One of the best things about the Big Personality story each week is that there are no rules attached to the selection process; you don’t have to have lived a life that is at least 40 years long or have built a global empire by the end of your tale. All that we look for – by ‘we’ I mean me the story teller and you the reader – is a life that has been lived with gusto and passion for whatever it is that our subject loves. Well, this week’s Big Personality may only be twenty-one years old, she may have yet to achieve her end goal, but she has both gusto and passion by the slopeful. Meet Miss Charlie Guest, former British Slalom and Giant Slalom Champion and a woman on a positive downhill mission.
Charlie’s Dad first convinced her Mum it would be a good idea to put skis on their eldest child when she was only three. Her grandmother lives up near Nethy Bridge and her Dad took toddler Charlie round the nearby golf course, keen to have his young daughter as an ally in his love of skiing.
“My Dad ski raced for Scotland up until he was about 18. He met my Mum while they were at Uni and he begged her to learn so that there were enough girls for their Uni Ski Team. They even went to Switzerland for their honeymoon. So I suppose when us kids came along we were always going to be encouraged to ski – it was just part of our life. It was as normal to us as riding a bike.
My younger sisters and brother both ski and as we got a little older and progressed, Dad would set up ski poles in a slalom set for us to practice. I loved it, always. I was only about six when I asked to join the kids Race Team at the Scottish Ski Club. We were with my parents every weekend and I’d see these kids bombing around the mountain having fun. I looked at what we were doing and it just seemed a bit dull in comparison. So my Dad said if I could ride the T-Bar on my own then I could join. So I did, and he stuck to his word and that was me!”
Charlie is animated, with gestures mimicking kids bombing about the slope and a wide smile breaking open as she confirms her six-year old success at riding the T-Bar. She is a poster-perfect advert for life outdoors on the slope with long blonde hair, fresh, un-made-up face and glowing skin. Her enthusiasm is buoyant, with that glorious youthful energy rolling the conversation forwards. I know nothing about skiing – and yet I am instantly hooked.
So, with a granny in the Cairngorms and parents who were happy to hit the slopes every weekend, Charlie spent the next few years training with the Scottish Ski Club Race Team and competing in little races for under-tens. She tells me that she wasn’t particularly skilled, that she was an average racer among her peers and that the gift of her first ever ski-suit at the age of around 9 was the most significant memory she has of that time.
“I was so excited. I was given this little lycra race-suit in green and purple and I loved it immediately. I didn’t want to take it off! I remember threatening to run away at one point and packing a bag to leave - the suit was the first thing in there!”
And then at the age of eleven, Charlie participated in her first British Ski Academy training camp in Les Houches in France. She received a Rannoch bursary, which funded Scottish kids to go out to the Academy for six weeks and gain the experience that comes from hitting the slopes every day.
“That trip defined my skiing. I wasn't one of the kids training on artificial slopes during the week I would only ski a few months each year by heading up to the Cairngorms for weekend race training. I was in form one when the chance to go to France came up and I had to gain permission from the school to go - not that their opinion would have made much of a difference, I was going whether they liked it or not! I had to take this diary round my teachers who filled in the work I had to do while I was away.
When I arrived at the Academy I suddenly realised I was nowhere near the level of the other girls. For six weeks we trained every day which just brought my skiing forwards massively. I could feel the improvements daily, and watched the time gaps getting smaller and smaller. Apart from the skiing and training, we had dedicated teachers to ensure we didn’t fall behind on school work and the whole thing was this busy, intense, chaotic, amazing opportunity. I grew up so much – I was eleven years old and I was away from home for six weeks. I’d been so shy when I arrived but I learned to make friends and my confidence soared. By the time I came home my skiing had completely changed.”
With the marked improvement in times, technique and her training regime, Charlie found a renewed determination. She was quite simply better at everything she was doing on a slope and with that she made a decision to train harder and adopt a more serious approach to her sport.
Within the year Charlie won her first major competition when she took first place at the Under 12s Combined British Championships. She had previously won Interschool Ski Championships but her new attitude and performance had moved her up into the realms of UK level competitors. (Incidentally, since winning the Under 12s that first time she has won every age group at this major event, apart from the seniors which is very much part of her current plan!)
“It was awesome to win. My Mum and Dad were there and although I’d never been to anything as big as that before I was quite relaxed. I won the Giant Slalom and came sixth in the Slalom but the combined scores put me first overall. I still remember them calling my name.”
