“I never stopped believing; I never stopped trying.” – Dave Ryding
All elite athletes make huge sacrifices to get to the top of their game. Whether it’s having to leave home and loved ones at a young age to be able to access the best coaches and training, or simply having to miss out on social events and parties because training comes first, there’s no way to the top without dedication and commitment to doing whatever it takes for as long as it takes.
The athletes taking part in the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics all have backstories of tough times alongside their triumphs, but the story of Britain’s Dave Ryding is one that demonstrates the resilience and grit it takes to keep pushing through the inevitable challenges every athlete will face on their journey to realising dreams and achieving a best performance.
The Boy from Bretherton
Dave Ryding grew up in Bretherton, Lancashire, and first skied at the age of six when his dad took him and his younger sister to a local dry ski slope at Pendle. His dad was a keen skier and he convinced the pair that they should learn on the promise that if they mastered the basics well enough, they’d all go on a family skiing holiday to the Alps. The “bribe” paid off and the trip to the Alps became an annual event.
However, training on snow was not something Dave would experience until the age of 14. As a youngster, he continued to hone his skills on the dry slope at Pendle, taking part in his first race at the age of eight. There was nothing outstanding about his performance in those early years, but he clearly had a passion for the sport and always put in a best effort.
When he was 13, he was selected for the English Schools Team. Of course, living in Britain where mountains are few and having snow on them never guaranteed, the potential for turning a promising hobby into a career was slim. Being selected for the team gave him the opportunity to travel to the Alps and ski on snow more frequently, but this still meant just a few weeks each season – a stark contrast to youngsters from nations dominating the sport who learned to ski on (guaranteed) snow at the same time as learning to walk!
Before his retirement, Austrian skier Marcel Hirscher was Dave’s main rival on the slopes for many years. In a nod to Dave’s physical and mental toughness, he has said,
“In Austria as athletes we have everything here. We have a team, we have a federation, we have ski clubs, and we have normal snow. We have perfect conditions and you can ski everywhere. What he showed us is really emotional…For us it is normal to go skiing and it’s not hard to find snow. To ski on dry slopes is really hard. I mean really!”
Physical and Mental Challenges
In January 2022, Dave took gold in the alpine skiing World Cup to become Great Britain’s first ever winner. This is a phenomenal achievement, made even more remarkable by the fact that he is now 35 years old with three Winter Olympics under his belt (Beijing is his fourth), yet a World Cup win had always eluded him. That’s a long time to maintain the drive and the motivation needed to succeed.
“You know, I’m 35 now, but I never stopped believing, I never stopped trying, and to bring the first victory for Great Britain in a World Cup… I mean, I don’t know if dreams are made better. There’s life in the old dog yet.”
Not having access to snow in the same way as his rivals undoubtedly made Dave a relatively late starter to the sport, but the challenges he has faced over his career have not all been physical. For fans of the sport, Dave’s physical talent as a skier has never been in doubt, but there have at times been questions raised over his mental ability to make it to the top of his game. On many occasions, Dave has put in an outstanding first run performance only to lose his strong position on the board with a missed gate, a stumble, or a fall on his second run. In winning gold at the World Cup, it was not only performing at his physical best when it mattered most, but also his mental best to overcome all that had gone before.
Dave believes that mentality is a crucial element of getting to the top, and also staying there. He says,
“I have to make sure I take care of the things I can control, that’s the most important thing for me. I always say the easiest season I ever had was the season where I had my first podium. Everything was going right, I was always looking forward, never looking behind. That’s how sport is, once you’re there, you’re the one who’s targeted. Even if you’re just in the top 15, someone wants that start number because it makes a big difference. I’ve learned how to deal with that and hopefully I can turn it into a positive emotion on the day because when you’re attacking, you produce better skiing than when you’re defending.”
As he took to the slopes in Beijing, his fourth Winter Olympics, Dave is the oldest member of Team GB, but he’s still pushing himself physically and mentally to achieve more. He says,
“Coming to the top later means my motivation is still right up there. In my 20s, I didn’t go out partying. I’ve always done my training and I think that does pay off in later life. I’m doing better numbers in the gym and running than I’ve ever done. I get the odd joke about being the old guy, don’t get me wrong, but I enjoy that as well!”
Keep Believing – and Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes
Dave’s beginnings in his sport may have been unconventional compared to other skiing nations, but they didn’t prevent him from becoming one of the world’s top 20 slalom skiers at what may have been considered the relatively late age of 28. His determination to succeed is a great example for any young racer to follow, and his achievements despite the challenges he faced provide a source of inspiration and motivation for the next generation of skiers growing up in Britain.
His advice to those following in his footsteps is:
“You need to be mentally strong enough to fly down the course in front of you to the best of your ability, but also have the confidence to take some risks. When I first started skiing on the World Cup circuit I didn’t always believe in myself enough. But racing a lot on the dry slopes of Britain when I was younger taught me a huge amount about dealing with those competitive situations. My advice to anyone struggling with committing to speed would be to remember that it’s all in the name of fun, and don’t be scared to make mistakes.”
Don MacNaughton Is a High Performance Coach working in Pro Sports and Business Leadership over the last 20 years. Email donald@zonedinperformance for details of individual coaching programmes