John Dickinson-Lilley

John Dickinson-Lilley started losing his sight when he was just 13, and he now has less than five per cent vision. “The hardest thing was learning to ask for help,” he recalls. Overcoming that fear was his first step on a thrilling, unique and shared journey into the world of downhill skiing.

How did you adapt to losing your sight?

I had some really crazy experiences. The local council gave me a sign to hang around my neck which was luminous yellow and said: “I'm blind, please help me.” That was terrifically helpful! Mine was a progressive condition. Everyone thought I was quite clumsy, smashing stuff, crashing into things, until we realised it was a more serious problem. It’s a little bit like looking through Polo mints.

Did you ever imagine you would ski?

Not in my wildest dreams! I only started skiing a little over six years ago. You pick a sport for a blind person and you would not pick skiing. It’s an extreme sport, but that’s why I love it.

“Being an athlete isn’t about proving anything to anybody, other than yourself”

Are you trying to prove something?

Being an athlete isn’t about proving anything to anybody, other than yourself. The thing I’ve learnt is the one person you've got to conquer is yourself. You can only ski against yourself.

Does it give you a certain freedom you can't get in daily life?

It's all the things people like: speed, exhilaration, getting to the bottom of a run knowing you’ve put your all into it. For me it has an extra edge. I'm able to fly down a hill quite a lot faster than most people – and that gives you a real buzz. I love the sensations of skiing: the way the ski feels cutting through the snow, the wind whistling in your ears, the sense of speed and feeling the different terrains as you descend.

Describe Jack, your guide?

Jack is brilliant, he is a really important person in my life. He’s my eyes. There’s a profound sense of trust between the two of us. You have to trust him all of the time, because without that trust, there are no medals. It would be impossible to do my sport without Jack; every visually impaired ski racer needs a guide. Although Jack isn’t just my guide on the slopes, he is my guide from the beginning of my journey to the end. I’d trust him with my life.

How tough is an average day on the slopes?

It’s never an easy day, whether you’re training or racing. It’s an early start, it’s a solid training session in the morning. You come down, you do gym, you prep your skis, have dinner and go to bed. It's fun all the same, but it isn’t a ski holiday.

What is your goal?

My goal is to qualify for the winter Paralympics squad in 2018 and win a gold medal. That is the pinnacle of sporting success in the world and that’s where I want to be.

What will it take to succeed?

Commitment is one really important aspect of it, having a really, really supportive family and that network is absolutely critical. Also you’ve got to have fun, you’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing. There is no point skiing or taking part in any sport if it’s not fun. If you enjoy it then you’re going to make whatever sacrifices you have to make, in order to get where you need to go.

“Jack is my eyes. There’s a profound sense of trust between the two of us”

How has your life changed since joining the team?

It has been a series of changes, from getting healthier, fitter, losing five stone, through to making career choices about when I work, or if I work, and that's one decision I’ve made recently. In order for me to compete in the Paralympics in 2018, I have to give up work. As I’m not funded, I have to find all the money myself to fund both me and Jack between now and the Games in 2018.

Describe that winning feeling

When you win a race, it’s cool. There’s no two ways about it. It’s a terrific sensation. Although the frustrating thing is you often sit there and think: “These are the things I could have done better, to make that a better win.” I’m quite hard on myself.

What are the emotions at the top, just before you're about to compete?

On a race day, you’re in the gates and you feel a sense of anticipation. For me I’m trying to think a little about the course, think it through, work out what I’m going to do and when. Race days are special. About 90 seconds out from the gate, I become really introverted. I go quiet.

Have you ever had any bad falls?

Yes, I had a big fall in Spain in the giant slalom. I fell 15 gates and ended up with concussion and whiplash. There’s nothing Jack my guide could do to stop me, I went flying past in freefall. There have been times in races when I’ve taken a fall and that goes with the territory. You pick yourself up and go again, that's what being an athlete is about, being able to pick yourself up and carry on.

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