Armed Forces Para-Snowsport Team – 2020 Season

Brigadier Andy Cox MBE, Chief Executive Officer, AFPST

Supporting the recovery of our wounded, injured and sick military personnel and veterans through the restorative power of competitive Snowsports

We help serving military personnel and veterans recover both mentally and physically through challenge and competition on snow. From beginners joining our Foundation Team to Winter Paralympic hopefuls, we offer opportunities for all.

This season has been a year of contrasts, challenges and superb achievements. Strategically, our relationship with GB Snowsport is maturing, with a growing pipeline of potential competitors for the Paralympic Games in 2022 and beyond. Our long-term partnership with Leonardo continues to flourish and I am delighted to report that our Spirit of Challenge fundraising efforts proved both a financial and spiritual triumph. Operationally we have expanded our offer to include telemarking, while we have seen unprecedented interest in our broad Foundation programme. We have experienced great success in all three disciplines in a variety of military competitions, as well as those hosted in the USA and on the world stage.

Unfortunately, Covid19 did curtail the final months of our season. I am humbled by the professional, safe and efficient way staff and athletes responded to the challenge of returning home from across Europe. Since lockdown, we have embraced a virtual programme of exciting new ways to keep the flame alive and remain utterly committed to our mission.

Finally, may I thank those who continue to make this endeavour possible; the athletes, the coaches, the management team and every single supporter, sponsor and donor. 

Brigadier Andy Cox MBE, CEO AFPST 

Competition 

Competition is key to what we do. 

We are an independent service charity. Our experienced team of volunteers provide adaptive snowsport instruction to those with a physical or psychological condition, where measurable success can be achieved in a competitive sporting environment. We offer three core disciplines; Snowboarding, Alpine and Nordic skiing. Although primarily focused upon providing inexperienced team members with drive and purpose, we also create the opportunity for aspiring athletes to compete on the world stage. 

This season, all three of our disciplines have continued to flourish in equal measure. The exemplary training, provided by our team of dedicated volunteers has led to some inspirational sporting moments at a competitive level. Our thanks go out to all those involved with making this happen. We couldn’t do it without you. 

Earlier in the season, a number of our beneficiaries took part in the largest adaptive ski competition in America. Ski Spectacular in Colorado hosted over 800 athletes in one enormous collaborative camp, enabling our athletes to connect to US adaptive athletes whilst enjoying the incredible facilities and events.  This trip was partially supported by Leonardo’s charity cycle event and was a chance for all three disciplines of the AFPST to train collectively.  

We also sent our Nordic and Snowboard teams to the first ever European Winter Para-Sports Competition. Our athletes, who represented both AFPST and Great Britain, came away with a whole plethora of medals and some personal bests.  

Due to the coronavirus outbreak our season was cut unexpectedly short. Despite the obvious setbacks, we managed to get everyone home safely and are now exploring new ways to stay connected to our beneficiaries. 

In order to ensure we do not lose sight of our pioneering mind-set we have conducted our first ever trial of adaptive telemarking.  This particular snow sport could be both challenging and rewarding for our athletes, so it is something we would very much like to consider for the future. Watch this space! 

Discipline Overview 

Together we can make a difference 

The Alpine Crew 

Our Alpine Team, led by Major Nikki Jordan has continued to push boundaries and provide new and exciting opportunities for all those involved.  

Our Foundation Team 

The annual Newcomer event was a great success again this year, acting as the perfect spring board for a number of prospective athletes who later took full advantage of our UK based, indoor training facilities. Then followed a week-long training camp in Landgraaf, Holland run by our talented instructors Mick Jordan, Neil Graham and Matt Woodcock. It heralded a great start to the season for our Foundation team although a further camp scheduled for May unfortunately had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.   

