step I have tried to change only one thing at a time so that I may better adjust and acclimatise. I began training with 165cm slalom skis, then 175cm, then 188cm. Then I changed my poles from 130cm recreational poles to 135cm carbon slalom poles. Armoured racing gloves followed. Each step took time to adjust. Even something as small as a 5cm difference in ski pole meant that where before my previous pole had just cleared the snow now they were catching and accordingly I would have to hold my hands to suit. As the skis lengthened and the turning radii grew so I would need to amplify my movement to bring them to heel. After a month and a half on racing skis at Schnalstal I tested a pair of Vist Revolution skis. The baby of creator Quim Frigola they are a fun and unique carving ski that can turn on a cent if you get over the tips. Returning to a thirty metre radius ski afterwards I realised just how much work is involved in turning racing skis. They do not yield readily and must be bought to bear with no small effort. And then of course there were my boots.

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The Atomic Performance Centre is situated at their factory in Altenmarkt, Austria, a tricky place to get to if like me you don’t drive. I felt that my boots and I cold become great friends, we just had to work at it. I had planned spend a week in Kuhtai with Austrian Racing Camps and it was important that my boots and I resolved our differences before we attended. From Hintertux it’s only a hundred and fifty kilometres to Altenmarkt but by public transport it takes about half a day of travel one way. I set off before dawn knowing that ahead of me stretched a thirteen hour return journey. I watched the sunrise over Kufstein castle on my second train, the local service seemed to stop at every station, every station except Altenmarkt. At Radstadt I attempted with my very limited German to explain to the bus driver where I needed to go. He seemed disorientated and sceptical. Off we set, I studied my GPS in the hope I was headed in the right direction, I was the only person on the bus. Twenty minutes later we pulled into a stop. The driver shouted something in German, words to the effect of “This is as close as I go, you need to get off here, on the left is a driving school, go there, learn to drive, buy a car and you’ll be able to go where you want in the future”, or at least that’s what I imagined. Grateful I departed and walked off along a meandering and seemingly half finished road to complete the final leg of my journey.

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You look paler” Leo seemed bemused. I’d spent the best part of the intervening month shielded from the extremities of the glacier and it apparently showed. “So how do they feel” there was something reassuring about his slightly nasal Austrian intonation, like a benevolent professor who would make everything ok. I explained my predicament, as is characteristic of many Tongan’s my feet have a particularly thick bridge “Yeah it’s pretty huge” Leo offered, and so we set to work. Three hours we spent, working out ways of lowering my foot, moulding the boot, making a thinner custom tongue, anything we could do to claw back a few more millimetres of space for my typically Tongan proportions. Slowly and steadily we made progress. “I don’t think there’s much more I can do”, we’d exhausted all possible solutions, but the boots felt good, it felt like they understood me, perhaps we could be friends now?

I sat on the train back in a tired daze surrounded by commuters, the extra early start was taking it’s toll. Sometimes a day away from the slopes can feel like a day wasted but getting my boots right is of vital importance, their thin plastic construction is all that separates me from ski moving at a hundred kilometres per hour. We need to have a good and clear understanding.

Back I trudged up to my little apartment on the hill, arriving as I had left in the dark. Soon I would be leaving Haus Alpengruss and moving on. It’s difficult to describe the sense of wonderment and happiness I experienced in my two month residence. To wake up each morning with a view of the Alps was truly inspiring, a dramatic contrast from the bustle and bricks of London that highlighted just how far I’d come in such a short space of time. However all things come to an end and a new horizon beckoned in my quest to become Tonga’s first Olympic Alpine skier.

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Hintertux Redux (Part 4: Crash for Questions)

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My first twelve days with Hermann are intense. Ski, eat, sleep, ski, ski more. I make good progress successfully recalling what I had learnt in July and building upon that to improve my control and technical ability. “Plant the stick, cross your skis then vvvwhammm in with the hip and press the outside ski”. The energy, concentration and commitment required is high. Commitment being the key. Commitment to my turns, commitment to the challenge. Up at six for some pre breakfast exercises. Seven for protein and low GI carbs. I prepare my food for the day, high protein snacks, energy drinks, rehydration drinks, sandwiches, fruit. On the mountain at eight-thirty and then training breaking briefly for lunch. Home for five, shopping, cooking, eating, video analysis, sleeping, then start over. I’ve upped my calorie intake to match the demands of training for longer and training at altitude. The low GI carbs are important.

