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'The fact I beat a lot of the men as well...I think they're quite impressed'

Irish Olympian skier Kirsty McGarry claimed a historic victory this week at the ‘world’s craziest race’ in the Swiss Alps.

BASKING IN THE AFTERGLOW of her incredible Giant Slalom win, Kirsty McGarry headed for a well-earned beer to celebrate.

“Everyone kept coming up and saying ‘You’re the Irish girl’ and they’d shake my hand. It’s a little bit surreal. After the race, they kept saying my name and that I’d won the event because I don’t think they can believe an Irish girl could beat a Swiss girl.”

The result can’t be under-estimated. For the first time in half a century, the Inferno race was won by a non-Swiss or non-German entrant.

Owing to its background, this is no ordinary race. The event has an illustrious history. In the late 1920s, as the various disciplines of ski-racing were being fine-tuned, members of the Kandahar Ski Club in England, led by Sir Arnold Lunn, headed to the Swiss mountain village of Mürren and took part in the very first incarnation of the Inferno.

It quickly developed into a legendary and iconic annual pilgrimage. Now, 1800 competitors (amateur and professional), from 26 nations, take part and attempt to navigate the longest downhill course in the world – an arduous and dangerous 15.8km journey with a descent of an eye-watering 2100 metres.

Making McGarry’s achievement even more special is the fact that she hasn’t competed in five years. In February 2010, she represented Ireland at her second Olympics in Vancouver. Four years before, in Turin, she had been flag-bearer. But general life pressures ensured something had to give.

OLYMPICS Winter Kirsty McGarry leads out the Irish team at the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.

“After Vancouver, I stopped racing completely. I was in university and it was getting a bit heavy, going into my final year in Physiotherapy so I would just ski on the holidays. I haven’t managed to ski or train in the last couple of years because I was working full-time so I was just delighted that I was able to pull out a good run.

This is a race I always wanted to do but I never could it when I was competing because it’s very dangerous and it takes place at the end of January when a lot of the important events are. So, I thought why not go out for fun, to see how I’d get on. So my first opportunity to do that was two years ago.

It’s pretty crazy. There were over 1700 taking part in the race and you’re overtaking people everywhere, you’re trying to get straight down the hill and the conditions are bad. I was pretty scared. It’s on the edge and when I finished I said, ‘I’m not really sure if I want to do that again’. But two weeks later, I couldn’t wait to try it.”

Kirsty2

The logistics of the race make it even trickier. McGarry, for so long used to copious space and the gates as her only obstacles, had to get used to the sheer volume of competitors and the beat-up terrain.

They start someone every eighteen seconds so you have a little bit of space. I was so far back two years ago that when I pushed out at the start, there was someone still at the first gate. And that’s obviously completely new for me – I’m used to a clean course with nobody near me. It’s different and it can be frustrating because you can be held up by somebody – it has nothing to do with your skiing or your speed.”

The 29 year-old hit the gym hard to prepare for her latest Inferno experience. A shoulder injury derailed any hopes she had of getting much recreational skiing under her belt last year so it was a tougher slog than usual. But on such a relentless, uncompromising and unforgiving course, the work-outs paid dividends.

“I feel a little bit sore now! You can’t do it if you haven’t been training hard, you can’t expect to do well. The legs feel okay. There are two really flat, long sections and it feels like they last forever.”

Still, McGarry dug deep and finished less than a second ahead of her nearest challenger. Slowly, the triumph began to sink in and was aided by the reaction of the race organisers.

It ranks pretty high, to be honest. Because I’m not training anymore, it means a lot to me. Because it proves I can still ski well, despite being out of it for the last five years. There’s the prestige too. There’s less pressure here because it’s not my career anymore and I have a full-time job and it’s more for fun. But I still have that competitive side to me that will always be there.”

I’ve gained a little bit of respect, I think. I had all these people coming up to me and shaking my hand. It’s crazy. The prestige is huge because you’re racing all of the men as well. They don’t separate you at all. So, I think the fact that I beat a lot of the men as well, I think they’re quite impressed.”

Irish Olympic skier Kirsty McGarry wins the ‘world’s craziest race’ in the Swiss Alps

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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