After becoming Britain’s newest – and perhaps most unlikely – World Cup winner, Dave “the Rocket” Ryding, a 35-year-old slalom skier from Chorley in Lancashire, has set his sights on surprising the world again at next month’s Winter Olympics.
Until Saturday no British skier had ever won a gold medal in the 55-year history of the Alpine World Cup. But Ryding’s stunning victory in Kitzbühel changed all that – and earned him 100,000 euros in the process.
When asked about what went through his mind on the start line before his remarkable second run, which took him from sixth place to first, Ryding was disarmingly honest. “I thought: ‘Bugger it, I’ll just try and get down and ski as well as I can and see where that gets me,’” he replied.
The performance made Ryding the oldest ever winner of a men’s World Cup slalom event, but afterwards he was too tired to celebrate with a few drinks. “I am too old for that,” he said, smiling. “I am absolutely shattered. We had a nice meal.”
The popular skier will soon travel to Beijing for his fourth Winter Olympic Games – where he admits, to borrow a phrase from Sir Alex Ferguson, that it will be “squeaky-bum time”.
“Of course I’m going to have pressure and of course people are going to expect I will do well,” he admitted. “At my last Olympics I got to the start gate and it was squeaky-bum time.
“And I’ll be nervous again because it’s the biggest race in the four years. It’s the pinnacle. I’ll be expecting myself to ski well but whatever happens I can go home knowing I’ve got a World Cup victory.”
That win was the culmination of a near 30-year journey, which began when Ryding started learning to ski aged six on the 50m Pendle dry slope in Lancashire. However it was only when he was 12 that he tried skiing on snow for the first time – after his working-class parents promised they would take their first family skiing holiday if he and his sister, Jo, got to a decent level.
His father Carl, a market trader who retrained as a gas engineer to help fund their son’s dreams, and his mother Shirley, a hairdresser, then spent weekends driving Ryding around the country to race. However, they made him pass his A-levels before agreeing he could spend a year trying to make his love of skiing into a career.
“I had to learn everything later as I wasn’t exposed to the mountains until I was older,” he admitted. “It was a tough learning curve but I wouldn’t change anything.”
Ryding’s road to the top continued to have nearly as many sharp twists and turns as an Alpine pass. But he believes years of living on the breadline helped make him the skier he is today.
“In 2010 when the old federation went bankrupt and we had nothing, that was a time where it was tough, really hard,” he said. “It was just me and my coach on the road. But it made me as well and gave me the determination, it gave me the work ethic and just that nothing is given for free.”
“Doubt is always there,” added Ryding, who made his World Cup debut in Alta Badia in 2009 and was competing in his 97th race on Saturday. “You do one race and you’re not happy with it, you’re down in the dumps again, you pick yourself up, you get slapped back down again. It’s relentless but you learn to deal with it, to push out of the gate and go for it.”
When asked if he had plans to spend his 100,000 euro prize money, his reply was blunt: “No, I am a tight arse!”
“I’m fortunate since I’ve been in the top 15 in the world to make a living,” he added. “Footballers earn more in a week than I do in a year. But I’m not complaining. I was absolutely fine with coming away with nothing at 30 if it didn’t work out. That’s what I was prepared to do. And now Kitzbühel. If you are going to win one for prize money it is this one.”
Ryding also hopes that his victory can inspire the next generation of British skiers to come through. Meanwhile he also has a wedding to his fiancée, Mandy, to look forward to in May. But, for now, his focus is the Olympics.
“When you win a World Cup three weeks before the Olympics it’s natural for everyone to talk,” he admitted. “Obviously the pressure and expectation will have ramped up but I won’t be defined by an Olympics. I’ve had an amazing career that I’m proud of. To win one has taken the weight off my shoulders.
“It was a crazy day and it’s been a crazy journey. But I never stopped believing that I could do it.”