Ever since she had the opportunity to hold Steve Redgrave’s gold Olympic medal, Menna Fitzpatrick wanted one of her own. “What would winning gold mean?” she was once asked in interview. “Everything,” she said, without pausing for a second.
Before she’d even reached her 21st birthday, Menna realised her ambition at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics. Her trophy cabinet is heaving with two silver and one bronze medal from the same Winter Paralympics, plus a host of other awards from the World Cup and the World Championships - and yet Menna has only 5% vision.
Menna was born with congenital retinal folds. She has no vision in her left eye and limited sight in her right. However, her parents raised her alongside her sighted sisters without many concessions and then, at the age of 5, took Menna on a family ski holiday. She learned to ski by following closely behind her dad - heading off-piste, into powder snow, the works!
Menna was spotted at Chill Factore in 2010 and started regular training with the British Para Snowsport team.
Jen is a serving Officer in the Royal Engineers. She is fully supported by the Army to train as a full-time athlete and guide for Menna.
Jen's long-standing love of skiing began when her family moved to Switzerland when she was 9. She started her ski racing career at the Royal Engineer Ski Championships in 2010, aged 26. She was spotted as a potential sighted guide while racing for the Army ski team. She and Menna hit it off immediately; Jen says they’re like sisters but without the fighting!
Originally rejected by the Royal Navy for being too short-sighted, Jen is vocal about not allowing her vision, or anything else, to hold her back. She has sailed competitively, completed a tour of Afghanistan and won medals galore for her country. Following the success of the 2018 PyeongChang Paralympics, Jen is passionate about sharing her story with others to inspire them to achieve their dreams.
Visually Impaired Skiing Explained
Ever been skiing in low cloud with a blizzard swirling around you?
At best, finding your way is pretty difficult; at worst, it’s so disorientating that your senses play tricks on you - you can’t tell if you’re still moving and distant sounds can seem very close. And if you can imagine that, you have some idea of what it’s like to ski as a visually impaired (VI) skier.
Sound terrifying? It is. VI athletes ski with a guide wearing bright clothing slightly in front, communicating at every turn via bluetooth headsets; these skiers need to change direction every 1 to 3 seconds and travel at speeds of up to 100km/h!
Menna and Jen use a specific set of commands to communicate, and Jen is responsible for communicating the direction of travel, changes in terrain, light and snow conditions and the rhythm of the course. Plus, she has to set the correct pace to enable Menna to ski as fast as she can and give her instructions to speed up, slow down or keep at the same speed. It isn’t overstating things to say that the VI athlete’s life is in the hands of their guide.
So yes, it’s terrifying, and the stakes are high, but the potential rewards - the exhilaration, the sheer thrill of travelling downhill at speed, the medals - are worth it. Well, we think so, anyway!