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Homework with Hermann

As the weather is fine Hermann and I press on, day after day, but it will not hold out. Bad weather is predicted for the end of our first training period but on the third day thick cloud descends. So thick I can barely see past the tips of my skis. I’m trying a new longer pair of skis, edging and carving to get a feel for their longer radius. My goggles have steamed up and despite attempts to clear them they keep on filling up again and again. When you have no reference points and the snow is smooth and soft and when all you can see is white it’s difficult to work out how fast you’re going. All of a sudden my ski tips cross and I work out exactly how fast I’m going when my face hits the floor. Pretty fast it turns out. My head is spinning and I realise I won’t be able to stand up immediately. I take my goggles and helmet off, there’s blood from somewhere. A passing instructor stops to help. He points out that the blood isn’t coming from my nose as I suspect but from an abrasion in my cheek caused by my goggles being compressed into my face at the point of impact. It’s not bleeding too badly, I put my helmet and goggles back on, the pressure from the goggles will help stem the blood flow. We ski down and finish the day early. Accidents happen. Injuries happen. This could be the first of many I tell myself, I have to be prepared to pick myself back up.

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Another unnerving experience came on day eight when I experienced an entirely different type of crash. We’d been going at it hard since Hermann had arrived but on this day something odd occurred. Hermann would ask me to do a particular exercise, say lifting my inside ski as I turned. I understood what to do but as I skied down I couldn’t turn the instruction into an action. I knew what to do, I knew how to do it but once I was in the turn all I could do was execute the turn in the usual manner unable to process the instruction I had just been given. My energy levels had hit zero. It wasn’t so much the physical exhaustion that surprised me as the mental. I couldn’t focus beyond the bare essentials. I was running in safety mode only able to do just enough to get from A to B. Back in London I had hit what I thought was zero a couple of times in the gym. Once I was able to push through and complete my workout and twice I had taken a break and had a snack. I had woken up that morning feeling good and fresh but as we ascended the mountain I could feel my energy levels plummeting. It wasn’t until I got out on to the piste that I realised just how far into the red I was running. It was alarming except I didn’t have the energy to be alarmed. A vacant feeling. We stopped soon after starting and in the car on the way back I could barely speak. Lying in bed for a day and a night I awoke the following morning feeling the physical exhaustion. It was a valuable lesson, if I was to take training seriously then I also needed to take rest seriously. It can be difficult balancing act.

Hintertux Redux (part 3: The Who)

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Since writing the last post my crowdfunding has past it’s target. The response and generosity from so many has been amazing and I’d like to thank all who have participated so far. Without your help I would quite literally not be whereI am now. It is the reason I am able to train and has given me a huge psychological boost that is driving me forward. Thank you.

October 17th

Are you sure you’re an intermediate skier?” Upon seeing my ski boots the bemused reaction of the technician at the rental shop provided a welcome confidence boost. I had asked for intermediate skis as I did not want to pay over the odds for a days skiing that was in effect a light warm up. As I limply debuted my limited German vocabulary he had articulately explained that he preferred English.

I don’t want to be in this fucking place” he a said with a laugh.

He said speaking English offered an escape from a circumstance he did not view favourably. I had dreamed of being here. He had dreamed of leaving. Although we shared a location we were not in the same place.

Danke” I said with a smile.

Thank you” he said with a laugh.

The exchange had been convivial and we parted jovially.

