From international DJ to Alpine skier – Benjamin Alexander's unique Olympic journey
Benjamin Alexander spoke exclusively to Olympics.com about his unique journey, which he hopes will result in him being the first Alpine skier for Jamaica at an Olympic Winter Games come Beijing 2022, which starts 4 February.
There’s only one person in the world who knows what it’s like to go from uber-successful globe-trotting DJ to Alpine skier with Olympic Winter Games potential, and that’s Benjamin Alexander.
The 38-year-old Brit, who is of Jamaican heritage, only started skiing six years ago but has planned in precise detail how he can potentially qualify for Beijing 2022, which begins 4 February, to become Jamaica’s first Alpine skier. Somewhat surprisingly his nomadic DJ lifestyle aids him in his quest. Furthermore, you’ll never guess who’s mentoring him? Only Dudley Stokes, one of the Jamaican bobsledders of Cool Runnings' fame.
But we’ll get to all that. First, we need to start at the beginning.
Born in Northamptonshire in central England, Alexander comes from a working-class background. “My mother, my father and my brother have spent the most part of their working career either in factories or driving. None of the three of them finished high school with any decent GCSEs or O-levels,” he tells Olympics.com in an exclusive interview in mid-November ahead of the season start.
Alexander was a troublemaker at school until it was recognised that he was a gifted child. A UK government initiative at that time enabled him to receive a scholarship to a private school where he flourished academically and also kept him away from the trouble his friends were getting into such as stealing cars.
Fully aware that his life could have easily gone the other way, Alexander is cognisant of the fact he still could have taken the wrong path after he took up DJing in 2000. He ended up playing in nightclubs that were “incredibly violent at the time” he says. The turning point came in 2002, when Alexander was queuing to get into a London nightclub and someone was shot and killed.
“I just thought to myself that is absolute stupidity. By day, I'm going to basically be at MIT – I went to the Imperial College of Science, Technology, Medicine to study physics – so by day, I'm doing this, and by night, I'm hanging out with people that are trying to kill each other and I gave up music almost instantly at that moment.”
Early DJ beginnings
Years later he was in a well-paid finance job in Asia living the party life. His DJing came to the fore again after he took to the decks at parties in Hong Kong attended by influential nightclub owners who began to ask him to play at their clubs. Soon enough, Alexander recognised he could eek out a living from DJing and dropped the office job, his employers sending him off with an ‘if DJing doesn’t work out you can always come back’.
Initially Alexander was, at times, struggling to make ends meet. But he eventually began to make the big bucks and live the party life, which included a six-year a residency in Ibiza.
“It would not be uncommon to wake up at 10pm to go and have a dinner and you know, the Spaniards love to eat late, so go and have a dinner at 11.30pm, walk into a nightclub at 2am or 3am and leave the nightclub at 11am and go to an after-party and maybe get back home at 6pm or something like that. And then think about catching a couple of hours sleep and then waking up at 10pm again.”
It was on a trip to Canada in 2015 that Alexander’s interest in skiing was sparked. Invited on a Christmas heli-skiing trip with a party of 30, the then 32-year-old had no intention of going skiing. He was enjoying the beauty of the mountains for the first time – usually he’d head to warmer climes – and he was there to DJ, to party. But following a long lunch, as Alexander and the other ‘house cats’ headed back to the chalet, the more athletic souls strapped on their skis and slid off down the mountain.
“They were almost like superheroes putting on these skis and snowboards and just disappearing at the end of lunch,” says Alexander now. Then and there he decided next time he came back he was going to join them.
A few months later he was in Whistler and took the opportunity to take ski lessons. Falling down time after time, he nevertheless enjoyed the process of improving. Two years later and he was back on the trip as a skier.
In 2018, Alexander was in Asia, his interest in DJing waning. He’d never been to an Olympic Games before, and could well imagine the vibe would be similar to DJing, so headed to PyeongChang 2018.
There was no plan to see if the Olympics would be his next calling. He just took in events such as curling, lower-profile ice hockey matches and freestyle skiing, he didn’t even get to see any Alpine skiing.
“Realising that there were only three Jamaican athletes was definitely part of the seed that was beginning to form in that year,” he says. On the two-hour drive back to his friend’s house they watched Cool Runnings, the motion-picture telling of the story of the Jamaican bobsleigh team from the Calgary 1988 Games, and the seed started to take root.
"Terrible" but fearless
In January 2019, Alexander met former Europa Cup skier, Gordon Gray, telling the American about his wild idea and asking what he thought. After watching him for half a day, Gray said Alexander’s technique was “terrible” but was amazed that – having skied for 25 days and having had two lessons – the novice was somehow managing to keep up with him. Technique you can teach, said Gray, fearlessness not so much.
From this, the Brit had the confidence to go forward with his idea. But his understanding that skiing was all about just going fast was quickly dispelled.
“I just thought ski racing was about going fast,” says Alexander who picked the giant slalom technical discipline in which to compete, “which it really is, but you're just doing it in these incredibly complicated, incredibly challenging situations with rock hard ice around these gates that are just annoyingly placed.”
The other deal was that Alexander had so much to pick up. Whereas a lifelong ski racer would know relatively simple things like how tight to have the ski boots (super tight!) Alexander was picking things up as he went along.
Alexander also didn’t then, and doesn’t now, have a coach. He bounces around picking up titbits from a handful of coaches. “It's not like I'm part of a ski club and we do everything together. I'm on my own schedule in my own time.”
