The youngest ever British Winter Paralympian, having competed at Sochi aged just 15, Millie Knight scooped Team GB’s only medals at the 2015 International Paralympic World Championships and seven gold World Cup medals before leaving school.
Gabriella Le Breton catches up with Millie before the Paralympics in PyeongChang.
Gabriella Le Breton: It seems your idea of a gap year is rather more ambitious than most – racking up World Cup races and representing Team GB at the Winter Paralympics. How’s it all going and where are you now?
Millie Knight: I suppose it is an unusual gap year, but the timings were great – I finished school [King’s School, Canterbury] last summer and start at Loughborough University later this year, leaving me free to focus on the Games this winter. I’m in Tignes at the moment, where we were meant to have speed races, but they’ve been cancelled due to all the snow. We were supposed to have 16 competitions before the Games but so far 10 have been cancelled because of the storms…
GLB: You sound disappointed – I guess competing in World Cup races before the Paralympics is a good thing then?
MK: Once you’ve been selected for the Games, the World Cup becomes all about training: the races are opportunities to test yourself on different courses, practise your race starts and get a benchmark on your competitors’ progress. It’s generally massively confidence boosting. But I have to admit, because I’ve got loads of mates on the circuit, when races are cancelled like this it actually makes for a super social time, which is fun. Some positives do come out of the negatives!
GLB: How different are your expectations going into PyeongChang to those you had approaching Sochi?
MK: In a word: very! I got the call-up for Sochi on my 15th birthday, just seven weeks before the opening ceremony, so it was all about absorbing the Games and the environment, without any pressure to perform. Now there’s a lot more pressure on performance. Fortunately, both Brett [Brett Wild, Millie’s sighted guide] and I respond well to that pressure and we work daily with a psychologist to manage our nerves and stress levels.
GLB: The GB Paralympic team excelled themselves at Sochi – did that have an impact on you and your fellow athletes?
MK: Massively, yes. Going into Sochi the team was one man and a van – it was a crazy amount of work for our coach [Euan Bennet]. But when Kelly Gallagher and Jade Etherington won four medals between them at Sochi, the spotlight was suddenly upon us. UK Sport got involved and funding started coming in. Now we’re a full team with four coaches, two physios, a physiologist, psychologist… all the ‘ologists’! That support has put us in a really great position for PyeongChang.
GLB: You’ve been training and competing with Brett since March 2016 – can you tell us a bit about how the whole guiding relationship works?
MK: I have peripheral sight, which limits my depth of vision to about two metres. Brett, a submariner who raced for the Combined Services, wears a luminous vest and skis just in front of me. Before every race, we do an intensive course inspection and agree a detailed strategy for the descent, deciding how to tackle each twist and turn. We both have Bluetooth headsets in our helmets, which enable him to inform me about the terrain and snow texture, to warn me if we have to make any changes to our planned descent, and also keep me motivated. I respond all the time, letting him know if we’re going too slow or too fast, so there’s a constant flow of communication between us.
Brett and I clicked instantly: I knew straight away that he was the guide who would take me to the Games. It’s so important to have a strong relationship with your guide – all the athletes in my category have been with their guides for at least 10 years. You really grow together as a unit. The more time Brett and I spend together, the better our relationship becomes, so we also spend time together off the snow. We’ll go to concerts together, watch a film – just hang out like mates so we can understand each other’s habits, routines and motivation. Fortunately, we share the same goals of doing our best and working towards PyeongChang, which is probably why we get on so well.
GLB: Your first guide was your Mum – how does she feel about being usurped by a bearded Glaswegian submariner?!
MK: [Laughs] Mum supports me at all my races and I think she’s probably happier now without the pressure and responsibility of being my guide. Brett always says his prime aim is to get me down the mountain safely – but also as quickly as possible!
GLB: Was there any one defining moment that inspired you to start skiing professionally?
MK: I went to the London 2012 Paralympic opening ceremony and it was just so amazing, I thought ‘I would love to do that’. I was about 12 years old and had been skiing for six years by then, loving informal ESF and school races, so it all made sense.
GLB: Do you have any particular sporting idols to whom you look for inspiration?
MK: In skiing, I always admire Dave Ryding and Aksel Lund Svindal. More generally, across the sports, I’m inspired by various people’s stories but particularly by Dave Weir [a British Paralympic wheelchair athlete].
GLB: Who would you say is your greatest competitor?
MK: That would be Henrieta Farkasova from Slovakia. She’s a technically amazing skier and definitely the one to beat. But it’s good to have someone out there to keep you on your toes, to remind you that you can never take your foot off the pedal and there’s always someone working harder than you.
GLB: Speaking of working hard, how do you like to spend your downtime?
MK: I love listening to music, it’s a massive thing for me. But I also absolutely love photography. I’ve actually got a couple of exhibitions of my photography coming up this year, including one at the Four Seasons Film Festival (fourseasonsfilmfestival.com), as well as a solo exhibition in the summer – you can find out more about my work by following my Instagram account.
GLB: You did a trip to Korea last winter in preparation for PyeongChang – do you feel that’s set you in good stead for the Games?
MK: Yeah, that trip didn’t really go to plan… I’m hoping this year will be better! I took two big falls out there, during which I sustained a really heavy concussion. It’s taken me a lot longer to recover than I imagined so, if I’m honest, I’m not where I wanted to be. When I was 12 and set my goal to achieve gold at PyeongChang, it was 2,000 days away. Now it’s only 43 days away. But I am getting there and catching up with people in training so I know I’ll be ready just in time!
GLB: So would you say you’re quietly confident?
MK: Let’s say I’m optimistic.
Millie and Brett have nailed it in PyeongChang with a double silver in Downhill and Super G adding to the teams medal haul of 3 so far – with an ambitious target of 7.