With skis in hand and Tirol Snowcard in pocket I set off. As I passed through the turnstile it felt like a new beginning. It feels like there have been so many beginnings on this journey. As I enter each new stage it feels as though I am starting again, reinventing, re-imagining, realising a new state of my existence. It’s almost bewildering. Disorientating. It’s entirely reasonable to become comfortable with who we imagine ourselves to be, set in our own self image, wrapped in familiarity. The thing is the act I’m attempting to realise is very far away from the comfort of what I’m familiar with. For example I am someone who identified intensely with the area I lived and grew up in, Notting Hill. The eclectic ethnic and cultural vibrance of the Notting Hill from the eighties and nineties has nurtured a generation moulded in it’s own image. Diverse, cultured, colourful, worldly, fun loving, confident, opinionated, hedonistic. So fused was my own sense of self identity with the area that leaving was almost unimaginable. But that rainy night in Surbiton has sparked into life a chain reaction. A series of events that at each stage questions my commitment and sense of self identity. Many of my familiar trappings are being shed and with each passing the question of what remains, who am I really, is asked again and again.

And so for the first time I entered the ski lift alone. I have been on lifts alone before but knowing that at some point I would meet up with Anna, or her Mother or Sister, at the top or later for lunch or whatever. This time it was different. I am not on holiday and there was no one waiting at the top. I would ski alone with the many children on their race camps, in their race suits, on their race skis. Another familiar facet of my previous existence would be shed and the question posed: who am I really?

Hintertux Redux (part 2: A golden ticket)

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I just like to say a quick shout out to everyone who has dontated and supported so far. My crowdfunding has reached 73% of the target and has been crucial in enabling me to be here in Austria and train. Thank you all. If you haven’t donated yet you can still do so at: www.pledgesports.org/projects/tongan-skier-on-the-road-to-pyeongchang-2018/

October 13th – 16th

It’s funny how anxiety can manifest itself. I have four days before Hermann arrives with which to settle in, acclimatise and prepare for my first two weeks of coaching. Scouring the internet I found a cheap apartment to rent for my stay in Austria. Now that I am here I am racked with doubt: Is it too far from the glacier? Is it too small? Will the bedrooms be ok? Does the wifi work?

As I settle down I come to realise that a lot of my concerns are transferences of my greater anxiety about finally starting training. I didn’t realise I felt nervous. Perhaps now that I’ve had a couple of days to take stock it’s finally hit me.

Sunday we make a rest day, too many teams, too many people…” Hermann’s words rang in my ears as I sat on the bus up to the glacier. It was Sunday. Alone the winding road upwards felt daunting. I had travelled this road before with excitement now commitment pressed upon me as I ascended. Arriving at the lift station the scene was awash with brightly coloured snow seekers thudding around in helmets and boots, skis slung over one shoulder. Hermann was right, there were too many teams, too many people. Still I was determined to get a day or two skiing before he arrived to settle my nerves and prepare myself for the coming weeks.

First I had to buy a lift pass. This was milestone moment. Economies of scale had dictated the cheapest option to be a season ticket, the Tirol Snowcard. A golden ticket that would grant me unfettered access to arguably worlds richest skiing region for the entire winter and spring. This would be the second major purchase with the funds raised from my crowdfunding (the first purchase had been insureance, tricky if you are racing as it’s seen as a high risk activity) and it represents the most fundamental of my training requirements: access to the pistes.  For the next sixty days I would make those pistes my second home, others would come and go but each day I would be there, plugging away on my quest. To put the significance of this into context the time I will spend at Hintertux training preseason will total more than the sum of all of of my previous days of skiing. As I approached the head of the queue anticipation gathered. At the kiosk window the woman in front presented her ID. Shit! I checked my pockets. I didn’t have my passport… In this part of the world the buses run at hourly intervals. By the time I waited, went back, waited again and came back more than half the day would be gone. A lesson learned. Still I have limited experience skiing in crowds and despite my commitment I was a little apprehensive. Tomorrow I shall return.

Hintertux Redux (part 1: The Answer)

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October 11th – 12th

Lying in bed the night before I leave thinking about the journey to come doesn’t seem real. It seems incomprehensible that I won’t be in my bed tomorrow night, that I won’t be somewhere familiar, that I won’t be with the people I love.