If money was no object – we’ll get to that – he says he would definitely have a coach but he does have something money can’t buy, and that’s a mentor in Dudley Stokes one of the Jamaican bobsleigh guys from Calgary, a sage to Alexander’s frustrations.
“I was just kind of bitching and moaning about the lack of having one voice in my journey, and Dudley listens… and at the end, he says, ‘Well look, for the first six years of my professional bobsledding career, I didn't have one coach either’.
"He says, ‘You're smart enough to be able to take concepts and ideas from all these different people and take the best and use it to your advantage and just forget the rest and actually have this amalgamation of coaching advice that might actually be better than just being stuck with one mediocre or one poor coach’.
“And just when you're doing this thing, that's very lonely, you know, I'm in the middle of nowhere in Austria, and my life is all about skiing and is a complete change from what my life was before as a DJ,” says Alexander. “Just having someone that you can bitch and moan to, and that can give you those little nuggets of advice, (is invaluable).”
Off the slopes, additional challenges need navigating. Finance, even for Alexander, is one. He admits that if money were no object he would hire a one-on-one coach but for now this is his way. He currently has sponsorship to the tune of 10-15% of what he needs for the whole project and he’s funding the rest but hopes to up the sponsorship input closer to the start of the Games. He thinks the whole project will cost $100k all told.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has also caused additional challenges.
“It is incredibly tiring and made 10 times more tiring with all of the COVID and then pandemic regulations, which even for a rocket scientist, sometimes it's impossible to figure out which test you need or where you can go, with which vaccine card and all of that stuff. But I would just say that these are skills that I've learnt through DJing, and it's really helping me out in this part of this project, definitely.”
There’s also the small matter of how a lower-level skier can even qualify for the Olympic Games. In an effort to open up opportunities to lower-profile wintersports nations, the International Olympic Committee has created a scenario where one place per nation can be gained via B-league competitions, if the athlete qualifies via the criteria given for each sport.
This is not a simple process.
“So the Olympic criteria is 160 FIS points (International Ski Federation) as your average over five races…,” says Alexander. “What that means is, I need to finish within a certain number of seconds of the winners – how many seconds depends on how good those winners are and how fast they are.
“I think the easiest way to describe this, is at my best race result so far, which was March of last year, I was seven seconds off of the pace. Now, since coming here to Austria and having that two-month period in the summer and again now having been here for six weeks, I am seconds faster than I was back in March. Am I three seconds or am I ten seconds? I don't know until I get to compete, but I'm somewhere in that range, so it's going to be really exciting to see and I'll know as soon as I have my fifth result.”
Alexander was hoping to have cemented his place at Beijing 2022 by early December, however, his first races were cancelled due to inclement weather, so it was back to his spreadsheet, which details in minute detail, his best chances of qualifying.
The art of qualifying
There’s an art to plotting a course through these qualification rounds in Alexander’s analytically-minded way. The Brit has spent between 30-40 hours delving into the FIS database “trying to look for patterns, trying to look for races that might be a little bit more favourable”. He even goes so far as to see how many people are competing in the race, and going for those with fewer competitors.
“I've totally nerded out on that database and I have my own version of it, my own spreadsheet, which has all of the links to all of the information about the race and the historical races, so at any moment, if I decide to change my plan, I can just go into my own database and figure it out.”
But then there's also information he can only get from someone who’s been to the race, such as whether the course is better for those who like steep slopes or a flat race, or are the conditions typically firm or soft, which is where his network comes in handy.
Alexander has opportunities to get his points in the likes of Montenegro, Bosnia, and Poland, and he’ll need all the agility from his years of DJing to stay on top of it all.
“So this again comes back to...the ability to plan logistics for complicated trips that all go back to my very nomadic lifestyle. I've been to 67 countries, I've spent a lot of my life on the road. I've always loved to travel and a big part of my previous role as a DJ was getting myself out there marketing myself in the right way, figuring out ways to get into venues, clubs and festivals that I wanted to perform at. I never hired the services of a manager or agent as a DJ because I wanted to do it my own way.”
His advice to younger athletes who are in awe of his ability to market himself is to find your niche and work at it. He’s appeared in more than 50 pieces of press and 45 of those were from cold calling people or sending out emails, he tells us. He’s also just been signed by elite ski brand Atomic, the same stable of top skiers as Manuel Feller.
Atomic don’t need another athlete, says Alexander, as they have Mikaela Shiffrin “but they understand the value of having someone that's not white that started skiing at 32, and that didn't come from a background where skiers come from”.
Alexander also doesn’t subscribe to the loose requirement of marketers requesting athletes have a gazillion followers on social media in order to attract sponsorship. His strong network from his life as a financier and DJ means he has all the contacts he needs on social media, on which he has about 5,000 followers.
“I know that everything I need, whether that's an introduction to someone or financial support, is inside that network, and I'm very fortunate to have that. If I was a 20-year-old athlete, I wouldn't have that. I would have my school friends and no one else, right? So that allows me to look at social media in a different way.”
He’s honest in his assessment of where he's at in his journey.
“If I'd have realised the amount of work that it's taken me to get this far, and if I'd have realised that the majority of the fighting would be against the pandemic and closed borders and all of that stuff, I'm not sure I would have started this. But I'm a man of my word and I'm in it now, and so I'm fully committed, like it's do or die time… So now is the proving ground. I haven't had a competition in almost eight months, so, yeah, it's super exciting times.”
And with that, we leave Alexander in his Austrian cabin in the mountains, perusing his spreadsheets to figure out his next move, feet soaking in Epsom salts, a healthy meal consumed and early to bed. Heady days indeed.