Upon winning that first British Championship she was then selected onto the British Children’s Ski Team and remained part of this team from the age of twelve to the age of fifteen. She tells me that she was awarded a bursary for three consecutive years during this period and it’s at this point I ask her about the elitist accusations that surround sports such as skiing.
“To be honest, I think there’s probably some truth behind those comments. I’m not saying that’s okay, but it is true. Unfortunately, the more money you have the broader your opportunities – it’s an expensive sport and until you reach a stage where you can apply for bursaries it needs to be self-funded. I know that I’m extremely lucky to have had the chances I have as my parents could not have committed to funding me to go to a Ski Academy at the age of eleven.”
By training and competing at a National Level she once again improved her competitive edge, winning podium places at major British events such as the BARSC Championships where she won both the Slalom and the Grand Slalom. With these prestigious titles adding to her credibility she was then selected to go to the Children’s World Championships in Topolino and then again to Trofeu Boruffa in Andorra.
“It was a big deal to have been selected for Topolino – huge. I remember, as I was heading to Andorra I had been asking for a new laptop for my school work. So my Dad told me if did well in the Internationals he’d buy me one. I came third in the Grand Slalom but the deal was the better I did the better the laptop – so when I won first in the Slalom I called him up and said ‘Hey Dad… You’ll never guess what’s happened!’.
As well as the laptop I won my weight in Chuppa Chups. I came home with literally thousands of lollies - which was quite bizarre going through security. I offloaded them on all my friends I think!”
And so, at fourteen Charlie had become the first British girl to win an international children’s race. At fifteen she moved up to the senior league – called FIS Racing – which is when she also joined the Scottish Alpine Team. Throw in eight standard grades during this same year and you will begin to understand the level of commitment and dedication that she was making to her sport.
“Up until then I hadn’t really focused much on my off slope training. I did a bit of strength and conditioning but in hindsight it wasn’t anything like enough. In Austria they’re out training all winter, every day, and they’re in the gym improving their fitness all the time. Because I was now part of FIS Racing I was awarded a Talented Athlete Pass from Live Active Leisure and I’ve been part of the scheme ever since.
It was a huge benefit for me – like we said, skiing is an expensive sport, so to have this membership that gives me full access to all the sporting venues in Perth is brilliant. I can put in the hours I need at the gym or in the pool to build my conditioning and strength. My younger sister also skis and she’s now part of the scheme so we often have a game of squash which is amazing for your agility and cardio.
The big deal for me though, was that they believed in me. That meant a lot - when an organisation gets behind you and says, ‘Yes, we believe you can do this. Join our scheme’ it boosts your confidence and you go into everything knowing you can’t let them down. That is powerful motivation.”
From the age of fifteen until she left school, Charlie juggled studying with training, often completing school work with tutors while she was out in Austria. She trained with the Scottish Alpine Team for three years before moving to The British Junior Team and it was at this point she switched coaches to the Austrian, Stefan Moser, who she remains with today.
“I used to think, ‘I can run fast, I can run far’ and that that was enough to prove I was fit and ready. But you need so much more than that. The British Junior Team train out in Austria and so when I joined them, I headed out at the end of October for a month. I was in my final year of Strathallan School, studying for my A2s, and I had this huge workload. It was a big commitment looking back, but the opportunity came round and I knew I had to take it. It was career defining – if I didn’t get better at that point and step up, then that was it.”
By the middle of December she was back out in Austria again and after a slow start she started producing personal bests at every race and the whole thing completely consumed her.
“I just went for it. Working with Stefan I had realised what I needed to change to become better – and I chose that path. I chose to become better. I was in the gym with a rugby coach doing strength training with weights. I think I needed the mental shift to move me up the level. I had needed to make the concious decision and understand fully what was required to achieve my goals. I was going to do it properly or not at all.”
Charlie was, by this time, in two training sessions five times a week and an extra one on a Saturday. She was doing almost all of her studying on her own and learned the majority of her course work from a text book. She arrived back in the UK in May, in full-on panic mode for her impending exams. Worth noting I think, that she gained an impressive two As and a B.
At this point in our conversation we decide to order lunch; we’re sitting in Parklands Hotel lounge drinking coffee (and lots of water for Charlie) and when it comes to decision time she opts for a Chicken Ceasar Salad, explaining that she’s back in training mode and so needs to be good.