I’m pretty tired. For months now every day has been too short. Trying to keep up with work, the gym, my nutritional plan, the blog, social media, crowdfunding, preparations for winter, networking, interviews, trying to find time to see my friends and family… it’s been really hard. At times it’s been difficult to see beyond the rush of events. I’ve spent so much time planning and preparing, writing and talking about what I’m doing that I haven’t stopped to consider that I’m actually doing it.

I’ve spent months building up to this moment and yet as I step across the threshold into a new existence I have no idea of what to expect. If I let it worry me it’s terrifying but I’ve always been wary of expectations. There’s little wonder in expectation. Better to see the world anew than to see the world that one has expected, hoped or feared.

But here and now I have a moment for contemplation. Sitting in a pressurised cabin at 37,000 ft‎, travelling at 480mph, I’m speeding towards a surreal date with destiny that only ten months ago had been a lighthearted joke, a throwaway comment made in jest. That joke is now a serious reality, I have left my job and my home in London to start a new life in Austria. In four days time I will be joined by my coach and begin training with the aim of becoming the Kingdom of Tonga’s first Olympic Alpine skier.

It’s like I’ve woken up and realised I’m completely insane… except I’m not… I’m completely sane. The real madness would have been to have left the call to adventure unanswered…

 

Jungle Gym

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Preface:

Before you get into the ramble below I’d just like to say thank you to all who have donated and shared my crowdfunding. Everyday it continues to grow and currently I’m at 54% of my target. I’ll be writing more in the coming days as I’m about to move out to Austria to begin training on snow finally. Without those donations it would have been very difficult for me to make that commitment. Now thanks to that support my pre season training costs are almost covered and one of the most crucial stages in this journey can begin. Thank you all sincerely. The next challenge is the remaining 46%. This will go towards competing in races where I will gain the FIS points I require to qualify for the Winter Olympics. So if you haven’t donated yet and would like to or if you want to badger your friends and colleagues there’s no time like the present 😉

https://www.pledgesports.org/projects/tongan-skier-on-the-road-to-pyeongchang-2018/

Jungle Gym

It’s fair to say that I was never really a fan of “the gym”. Physical exercise was ok, just not a priority. As a child I was a keen cyclist, I played Centre in a local American Football team. As a teenager I excelled as a swimmer and in shot put and of course the obligatory football even managing to turn out twice for the rag tag bunch of rebels and ragamuffins that made up my school team. But submitting myself to a badly lit, featureless, soulless room to self flagellate, a kind of self imposed purgatory, was never something that appealed to me.

When I write these blogs I’m usually going about my daily business scribbling away on my phone as and when inspiration hits me. Right now I’m on the way to my gym. I just got of the tube at Queensway, it’s hot down here, I’ve just finished work and I’m faced with the choice of cramped and crowded lift or the 123 stairs out of this airless sweat hole. My previous incarnation would have chosen the lift most days but I’m on my way to the gym a place where I have paid for the privilege to enter and exert myself. If I can’t expend the ten calories it will take to climb these stairs then what good is paying twenty-six pounds a month for a dedicated training facility. The stairs it is then. I’ve been going to the gym four to six days a week for the past three months. In that time the stairs have become shorter and quickly I’m almost at the top. I am at the top! I’m a slightly short of breath… feels ok… not the red faced wheezing bag of meat‎ and bones that previously hobbled out the station gasping for air.

As I exit the station a familiar physique appears from the lift. It’s Thigh Guy, a man with the kind of ultra fit, ultra ripped form that speed skaters covet.‎ Very well developed quadriceps. He doesn’t seem to do much to maintain his powerful pistons but what he does do must be effective. Quietly impressive, unassuming, tastefully attired in black gym wear with a grey leather backpack and ever-present wireless headphones; known and respected amongst the upper echelons in the gym but not flashy or flamboyant. He’s one of the regular characters at my gym.

Another regular enters the gym just ahead of me: Hand Solo. I only ever see this dude on the rowing‎ machine using it single handed, always his right hand. As I walk in behind him I try to see if his right arm is more developed than his left… maybe… difficult to say. He’s one of the gym enigmas; why just the one hand? Why only the rowing machine?

