Anna Harrington / AAP News
Image: Paralympics Australia
Glagsow 2014 team member Rae Anderson becomes only the seventh Australian to compete in both a Summer and Winter Paralympics.
One look around the various mountain clusters at the Beijing Winter Paralympics and you’ll find several athletes who have made the leap from summer to winter sports.
Later this week, Rae Anderson, who competed in the F37/38 long jump at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games and then went on to compete in the javelin and discus at the Rio 2016 Paralympics, will become the seventh Australian to compete in both a summer and winter Paralympics.
Less than four years before making her Winter Paralympics debut, Rae Anderson stepped away from elite sport altogether.
Anderson had finished fifth in javelin and eighth in discus at Rio in 2016 as a 19-year-old, before being identified as a winter sports prospect a year later.
But in 2018 she took a different turn, and it proved to be the making of her.
“The Commonwealth Games doesn’t cater for all summer sports and after being talent-identified in 2017 for alpine skiing I believed I didn’t have the financial support to be able to pursue this sport to this level,” Anderson told AAP.
“I did have 2018 off and I spent a semester over in Indonesia studying cultural studies and the Indonesian language. That enforced break really just opened my eyes to the possibilities outside of sport.
“We put a lot of focus on athletes to pursue at the highest level and then that becomes their life, especially for athletes like myself who have only known professional or elite sport since the age of 13.
“So going into high school, going into university, I thought that was my life and I was quite scared about life after sport and you see a lot of athletes have a lot of struggles coming out of sport and into the real world.
“But certainly (after) my experiences in Indonesia and in the real world and having hobbies that aren’t skiing, that aren’t athletics, I’m excited for life after sport and what that can look like.”
Rae in action at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. (CGA Archive)
Anderson was happy outside the elite sport bubble, until “an insane chance meeting” sucked her back in.
In 2019, Anderson was on a ski trip with her family, wearing an Australian team jacket belonging to 2014 and 2018 Winter Paralympian Tori Prendergast.
It prompted a chat with an Australian national team coach about her journey.
“He came back to me the next day and said ‘I’ve got you a job, I’ve got you accommodation in Jindabyne and I’ve got you on a coaching program,'” she said.
All of a sudden, Anderson started her rapid rise in para alpine skiing, culminating in becoming Australia’s seventh athlete to compete at both Summer and Winter Paralympics.
Returning to sport has also proved mentally empowering for Anderson, who was born with left hemiplegic cerebral palsy.
“I grew up in hospital a lot with surgeries just to be even able to walk, let alone run and ski,” she said.
“So there’s certainly some post-traumatic stress associated with that and being able to work through that through sport has been quite empowering as well.”
Anderson is realistic about her prospects in Beijing, where she’ll tackle giant slalom on Friday and slalom on Sunday, but is looking long-term.
“You don’t want to just come here and be a participant, you want to do well and reach for medals and goals and everything,” she said.
“But certainly this Games for me is going to be a bit of a learning experience, learning what it’s like to compete at this level, in this sort of bubble.”
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But not just any talented athlete can successfully switch to winter sports.
“Athletes transfer sports for a variety of reasons, including a different opportunity that might not have existed or no longer exists in their current sport, but they still feel like they’ve got something else to give,” Paralympics Australia’s head of Para-sports Tim Matthews told AAP.
“Others might not progress any further in their current sport and seek opportunities in other sports.
“To start with, it’s about understanding what sport you might be eligible for, then also where you fit in that classification system and the depth of the field and some of t hose considerations might be a factor for some individuals.
“I see our role at Paralympics Australia as around facilitating some of those opportunities that might present themselves and linking athletes still with the talent, desire, interest to transfer to another sport, depending on what their motivations are.”
One shining example was in 2014.
Matthews, who won three gold and two bronze Paralympic medals in his own career, knew fellow sprinter Simon Patmore – the 100m T46 gold medallist at the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games and 200m T46 bronze medallist at the London 2012 Paralympics – loved skateboarding.
He discussed with Patmore a switch to winter sports ahead of the upper-limb deficiency snowboard category being introduced for the 2018 Games.
In PyeongChang, Patmore won gold in the snowboard cross and bronze in the banked slalom, becoming the second Australian after Gold Coast 2018 silver medallist Jessica Gallagher to medal in both the summer and winter Games.
“That came about simply because his preferred event was no longer on the program at the Summer Games so he was looking for some opportunities, the star s aligned for that one,” Matthews said.
“I remember we were in Germany at an athletics competition and we were riding push bikes around and he was standing up on the seat with one foot on the seat, one foot on the handlebars.
“He did send me some footage of him skateboarding, some of it in areas probably he wasn’t supposed to be skateboarding.
“But as soon as the snowboard coach at the time, Lukas Prem, had a look at that, he got him into a camp really quite quickly down at Thredbo and he travelled overseas that next season and within a year was really competitive on the World Cup circuit. So it can happen pretty quick for some athletes.
“While the quality of competition at the Paralympic Games, whether it be summer or winter, is getting stronger, there’s still some of those opportunities for the right athletes with the right attitude, right skill set to progress a lot quicker than an able-bodied athlete might.”
A successful ‘talent transfer’ is as much about opportunity as suitability.
Sometimes the athlete’s class from an impairment perspective can determine their success, while for others negotiating a transfer from one sport to another can add a level of difficulty, especially if funding is tied to a particular code.
“You end up seeing some success stories that might reach a Paralympic Games and ultimately might win a medal or a gold medal like in Simon’s case,” Matthews said.
“But for every one of them that comes off, there’s plenty of others that try and it just doesn’t quite work out or they lose interest in the new sport because it’s often not a sport that’s in their blood, so to speak.”
Winter athletes need to be able to commit to travel and long stints away from home, but there’s one trait they need above all else.
“You need to be prepared to get hurt, essentially, and put yourself on the line a little bit,” Matthews said.
“If you’re not prepared to do that, you might be a good skier or a decent snowboarder, but you’re probably not going to make it at the elite end.
“So it’s really that mindset of: are you actually prepared to put your skis straight down that hill and go really fast, or just a little bit fast?”