The Performance Team 

Four of our Alpine performance team members attended the Inter-Service Championships in Meribel in February 2020 which involved a challenging set of courses, set up on a World Cup piste. Three of our athletes took part in the formidable Downhill race, where speeds were recorded in excess of 105km/h. Kevin Drake went on to produce some outstanding results across all four disciplines, earning him the award of best adaptive racer at the prize giving ceremony.  

In November, a new member of the Alpine race team, Steve Whitehead, was classified by the IPC and began racing on the World Para-Alpine Skiing (WPAS) circuit, where he joined our Performance Team.  This is an extremely competitive environment. It requires a high level of commitment, technical skill and training to progress through from WPAS, to Europa Cup (EC) and eventually World Cup (WC) level. Our athletes have shown enormous resilience and potential for World Championship qualification in 2021 and Paralympic selection in 2022. Our highlights of success include: 

  • World Cup debuts for Alex Slegg and Dan Sheen 
  • 7 gold and 2 silver medals secured at the British Para-Alpine Ski Championships  
  • Europa Cup overall 2019/20 season bronze medal for Shona Brownlee 
  • An incredible 137 slalom points scored in only his second season racing for Dan Sheen 
  • Four of our Alpine beneficiaries attended the annual Disability Snowsports USA Ski Spectacular event in Breckenridge, Colorado where they received expert tuition and the opportunity to compete alongside US adaptive athletes.    
  • Our Alpine performance team joined the GB Para-Alpine team on two training camps and four races after the GB Snowsport announcement to make AFPST their official partners.      

AFPST Snowboarding  

Under the leadership of John Connelly, AFPST Snowboarding is maturing at pace, with continued investment in the technical and racing ability of our coaches and athletes. Collaboration and relationship building with other third sector groups has also proved invaluable to the development of the team. This season we have continued to energize and qualify our athletes for coaching and management positions within AFPST Snowboarding. Our inclusion into the World Snowboarding Federation has facilitated an introduction to entry level international competition, whilst working with other adaptive national winter sports groups. 

Riders Smash Their Personal Bests  

It has been a diverse and rewarding year for AFPST Snowboarding. We’ve successfully broken new ground with a joint Mental Health First Aid Course, a Ski Board Technician Course, BASI Adaptive 1 and BASI 2 Coaching Course; the latter both attended and successfully passed by Darren Swift – the first amputee to do so. We continue to push the boundaries of VI Snowboarding racing and coaching. Ben Shaw a podium winner in Poland set the international standard for his performance, tenacity and cutting-edge coaching techniques. Owen Picks continues to be an inspirational international figure with his success on the world circuit, ranking first in the World for the 2019/20 season. Additionally, our exposure on Ski Sunday, with Darren Swift and Olympic Gold medalist Jenny Jones has helped established numerous social media connections that we continue to utilize.  

Our international standing continues to grow 

We have some fantastic news – AFPST Snowboarding has been accepted into the World Snowboard Federation Banked Slalom Events for the 2020/21 season. We hope to enter 6 events with those performance riders who are not already competing with GB Snowsport. We’ve also been invited to compete in the International Military Sports Council events. This amazing opportunity broadens the scope of our athletic engagement and international influence.  

The jewel in the crown of our international engagement last year was the Hartford Ski Spectacular that enabled our athletes to train and compete with the DS USA WARFIGHTERS in Breckenridge. Continued access to the North American DS USA program and its technological insights in prosthetics promises to act as a performance accelerator for the future.

Entry to the World Stage 

Snowboarding is still at the early stages of development within the AFPST competition and delivery model. This year has seen a step change and acceleration in the potential for successful outcomes in the competitive and recovery domains. The 2020/21 season has much to offer despite the continued disruption of COVID019. We have developed mature international relationships and our reputation for world class and cutting-edge training techniques has positioned us on the world stage. The future looks bright.  

The Nordic Team 

Major Elizabeth Winfield (Retired) and her team of dedicated instructors have helped to deliver yet another action-packed year for our Nordic Team. Following the New Comers Event, we launched into the Nordic season with a new cohort of beneficiaries’ keen to embrace the challenges ahead. They were joined by existing athletes who were ready to build on solid foundations built in previous years. 