As I enter the locker room another familiar face is at the mirror. Mac I call him, like the character from the film Predator he’s defined by the moment I saw him shaving. Every day he shaves meticulously despite the fact he never seems to have any facial hair worth shaving off. Square set and stout he has an especially rhythmic way of pumping his shoulder presses and bicep curls. I’m convinced he’s a Prince fan.

By now I’m sat writing this in the locker room and so unavoidably the subject of nakedness has reared it’s head. Specifically the guy getting changed in my face. I’m envious of his unabashed willingness to expose the locker room to the the clothes he was born with, that he is clearly entirely comfortable with sharing his unhindered visage with any other in such a way. I’m not that comfortable with his ‎visage. Not this close. My problem I guess. Time to shower.

Out in the gym an ever-present is there, the gym bum. He appears to spend his entire day at the gym. Whatever time I go there, morning, noon or night there he is. He’s not especially ripped, he’s not grimacing and gurning to lift unfathomably heavy weights. Nor does he set the tread mills on fire. He knows a few of the other regulars but never really socialises. He speaks to strangers now and then. He’s just always here. Everyday. Doing… not that much. Does he work? Does he have a family or job? Who knows.

Then there’s a woman who I think of as the Queen Mother of the gym. She comes everyday. She knows everyone who’s anyone and everyone knows her. She’s undoubtedly fit for he age yet she never really does anything that causes her to break a sweat. She’s often seen holding court with her subjects and ladies in waiting. I think she’s Greek. There’s sizeable local Greek community. The boys from Olympic Food are in, the news agent across the road where they have an unrivaled selection of protein powders. Their heavily developed triangular torsos make light work of even the heaviest loads on offer. They snake from station to station around the gym. One of them is clearly more ripped, more dedicated, more….. GRRRRRR than the others. He does an extra set as the others look on.

Today I’ve opted for a lighter session. I’m on a run of about fifteen days straight. Usually I have at least one day off a week but you see this gym thing has kind of become addictive. Even on my last couple of rest days I’ve popped in for a quick session on the bike and ball. And so today after two three hour sessions on consecutive days I decide to take it a little easier. I’m gonna start with a twenty minute interval session on the bike. I usually save this for later as apparently one should do endurance after strength but I enjoy the bike, it’s a nice way to settle down and see who’s around.

The Bro Squad are in, whooping and hollering they monopolise any section of the gym they happen to be in. Boisterously they encourage and cajole each other happy to draw attention to themselves. They are some of the heavier lifters here. As I rest in between sets on the sit-up bench I can see they’ve taken the both squat racks and are impressively and loudly going about their routine.

I go about my business pretty quietly. I put my headphones on and by and large focus on my own little part of the world. I’m not as ripped as the big guys, I don’t lift the high numbers, but I can’t be distracted or intimidated by them. I have my own goal, my own program and my own targets as do many others. I guess from the outside I’m the Ball Guy. The dude who precariously balances on a Swiss ball every day, taking up too much space in the mat area and who occasionally and worryingly falls off. There have been more than a few times now when an unceremonious demounting has drawn a concerned/horrified look from a near by stretcher as they see my not inconsiderable frame descending towards them. Thankfully I’ve never actually landed on anyone. Not yet.

At around about six thirty the class crowd come in, twenty maybe, mostly women, they’re here for the post work Pump class, or Box Fit, or Spinning, or step or Zumba they sweep through the gym and into the studio. They have a specific goal and the classes are their means. For others the gym is a place to hang out, maybe catch up with friends. For some it’s a lifestyle, an integral part of who they see themselves to be and indeed who they are. There are those who like me have a specific sporting target but I guess it also became a place escape the pressures of the world outside. A place where not only could I focus on my goal to compete but also take stock of my personal situation, reflect and contemplate. I never thought I’d really enjoy or appreciate it in that way but having that facility became almost as important as the physical training.

At some point this Olympic escapade will all be over and people have asked if I will continue with the eating and training regimes when that happens. I can tell you now that when that day comes I’ll be enjoying a few more Yorkshire puddings than I am currently but maybe, just maybe, I might just find myself stood at a squat rack thinking it all though before my next set and my next adventure.