“I’ve had three weeks off and now that I’m back into it I need to make sensible choices. Deep down, I really want the burger!”
I ask her if it’s a sacrifice, not being able to let her hair down and party like her fellow twenty-one year old friends.
“It’s difficult to say. I don’t think of it as a sacrifice because I love it and it’s my choice but I do know I’m giving up everything to do it. I don’t do anything else at all; I’m not sociable, I don’t go out and all my best friends from school are at Uni.
We went to Christmas drinks with an old friend of the family this year when I was home, and I suddenly realised that besides the obvious, I had nothing to talk about – all I do is ski. It’s a strange way of life when you think about it.
If I’m at home for periods at a time then I pick up casual waitressing jobs at Fingask so I can contribute to my coaching expenses. Since I left school three years ago I’ve spent October to April in Austria and July to September in New Zealand, so I’m always on a slope. And although I’ve had some funding the levels have changed every year. And since my accident I’ve basically had to start again and so now I employ my coach myself – well, my parents do! I think that I’ll be lucky if my federation helps me with any funding at all after the injury.”
Ah yes, ‘The Accident’. I’m sure you will all remember the photographs of a young Perth skier that hit the British press in November last year. Lying in a neck brace and looking incredibly pained, the chilled-out victory sign that she flashed was, I now understand, a gesture that summed up Charlie perfectly. Positive-thinking and super-resilient. Now a member of the Great British Women’s Ski Racing Team, Charlie had come off of her skis while training in Sweden and landed with a crash in the forest running parallel to the slope. She was due to compete the following week in Norway but when a diagnosis of four broken vertebrae came back she knew it would be a winter off-slope recovering.
“I didn’t think it was that bad at first. As I came off the track I could see the tree stumps and a rock – which I hit – and I landed with my face flat in snowy moss. I knew it was a sore one but I thought I was just bruised. I was screaming and I was winded pretty badly but when that wore off the first thing I asked was ‘Are my skis okay?’. My coach called the paramedics, they rolled me onto a stretcher and trundled me down the hill.
I was saying that I was just badly bruised and I’d have a day off and get back to training the next day. They had me in this hut, giving me painkillers and making plans to get me the 250km to the nearest MRI scanner. It was such a big, open space between where I was and the hospital that they had to switch me in and out of ambulances at the side of the road because they couldn’t leave the area they were in without emergency services. I was in a neck brace and strapped into this horrible position – I kept pestering the paramedic in the back ‘Are we nearly there yet! Please shift me!’”
Upon reaching hospital and having her scans she had convinced herself it was nothing more than bruising. Her head wouldn’t go to the place that meant missing the World Championships in February 2015. Nine hours after the accident, she was informed that four vertebrae were broken and, understandably, she burst into tears.
“I called my Mum and I was so upset. They’d been quite calm up to then but when she heard me crying my poor Mum just lost it.
It had been such an intense three years between school and that point because the thing is, when you start competing internationally you’re up against these amazing skiers who’ve been on a slope every day since they were eight years old. It’s so much easier to learn at that age and to move up into the intense style of training and techniques that you need to ski at this level now. Us ‘exotic skiers’ are on catch up – I can’t help thinking ‘I wish I skied every day. I wish I’d known about all the extra conditioning work when I was younger!’
So to have the level of snow-time that I was getting between Austria and New Zealand had made a big difference. I won the Senior Giant Slalom and Slalom and the Junior Slalom and Giant Slalom all by a margin at last year’s British Championships. I was so ready for the Worlds in February. We all knew that the accident had just put me back by a long way.”
It wasn’t just the physical recovery she had to deal with; the press attention was high and her victory-sign photograph was splashed across the majority of the UK newspapers.
“The press really went crazy, questioning whether I’d ski again. I was walking, and knew I would make a full recovery in time, but all I could think about was the hard work and training that had gone into getting me to that point. The World Championships were in February and up until my crash I was in the best shape of my career. The idea that I might not ski again never entered my head. I mean, I was in a lot of pain but at no point did I think my career was over – not once.”
The break was clean, no operation was required and because of Charlie’s overall fitness levels her recovery time was fast. After three and half weeks she was back in the gym doing strength training and after only six weeks her bones were healed.
“There were a few things that made all the difference to my recovery. First of all, the training session that resulted in the accident had only been the fourth time I’d worn a back protector. My coach had been on at me to do it and I’d been all ‘I don’t want to..’ I eventually gave in and I am so, so grateful that he stood up to me. I look back and think what an idiot I was.