The Headline News: 

We are now officially recognized as the Adaptive Nordic Pathway for Great Britain  

Our British Nordic Team are now fully integrated under the GB Snowsport National Governing Body who continue to work in partnership with the Armed Forces Para Snowsport Team (AFPST). 

Norway and the First World Cup of the Season 

Whilst some of the Nordic team joined other athletes from AFPST to train and compete in the United States, our GB Team headed to Norway to attend their first World Cup event of the season. This corresponded with many of our new athletes attending a training camp just north of the event, where they came to grips with the sport. A few of our athletes even got to take part in an International Rookie Race on a World Cup circuit – a fantastic opportunity! 

A Marathon Fundraiser 

A team of Nordic athletes ventured to Norway to face not one but two grueling ski marathons. The team showed tremendous grit and determination, facing down difficult snow conditions and some challenging terrain, particularly in the last 70km race.  

Success at the RLC Championships 

The RLC Championships proved the perfect opportunity for the Nordic Team to immerse themselves in the familiar military culture of camaraderie and competition. The chance to compete against service personnel on an equal playing field broke down boundaries, ignited the spirit of competition and gave focus and direction to their recovery journeys. For many of our athletes, it was the highlight of their season, thanks to all of the RLC Staff and competitors who welcomed and supported them throughout their stay.

Special mention must go to Steve Hughes who completed part 1 of an epic challenge. With the support of the Team, he completed a 100km ski at the RLC Ski Championships. Steve Hughes 100km Ski_Youtube 

ATHLETE TESTIMONIALS  

Darren Edwards – Former Army Reservist – Para Nordic Athlete 

Sometimes, just one chance event can turn your world upside down. For Darren Edwards, it was a climbing accident in August 2016 that proved a pivotal moment in his life.  

How has physical and emotional challenge helped re-define who you are? 

‘Attached to the Rifles, I joined the Army Reserve in 2013 and have always been drawn to the great outdoors. Aside from the army, there was nothing I loved more than climbing and mountaineering; they were true passions of mine.   

I was scaling a mountain in North Wales when a piece of rock broke away and took me with it. Fortunately, I was caught on a ledge by my climbing partner. Although lucky to survive, it left me with a spinal injury. I broke my back at chest level and so began five-months of hospitalisation, involving a gruelling process of intensive care and rehabilitation, at the end of which I was ready to begin my ‘new normal’. As part of my recovery it became blatantly clear that I needed to find new challenges and alternative passions to replace those I had lost. For me, both Nordic skiing with AFPST and kayaking with the Kayak 4 Heroes team have become fundamental elements to my physical and emotional healing process. These new sports have enabled me to re-discover who I am; to find ways of expressing myself and to reconnect to the person I was before the accident’.   

When did you first hear about AFPST? 

‘In 2019, I started training with the Paralympic kayaking team in Nottingham, where I was introduced via a friend, to Liz Winfield and the concept of AFPST. Not long after, I got to experience the sheer joy of Nordic skiing. It was during a week-long trip to Norway with the Nordic crew that I met the future Kayak 4 Heroes team and formulated our plan to paddle the length of Britain for charity. Being back amongst the mountains and snow felt like I’d come home, that I’d travelled full circle. I now feel I’m in a healthy place, both physically and emotionally and find myself looking forward to what the future holds’.  

Tell us about Kayak 4 Heroes 

‘We are four ex-servicemen who met on an AFPST Nordic adventure in Norway. Our mission; to kayak the 1,400 kilometres of gruelling water between Land’s End and John O’Groats. Our aim – to be the world’s first adaptive team to complete the challenge and to raise over £100,000 for charity’.

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This adventure is scheduled for July 2021; we are also looking to beat the current record held for completing the journey of 35 days.