 

Post Script:

The photo at the top was taken at recent session with Mike Fishlock and Thomas Jones who along with Maria Jones, Charlotta Emanuelsson and my girlfriend Anna Nordstrom convinced me to take the idea of skiing for Tonga seriously in the first place. If you haven’t already you can read about it here. Suffice to say if it all ends badly it’s their fault….

Crowdfunding: Join The Family

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It’s been two weeks since I opened my crowdfunding campaign. The response from so many has been heart warming. Many old friends and family members I have not spoken to for years have been in touch and donated and of course new friends, colleagues and also patrons from Opera Holland Park. Many more have been sharing and spreading the word, helping me drum up support and I’m already at almost at half of my target so if you haven’t donated yet don’t be shy, there’s still a way to go. The money raised from the campaign will be crucial and will go towards my pre-season training and my first competitions. So it really will be critical to making the whole thing happen.

The picture above is the draft design for the t-shirts and hoodies. I sketched out the original idea using traditional patterns from Tongan Ngatu or tapa cloth, an incredible fabric that is made from the bark of the Paper mulberry tree, beaten out by hand, laminated and painted with symbolic patterns. The process is one from a pre-industrialised age, all done by hand by woman. Perhaps it is apt then that I owe a debt of thanks to my mother for helping to scale up the design. In Tonga to this day the sound of bark being beaten out can be heard in and amongst the villages. At home we’ve always had tapa so it was something I grew up with. When looking for inspiration for the t-shirt designs the evocative and symbolic patterns were the natural choice. I chose the palm in the centre as it’s a design that is close to my heart; my father, siblings and nephew all have this as a tattoo and those who support me will also be part of the family. Lining the palm is the Fata ‘o Tu’i Tonga motif – referring to the house of the king, in particular, the central beam. Representative of the sennit bindings which holds the support of the central beam, supporting the thatched roof. It’s a symbol of strength. Next is the Holo Paini motif representing the Norfolk Pines that line the street to the Royal Palace. Representing the royal patronage of the ski team it was originally the late King’s dream to have a ski team. They’re also reminiscent of the conifers that are found in the mountainous regions where we ski. Beyond these a pattern called Amoamokofe – meaning to rub with a bamboo stick. This design is from Vava’u the northern most group of islands from where my family originate and from which I have formed four mountains representing the strength and steadfastness of my family upon which my dreams are built, the mountains upon which I ski and the four corners of the globe I will travel to make this dream a reality.

 

If you’d like to know more about Tongan Ngatu click here.

And better still if you would like to donate go to:

https://www.pledgesports.org/projects/tongan-skier-on-the-road-to-pyeongchang-2018/

Tux Delux (Part 2): A New Beginning

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The peak of a mountain is always a daunting place‎, surrounded by views beyond the horizon below the white abyss awaits. It’s even worse when you’re surrounded by teenagers in high tech racing gear accompanied by pumped up coaches themselves former athletes for whom daily race training is simply a way of life that began when they themselves were children. And so it was on the Hintertux glacier, surrounded on all sides by teams, kids, coaches and camps. It was incredible to see the dedication and endeavor of so many and to know that somewhere in this picture was me.

Like a child on their first day at a new school I arrived in a brand new uniform provided by our kit sponsors Vist and Bolle. Unlike a new school it wasn’t the bigger kids that intimidated me but the smaller ones. Still if I was to let that that bother me there’d be no point in coming in the first place.

“Sliiiiiiide, edge, UP! Sliiiiiiiiiiiiide, edge, UP!”

Hermann’s voice trickled off down the mountain. It was my turn now… and so began three days of drills, tests and exercises on a baron snowy mountain top overlooking the lush and sweltering valley below. In breaks I gulped down water cut with hydration tablets, and force fed myself sachets of acrid hydrolyzed whey protein “to aid muscle growth and recovery”. Each day laden with sweat sitting in the sun over looking the sorry sight of the rescinding glacier I ate a healthy hearty lunch of Alpine fare as if I’d not seen food.

