How a near-fatal accident put James on course for Winter Paralympic ski glory

James Whitley
James Whitley

By Derren Howard

“A blind jump at 80mph is definitely a buzz, you just have to commit to it.”

James Whitley describes himself as a speed freak - handy when you spend your days hurtling down mountains on a set of skis in an obsessive pursuit of a Winter Paralympic medal.

The alpine skier from Wilmington, East Sussex travelled to South Korea last Saturday and will contest the Slalom, Giant Slalom, SuperG, Downhill and Super Combined.

It’s Whitley’s second Winter Paralympic experience, having been one the of the youngest ever skiers at Sochi 2014. At just 16, the two-time British Para Alpine Champion competed alongside the world’s finest and finished 15th in the Slalom and 14th in the Giant Slalom. “It was such a confidence booster,” said Whitley. “I know I can compete at this level and in that environment, in front of the cameras. I have four years more experience and I’m stronger. I have never felt better ahead of competition.”

Whitley, who is the grandson of the former Northern Ireland prime minister James Chichester-Clark, was born without both hands. Despite multiple operations and finger construction, both limbs failed to gain enough nerve or muscle function. The 20-year-old now has three fingers on his right hand and two on the left but has limited feeling of movement.

“I ski without poles, so the main problem I have is at the start gate where you want that extra push. Obviously without the poles you lose an element of balance, all the balance has to come from the arms, legs and hips.

“I have been fortunate because I have grown up in a time where I have been encouraged to participate. Not once has anyone said to me, you shouldn’t be doing this. My family could see how much I enjoyed it and they have been so supportive.”

Soon after he could walk, Whitley was skiing. His first experience was on a family holiday in Courchevel, France at the age of four.

He continued to ski but two years later he almost died when he and his family had a boating accident on Lake Annecy in France.

“A power boat went over the top of our small boat with an outboard motor,” James’ Mum Tara recalled. “Our boat sank with James trapped underneath.

“Fortunately he was wearing a life jacket, so he came to the surface after several minutes. He sustained a great deal of internal bleeding, broken legs, ribs, jaw and had to be resuscitated on the lake side. It took eight hours of stabilising him at the hospital, before they could take him in to surgery. Following that, he had lost the feeling from the waist down, and was in a wheel chair for several weeks.”

Bizarrely, it was that horrific accident which set him on a path to become a Winter Paralympian. During his rehabilitation, Whitley was introduced to Eastbourne-based Professor Nick Webborn, who was the chief medical officer for the London 2012 Paralympics and also for the Invictus games.

“Nick knew I was a speed freak and I loved my skiing,” added James. “He put me in touch with a few of his friends and a year later I had a try-out at the Chill Factor in Manchester.”

Whitley’s talent was soon recognised and he raced with the British Disabled Ski Team. In 2012 he came second in the Giant Slalom and third in Slalom at the Italian National Championships, his first senior medals. Whitley left school and has competed full time since the beginning of the 2016-17 season. He was British champion in the inaugural British Para Alpine Championships in 2016 and again in 2017. Gold came his way at the Europa Cup finals in Veysonnaz in 2017 while in the World Cup, he ended the season fifth in Super Combined and ninth in Slalom.

The alpine skiing events at the Winter Paralympics begin on March 9 and Whitley, who was a guest last Friday on the Channel Four show The Last Leg, is determined to produce his best on the grandest stage of all. He flew out with the team on Saturday. They landed in the capital city Soeul and made the 100-mile trip east to their training base in the heart of the Taebaek Mountains at the High1 Resort, close to Pyeongchang.

“I can’t wait, I have been absolutely glued to the TV coverage. Myself and the whole team are ready. It’s an individual sport but we work and train together as a team. We are a close bunch and the support for each other has been great. The Super Combined and the Slalom are my strongest events and probably my best chance of a medal.

“Having five events is a tough schedule but I have prepared. I will compete and then rest and recover. A medal is the target but anything can happen on the day. Last week a Czech girl (Ester Ledecka) won gold in the Super G and prior to that, her best finish was 29th. There are so many variables.

“I’m taking to Korea the mind-set that I’m going to do the best I can. Put all my training into my racing and absolutely smash it.”