Former SAS Who Dares Wins DS, Ollie Ollerton who is also the founder of Battle Ready 360, has donated his time to host a goal setting speaker day and training session to our Kayak 4 Heroes team. A journey close to Ollie’s heart, as a member of the Special Boat Service (SBS) and canoes being widely used in his own selection process, this challenge resonates with Ollie on a very personal level.

Ollie says,

“I want to assist these men with their healing journey by helping them to unlock new potentials with their physical and mental health. I think my no-nonsense, yet empathetic approach will contribute greatly towards the mentoring of these brave individuals.”

From pushing through pain tolerances to rewire their attitude towards their disabilities, to forcing them to challenge and push themselves further than ever before, Ollie’s involvement will work towards the teams healing and recovery process.

Inspired by a small selection of ‘lifeline’ kit that the special forces would take when conducting operations in an old ammunition liner, Ollie has donated a key piece of training kit, the Battle Box, to each of team member to ensure training facilities at home.

Moreover, he will also be taking part in a length of course in a bid to show his support for the campaign and motivate the team mid-way through the challenge.

Rehabilitation through exploration 

‘Physical challenge, whether on the snow or in a kayak is helping to paint a true reflection of who I am. I’ve always been over ambitions and have a tendency to set goals above and beyond what would normally be deemed possible to achieve. Kayak 4 Heroes is a product of that drive. It’s a challenge that seems insurmountable right now, but knowing that we’ve got a process to fall back on is all we need. I’ve focused on bringing on board the right people, the right team to collectively achieve our goal. My team mates have their own stories to tell; their own personal journeys to follow. We have different strengths and weaknesses and hopefully they complement each other. I guess we will find out in 2021’! 

To donate to Kayak 4 Heroes who are supporting AFPST text K4H(Amount) to 70085

Senior Aircraftman Shona Brownlee – Para Alpine Athlete  

As a serving member of the Armed Forces, SAC Shona Brownlee is a musician, currently posted with the Central Band of the RAF. Having served for eight years, she has only recently been able to join her fellow band members on parade.  

Where it all began…. 

‘Eight years ago, I sustained a leg injury during basic training. It was only my ninth week in the RAF and I’d barely begun my career before the accident happened. What initially appeared to be a simple ligament sprain developed into a complicated, painful condition that failed to heal. Seven years later, I found myself still reliant on crutches with no hope of recovery. Surgery hadn’t worked and I had exhausted all treatment options. Instead I opted for an elective, below the knee amputation. Removing my damaged leg has transformed my life for the better, both professionally and personally.’ 

How did you first learn about AFPST? 

‘Five years ago, during a Battleback expedition, I had my first experience in a sit ski and loved it. I was introduced to a member of AFPST who invited me to take part in their annual Newcomers Event. With the help of some talented instructors, I found my way around my sit ski and have felt my confidence grow year on year.’ 

How has surgery changed things? 

‘I have my life back. It sounds like a cliché, but I’m able to do things again. Simple things. When I go home, I have three nieces who I can now interact freely with. For many years, hampered by crutches, I was unable to take them for a walk as I couldn’t hold their hands to safely cross the road. Now I can run and swim. I can do my job and join everyone else on parade. Losing my leg has been truly liberating.  

The way I access the slopes hasn’t changed since my operation. I still use a sit ski for racing, although I do want to learn to ski recreationally standing up. It would be great to be able to head out onto the slopes without the logistical challenges of the rig and all the associated equipment. I find not having my leg has changed my weight distribution and balance in the sit ski, which is something I’m getting used to’.

How has AFPST helped you in your recovery?  

‘AFPST continues to have an enormous impact on my recovery. Having a goal to focus on has made a huge difference to my morale. Prior to the charity’s involvement, I was forever being told I couldn’t do things. The AFPST has proved I can.   

From a social perspective, being part of a team who understand my situation is a breath of fresh air. In work, I felt defined and restricted by my injury and at times, excluded because of it. The AFPST enable me to get out and ski. It’s a place where I’m not excluded and told I can’t. It’s an organisation that does not define me by my injury. We all have a recovery journey to navigate. We do it together and celebrate when we achieve along the way’.  

