‘I got off the boat feeling I could do anything’

Paralympic skiing champion Charlotte Evans is one of a growing number of athletes left staring into the abyss when their sporting careers come to an end. However, an invitation to take part in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race helped turn her life around. Charlotte Harpur hears her story

As one half of Britain’s first Winter Paralympics gold-medallist pair, Charlotte Evans had a purpose in life. At Sochi in 2014, Evans guided her visually impaired skiing partner Kelly Gallagher to first place in the Super-G. However, the following year she suffered concussion in a training fall that not only forced her to miss the IPC Alpine Skiing World Championships, but to leave the ski team altogether. She felt alone, lost, not knowing what she was going to do with the rest of her life.

Evans needed time to recover from her head injury, but time was one thing that UK Sport, under pressure to achieve targets, could not afford. “I felt like a product,” she says. “I had to be who they wanted me to be.” But she could no longer fit that mould.

Her world was about to change. No longer would she know exactly what time she was going to wake up, what to wear, to eat, to drink, to do. That routine had been taken away from her. Some would find that liberating. But when you have known no different, to have that daily structure pulled from underneath your feet can be unnerving. “Everywhere I went I was known as Charlotte the Skier. Skiing was my life. I couldn’t make any decisions. I was in a very dark place.”

It was as if Evans had been stripped of her identity. She did not know where she belonged. She needed a challenge, something to push her out of her comfort zone, to focus her mind. Then along came the Asia Pacific leg of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race aboard the Great Britain boat to tick all those boxes.

Evans had never been on a boat before, yet alone sailed one. Why on earth would she want to navigate nearly 6,000 nautical miles from Airlie Beach in Australia to Qingdao in China?

“Heeling at 45-degree angles, and surviving hurricanes, put me in a vulnerable position,” she says. Especially for someone who, to this day, is terrified of the sea. “I still don’t swim on holiday,” she admits. “I go for a paddle, but that’s it.”

Evans could never reveal her fears on board. “It was the same [skiing] with Kelly. I could never show her that I was scared. I always had to mask my nerves.” She called upon this resolve to get her and the crew through their gruelling expedition. If anyone was down, Evans was always the one to remain positive. Crew-mates, no matter their age, job or title, would go to her for advice.

The novice sailor went ashore feeling like a new person. “I got so much confidence from the crew; I felt like I could do anything. The boat made me realise that I can try new things. I no longer had to be identified as a skier. I was who I wanted to be. It made my thoughts clearer.”

On board, Evans proved that she is, and always has been, a resilient team member and outstanding communicator, transferable skills which employers value. Fortunately, the Chief Constable of Kent recognised Evans’s competency and she is now working for the force, managing 450 cadets and 100 staff.

Evans acknowledges the numerous benefits of dedicating your life to sport, but also highlights the need for an organisation to look after athletes once they leave professional competition. “Former athletes need careers advice,” she says. “Not everyone can become pundits or coaches.” Indeed, Gail Emms has spoken openly about her past struggles to pay the bills (see the article HERE).

It has not been easy for Evans since she left the ski team. Now aged 27, she says that she is lucky to have supportive family and friends and to have found a job that she enjoys. It is not the same for everyone. From her experience, it is clear that UK Sport need to invest more effort into the future of retired athletes before they find themselves sinking.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Charlotte HarpurCharlotte’s latest articles

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