Arms aloft, screaming in exaltation, an official photo captures the moment British alpine skier Charlie Guest crosses the finish line to head the leader board in the World Cup series for the first time.
Yes, there were still 23 skiers to come after the Scottish skier in the two-run slalom event in Are, Sweden, with Charlie eventually finishing in 16th place, but this March day in 2021 was still a seminal moment, not only for the history-making Brit but for her fellow skier sister Katie.
Speaking to Olympics.com in early October, both sisters beam across the Zoom call as they remember the defining moment.
“I just wanted to get into the finish with the blooming green light because I'd been coming down always into second or third, and I came down and I was like, 1.8 seconds (ahead of the fastest skier so far), I think, and I was just like, finally!”
Charlie goes on to describe the feeling as “one of those moments, where it's going to sound so cliché but it was like everything was worth it. There's just been so much in my career that's happened already, just so much really horrible stuff when I look at it, and I'm just like, that's what it's for, it's for those moments”.
Meanwhile, at her Aberdeen flat, Katie knew her older sibling had been on a run of good form so settled down to watch the race. All very well but she was so nervous at times she couldn’t watch.
"You sit and watch it and your heart stops and you’re shaking," says Katie, who has just been signed by GB Snowsport as a para-alpine guide ahead of Beijing 2022 Paralympics, which begin in March. "I sent you a message and I was like, ‘I cannot believe that you've finally done it’.”
Katie who describes herself as Charlie’s number one fan, is inspired by her older sibling, “as much as I hate to admit it”, the competitive nature borne of a childhood competing together.
Both sisters grew up as part of a skiing family, with their younger twin siblings also taking to the snow where they all grew up in Scotland. Charlie and Katie learned to ski on a golf course before progressing to the slopes of the Cairngorm mountains where the family were all very much part of the skiing community.
Dad was treasurer of the Scottish Ski Club, mum was a house parent at skiing events and maker of a gazillion bacon rolls. Grandma, also a skier, on hearing that the siblings’ were fast becoming ski race fans, commented to the siblings’ mum: “Not again. Molly, I hope you're ready for this.”
Grandma would continue to play her part in the development of the next generation in her family of ski racers, living as she did in Nethy Bridge, a ski area in the Cairngorms National Park.
“Mum would pick us up from school (every Friday), with all the kit already packed,” says Katie, “and we would drive straight up, spend the weekends with grandma in Nethy Bridge, do training and then drive down late Sunday night, and then back at school Monday.”
During school holidays, the family of six would head off on 18-hour journeys in their trusty Land Rover, to the slopes of Europe, to attend all the races they could.
“My parents were extremely dedicated to what we were doing,” says Charlie. “I think we didn't have a Christmas together for like 11 years or something. We were spending Christmas with all our mates out in Norway or in France.
"We had both ended up getting bursaries and scholarships to go out to the British Ski Academy, which was based in France, and for that, like six weeks of the winter term or whatever is spring term at school, January to March time, we'd be out in this hotel in France with all our friends. You ski in the morning, do school in the afternoons, you get Fridays all-day ski skiing, Saturdays off and Sundays all-day school.”
The pair first headed to France around age 11, and with just four years between all the siblings, Kirsty and Christopher joined them when they were old enough, so the foursome felt they had family around them.
“Me and Charlie, we travelled almost everywhere together when we were younger,” says Katie, “so at least you had that piece of home with you.”
Inevitably during a sport career there are times when all the challenges appear overwhelming enough to think about quitting. Charlie’s first wobble came around her early teenage years, when she was “obsessed with being normal”, wanting to play hockey matches for her school, go for country trials, “but they just weren't doable”.
Charlie carried on skiing, making her first World Cup appearance aged 19, in January 2013 in Flachau, Austria. The following year, however, Charlie broke her back in a training accident, which would impact her both mentally and physically for the next few years.
The crash, which resulted in four broken vertebra after Charlie hit a rock, happened in Sweden in November 2014, yet by February Charlie was competing in her debut World Championships. Charlie recognizes now it was far too soon to go back and continued to struggle even up to the Olympic Games in PyeongChang in 2018.
“I was at the Olympics and it was like, ‘Now what? I’m not ready for this. I am not on form this is not where I wanted to be at my first ever Olympic Games, something that I’ve put so much into’.