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“At the end of a day of training you sometimes I like to take a beer…”

Hermann’s words were casually tossed into the descending gondola along with our skis, poles, bags and boots.

“And for you also a beer?”

Asked‎ the matter of fact waitress of the nearest wooden clad Austrian bar.

“No he will have a mineral water”

Hermann’s interjection was ‎as abrupt as it was instantaneous. I don’t drink beer anyway but a G&T would have gone down a treat.

The next day we sat outside the bar.

“Perhaps a single whiskey” I ventured.

“It’s very strong” came the response from Hermann’s bottom lip.

“And for you a beer also?” Asked the matter of fact waitress.

“No he will have a mineral water” Hermann’s assertion ‎was final.

“After you finish training each day you should have a cold shower. It’s very important to help the muscles relax and recover. I did this also with the Italian national team”.

After my daily mineral water off I hopped to the hotel room for a bracing two minutes ice cold shower…

“At six o’clock we will make some training, stretching, exercises, see you then”.

Outside the hotel I waited in my training top and shorts‎ like someone who’d turned up to a funeral in fancy dress. It was hot and Hermann was not to be seen, I waited.

“Okay!”

Out sprung Hermann in designer jeans, Architects spectacles and blue suede loafers‎…

“So what do you normally do when you train?”

I replied “Weights, stretches, exercise bike, lunges, squats… I don’t really like jogging…”

“Well I have to find a bank so you will train, make some stretches, nothing too hard, to relax the muscles and then you will go for a jog, one hour, then dinner” And with that parting blow he left.

I hate jogging. I’d gladly cycle fifty kilometres before I ran a single one. But as Hermann commanded so I obeyed. At the end of the hotel a gravel path invitingly inclined. If I jog up for a while I reasoned then when I’m tired I can jog down. Up I went. And up. And up. And up and up and up. By the time got to the second up of the previous sentence I’d already stopped jogging. Seven hundred metres into my one hour jog and my lungs had reminded me just exactly why I hate jogging so much. I settled for a brisk hike with jogging interspersed, I wasn’t acclimatised to the altitude… Or the jogging. The gradient grew steeper and the road rockier and still higher it went. Surely there must be a path down at some point. There wasn’t. There was however an incredible mountain path, through grasses then fields, flowers and hedges, over looking the majestic valley. Up still it rose into conifer woods, the sound of rushing water now getting louder and louder until it was deafening. Then in a rocky opening a waterfall of pristine blue glacial water cascaded over rocks and boulders, though stone pools and hidden chutes. Along side sat steep stone steps that perilously plunged down the precipice. A way down!

 

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On the forth day‎ we arrived at the base station early. Hermann scowled and tsked. Before us the eager throng jostled for places in the next lift and the next and so on. Hermann stood back, his displeasure writ in large. We’d arrived early to meet film maker Iona Fulton who’d been commissioned to take some shots for my (immanent) crowdfunding campaign. At nine thirty, piste number 9, Hermann and I waited as arranged. No Iona. Never mind we took the opportunity to get a few more runs in. Back again at ten there was still no sign, worse no mobile phone reception. Perhaps there had been an issue. We resolved to ski down to the mid-station and check. Nothing. Back up we went. As we traversed the glacier, amongst the teams and schools in their brightly coloured training suits, a denim clad, beanie topped ‎figure, camera in hand could be seen shredding the gnar in the distance.

“Oh my God I found you!” anxiety had finally given way to relief.

And so we began with the national teams of Latvia, Lithuania and the Ukraine looking on in bemusement as the least impressive skier on the mountain got the most attention complete with backwards skiing stunt camera woman. The sun was out, the snow was good and we made hay. Run after run in the brilliant sun; it was a day to leave it all on the mountain, it was a day without regrets.

Back at the bottom I made a pre-emptive strike “I’ll have a mineral water please”. As we sat in the sun tired and satisfied from memorable days skiing a disconcerting feeling returned.

There’s something odd about this place” I mused.

There’s one road in and one road out and at the end of the road that’s it…

…like this is the place where life ends…”

Ha!” Hermann hollered.

This! Is where life begins”.