Fearless Simpson brothers are changing the game in visually impaired skiing | Ade Adepitan
When Neil Simpson set off on his gold medal-winning run in the men’s super-G, I remember looking at the start and thinking “… interesting”. Normally, when you watch visually impaired skiers there’s a connection: the guide goes off and the skier follows straight behind. But that’s not how Neil and his brother Andrew do it. When the bell goes Andrew just flies out. His approach is: I’m going to ski down this hill as fast as I can and you’ve got to catch me.
At the age of 19 and 21 it’s the exuberance and naivety of youth, perhaps. All they’re thinking about is how can they go as fast as possible. The idea of danger, of losing, none of that comes into their minds and that is the perfect combination of ingredients you need to be a successful athlete. That’s why their performance was absolutely brilliant to watch and such a staggering achievement. I don’t know whether they know it or not but the brothers may be changing the whole style of VI skiing. If they’re successful and they’re able to keep it going I would liken it to what Andre Agassi did in tennis: constantly aggressive, going for everything and leathering the fur off every ball. If they keep winning, other skiers will be looking at them thinking: this is what we have to do.
To get gold on day two confirmed a great start for Britain, with Millie Knight and Brett Wild’s bronze on day one kickstarting the whole thing. I feel like even though we compete as individual athletes at the Games, when you see other members of the team getting medals it has a psychological effect, almost like a wave that drags along the rest of the team. It’s like: OK, those guys have won a medal, we have to up our game, this is the level of the team. Forgive the comparison, but the Winter Olympic team probably felt the pressure as the days went by with no medals. It made it harder and harder and I’m so glad that Paralympics GB got their medal on the first day. On a selfish note it was bloody brilliant for our coverage too: medals are what bring the audience in.
It’s not all been good news for GB so far and the opposite of that wave of success is what seems to have hit the wheelchair curling team. They didn’t reach the semi-finals, finishing eighth in the qualifying group, and they haven’t won a medal since Sochi in 2014. It feels like it’s not their time and maybe they need some sort of restart, either in their training programme, perhaps getting psychologists in, or even changing coaching staff. Maybe it’s just getting new blood in, but it feels like something has to happen. Just as athletes get powered up by their last moment of success, when you get into a rut or a cycle of not progressing it becomes really difficult to break it.
Of course these Games have been about a lot more than Great Britain. I’ve been involved in the Paralympics for 22 years now and I’ve never been to a Games like it before. It feels like I’m living in an alternative universe, something scarily surreal. It’s been intense from the very minute the plane door opened. You’re greeted by a dozen people in hazmat suits and then you go through the airport and it’s empty, like you’re in a scene from 28 Days Later. Finally when you arrive at the Games you hear the news from the rest of the world.
The question when we arrived was about the Russian Paralympic Committee and Belarusian teams – would they be allowed to compete? First the answer was yes and even though I understood that the International Paralympic Committee were in a tough position, instinctively I felt it was the wrong decision. The Paralympic village was a very uncomfortable place too. The athletes that people want to think of as non-political, focused only on competing, they spoke up. Within 24 hours the decision was reversed.
Roll on a week and I had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Valeriy Sushkevych. He’s the president of the Ukrainian Paralympic Committee, and had the decision of whether and how to get his athletes to the Games. He said they thought about pulling out every day but decided it was more important that Ukraine has a presence at these Games and that people know who they are and what they stand for.
The thing that really stuck in my mind came at the end of our interview, however. I said that in a few days’ time most of us would be packing our bags and going home. I asked him where he and his team would be going and he didn’t know. He didn’t know if they had homes to go to, if they had families to go back to. He didn’t know what they were going to do. Can you imagine?
I can’t even think of words to explain that. Never mind to imagine the kind of mental strength, the kind of substance you need as a human being to be able to come here and still compete. Not just compete, in fact, but go out and win 25 medals. I have no words for it. I can only look at these guys in admiration.