“I didn’t do particularly well in my individual event – and the following summer I worked with a physio who works with the freestyle team and she’s actually based in Nethy Bridge.”
So it was back to grandma’s old house, which was being renovated by her dad, and for the first time in a long time, Charlie managed to get some consistent training in, and started to get good results.
“But with a combination of a terrible personal life, and with a coaching team I wasn’t gelling well with, and a team environment that wasn’t particularly healthy, and then my back flaring up again through that autumn, the back end of 2018 I was just in an absolute mess.”
Charlie’s difficulties all came to a head when she was in Austria trying to return to snow by herself. She called her mum and asked her to pick her up at the airport. She’d had enough, she was going home.
“I felt like I’d just given so much to the sport throughout my whole childhood and this was how it was paying off.”
However, back in the UK, GB Snowsport supported Charlie, sending her to rehab in London.
“I perhaps hadn’t vocalised how bad everything was. I really hadn’t spoken about how much of a toll that everything, the whole events, probably since the back break in 2014, how much it had taken out of me.”
Before the physio even got to talking about Charlie’s back, she asked how Charlie was sleeping, what she was eating, about her personal life. “Those were the moments where I realised that the mental health aspect and the physical health aspect are just so closely linked and I’d never given that credit before then.”
Just two weeks later, in January 2019, Charlie was back on the snow, her first race back, the World Championships in Are, Sweden.
“Katie and mum came out to surprise me, which is one of the loveliest memories to look back on and I made my best ever result to that date, the best female result at that world champs for Great Britain, and later that year became the first British girl to win an alpine Europa Cup. It was really like the quickest turnaround ever and that whole mental health aspect really came into it.”
Charlie also spent her first Christmas in ages with the family, had friends round for a party, allowed herself some mulled wine and had her 25th birthday at home. Charlie reflects now: “I hadn’t allowed myself to do that for so long that it’s not a surprise that things got better when I look back at it, retrospectively.”
Charlie also applied to do a university course, initially in physio before switching to psychology, when she thought that she was going to give up skiing, but conversely, having something else going on in her life took the pressure off her ski racing.
“I can now see ski racing and being at a race, as an opportunity to do something, but I still have a great life outside of that, and I don't need to pin everything on this one 50 second run.”
Making a difference
Meanwhile, Charlie’s experiences influenced Katie’s career path, too. Having stopped school and headed to America for two seasons to ski race, Katie came home disillusioned with the intensity of the sport and how much dedication was required for success and just wanted to try something new.
So she studied geography-civil engineering at Newcastle University but then wasn’t sure what she’d do with it once she’d graduated. It was then she started to look at studying physio instead.
“I'd seen how much of a difference a physio can make in someone's life. I've seen Charlie going from physio to physio, and I think it's really interesting to see how someone's perspective on it can change somebody.”
But in August Katie was approached by GB Snowsport to become part of the para-alpine guide pool ahead of Beijing 2020. Katie had previously worked with para-alpine skier Millie Knight, but turned down the opportunity of working as a guide for the para-alpine team, keen to continue her path studying at Newcastle University. This time though, she but did not want to let the opportunity pass her by again. The experience of having to stay put in a two-bedroom flat sitting at a desk studying all day during the first lockdown was an additional incentive.
During her Newcastle days, Katie had acted as back-up guide to Knight when the triple Paralympic medallist’s main guide Brett Wild was unable to do it. A training camp in Germany particularly stuck with Katie.
“It was skiing, which I love, but in a completely different view. It's no longer for yourself, you're doing it as a team, and I think, especially growing up like I was on like the hockey teams at school, on netball teams at school, and I loved it. I think if something goes wrong, it's not just your fault or something goes well you can celebrate with other people. It's not just you by yourself.”
Katie, like her sister, is now juggling studying and training, but has been helped by the Robert Gordon University who have delayed her fast-approaching dissertation deadline so she can train.
With the sisters’ journey’s having taken them on divergent paths, their lives may cross more often again now they both have the same goal in mind; Beijing 2022. Charlie for one is looking forward to bumping into her sister on the slopes more.
“It's something to look forward to because I'm on a team by myself and so whenever Katie's around we can go hang out, have a cup of tea, cup of coffee. It's like that support structure I talked about, and it is nice just to have that sometimes. It’s a bit closer than just being on WhatsApp.”
So the siblings have come full circle, and once again have a piece of home with them on the mountains.