I also spent a number of sessions at Perth Hyperbaric Centre, who took me under their wing, and that really helped take down the swelling and bruising in the muscle tissues. I think this was a large part of such a fast recovery.
And the Scottish Institute of Sport have been amazing. The sports doctor and physio have helped me enormously and I’ve been using my Talented Athlete Pass to get in swimming to build my back muscles. I’ve also been doing Pilates which is so good for you.
I’d say that I’ve come back stronger than before. Not as powerful or explosive to begin with but definitely stronger. I looked at Charlene Joiner, the cyclist who had the same injury as me before the Commonwealth Games, and I could see what was possible. I knew I had to give the Worlds a try.”
By January this year she was back in Austria, out on the slopes. She worked hard and although she may not have found herself in her previous peak condition, she did indeed compete in the World Championships both as an individual and as part of the women’s British Team.
“I still finished 32nd in the world and I know if I can break into the top fifteen to twenty on the Europa Cup tour this year then I would like to think that have a real chance of making a good stab at a top ten to fifteen in the Winter Olympics in Korea in 2018, and the next World Championships in 2017.
I would love to win a medal at either of these; no British Woman has ever won at that level and I just feel that I’m at the point where I could do it. I know where I came from. I didn’t make Sochi – the UK chose to send only one boy and one girl – but Korea is right there.”
I ask Charlie if she remembers when she caught that competitive bug, when it became real for her.
“I was about seven years old and it was one of my first Club Races. They didn’t tell you the times until they were presenting. So they did the girls first. I was so sure I was faster than almost all of the other girls that when my name wasn’t called I was trying so hard not to cry, that inevitably, I ended up crying . I was convinced I’d been fastest, or at least second fastest. Anyway, they started reading the boy’s times and they announced Second Boy – Charlie Guest. I dried my eyes and marched right up and took that second boy’s place. Ever since then I’ve gone under Charlotte Guest when I ski officially!”
She is laughing, miming her seven year old girl’s crying and how quickly she’d dried her eyes when she realised she was faster than all the girls and most of the boys. She is warm and friendly and throughout our chat her confidence in her abilities is levelled out by her willingness to admit where and when she has made mistakes. Throw in the poster-girl vibe I mentioned at the start and I can’t help but feel that she must be a sponsors’ dream.
“Mmmm. It’s really difficult to gain sponsorship. And it’s really hard to talk yourself up and think of yourself as a brand. But you have to do it – you have to try and make your potential sponsors believe in you like you believe in yourself. And we’re all competing for the same pockets of funding and often the same business sponsors. I’ve been fortunate to have funding from The Gannochy Trust and The Guildry locally and of course the in kind membership from Live Active Leisure. I’ve also had Sports Aid funding and I have a business sponsor in Pandaw River Cruises who are amazing but I know I need to find another source of finance to help with my coaching and travel fees.
Finding sponsorship is a huge pressure and to be honest it is also very awkward. When I ran a crowd funder last summer to get me to World Championships this February, it was so humbling. People believed in me enough to donate their hard earned cash. It’s a big deal and I know how incredibly lucky I am to be doing what I do.
My parents have invested so much time, money and effort into helping me reach my goals and I could never have done it without them. It feels as though they have dedicated as much of their life to skiing as I have! And then to have come through the injury and have another chance – it’s amazing really.”
I’m looking across my coffee cup at this young woman, wishing I had a big pot of spare cash to sponsor her. Because you see, when Charlie competes at these International Events, and if she ever makes that much-desired podium at the World Championships or brings home an Olympic Medal to Perth and Kinross, she not only does it for herself, she does it for all of us.
A representative of our city and wider county, she is a role model for the kids coming up behind her and, in my opinion, that’s empowering generations of Perth children to come. So what she finds awkward to do, I will come right out and ask – if you’d like to sponsor a young Perth athlete then get in touch!
Because Charlie Guest has bounced back from her injury, remains dedicated to her goals and is ready for whatever might come next. This photograph right here was taken in March this year...
And what might that be?
“What’s next? Easy, I'm going to train hard and I want to make a lot of podiums!”
Find out more the Live Active Leisure Talented Athlete Scheme and how your membership fees help to support these young people competing at performance level on a Scottish, British and International stage.