What are your aims and ambitions moving forward?  

‘It would be wonderful to complete a season of racing. To get to the Paralympics would be an ultimate aim but more importantly, I want to enjoy the journey’.  

Sally Orange – Para Nordic Athlete

My battle with chronic anxiety and severe depression   

Hidden wounds can be just as debilitating as those more visible signs of trauma. For Sally Orange, severe depression and chronic anxiety are two afflictions she has to confront on a daily basis. A former physiotherapy officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Sally was medically retired out of her role after a steady decline in her mental health.    

‘I served in a Field Hospital in Afghanistan, where I just wanted to do the best I could for my patients. Problem is, I never felt like I was doing a good enough job. I kept driving myself forward, with higher and higher expectations for myself that simply weren’t possible to achieve. In medicine, you can’t always fix things, yet I found accepting my limitations very difficult to live with.   

The accumulative effect of caring too much was one of a number of factors that started to impact my mental health.  I became a physiotherapist because I wanted to help others. It turns out I was so busy caring for other people that I failed to look after myself. After almost 22 years of service, I still felt there was so much more I should have achieved; that in some way I had failed. I felt lost and without purpose and didn’t know who or what I had become. To be honest, I’m still struggling with working that one out. Small, everyday things can become so overwhelming. I’m having to learn to manage by breaking even the simplest of activities down into small, bite sized chunks’.   

How competitive sport has changed my life  

‘Sport is a fantastic outlet for me because it is multi-faceted and requires a disciplined approach. Being part of AFPST means I’m surrounded by like-minded people, all of whom are focused upon the same aim. Training with a sense of purpose enables me to focus my mind on something positive rather than all those things I can’t control. I find that the solitude of Nordic skiing is a form of mindfulness which allows me to be present and just be. In those tree-lined Nordic routes I find peace and solitude. 

The greatest thing about Nordic skiing is the discipline it requires. You need routine, focus and determination to complete the course. It has helped me appreciate that I am so much more than I give myself credit for and that I’m capable of far more than I ever thought possible.   

For me, anxiety is brought about by people and the fear of upsetting or offending others. Physical danger is strangely not a catalyst. I have undergone a number of extreme challenges over recent years. In fact, I’ve run 60 marathons to date, most of them for charity, dressed as various pieces of fruit. As a tri-athlete, I’ve taken part in 8 full Iron distance triathlons, completed a team channel swim and ridden a bike across the United States.   

By far the most challenging event to date was a transformative trip to arctic Norway where I skied 250 kms across a frozen plateau with six other women in fourteen days, whilst pulling a sled in temperatures as low as -40. Camping was an extreme experience that required significant discipline. We had to focus on the little things and work as a team in order to survive’.   

When did you first learn about the AFPST?  

‘In 2016, I took part in the Marathon Des Sables, a multi stage ultra-marathon held in the Sahara Desert. I met Andy Cox and his team from the Army Training Regiment, who were running to raise money for the AFPST. We got talking about the charity. Initially I thought I wouldn’t qualify because I didn’t display a physical injury. Admitting I suffer with depression was an enormous step for me, something I only went public about last year. I felt ashamed to be asking for help or to talk about my struggles. My fears were groundless. I was welcomed with open arms by AFPST and joined the Newcomers Event in Milton Keynes eighteen months ago. Shortly afterwards, I took part in my first Nordic ski marathon in Finland, having also dipped my toe into an Alpine ski camp.   

There are many things I’ve learnt about myself, including the fact that I love to push my physical endurance to its limits. It’s not that I’m competitive, I just want to try and achieve my personal best. The training camps are friendly and relaxed, with no pressure to perform. The atmosphere makes me want to try. My next goal is to help mentor a Nordic expedition in Norway, where I can inspire other AFPST athletes to complete their own personal challenge on the snow’.