BY KIERAN McCARTHY
WINTER Olympic hopeful Jack Gower is planning a trip to Skibbereen this summer. It’s a town that means a lot to his family. His grandmother, born in Dublin, grew up in Skibb. That was home. His father, Richard, spent many childhood summers in the town, too.
‘It’s a place that has a very close affiliation with my family,’ Jack says.
While home is Chichester, on England’s south coast, and he is currently based in Austrian town Zell Am Zee for training, the link is strong to Skibbereen – the town that is home to the full collection of Olympic rowing medals. It’s also where his grandmother met her husband.
‘He was visiting Cork with the British Navy and when they married they got posted to Chile. That’s where my dad was born but he and all my uncles and aunts spent their summers in Skibbereen,’ Jack explains.
‘It’s definitely on my to-do list and I’m visiting this summer which I am very excited about.’
But before that, and because of his links to West Cork and Dublin, Jack (27) is hoping to represent Ireland at next month’s Olympic Winter Games in Beijing (February 4th – 20th). He’ll discover this Sunday if his dream will become a reality. If it does, he will then fly out with the Irish team on a pre-Games camp – but he can’t make any plans until he gets the nod.
‘For me the Winter Olympics are definitely the focus of the year,’ he says.
‘I have been fortunate to have had good results this year. I had the best-ever result for an Irish Alpine skier in the history of the team which is brilliant. I am doing a decent job in multiple events at the moment.
‘Like all these things you never know what is going to happen until you get a phone call or an email to tell you have got a plane ticket or not, but at the same time I would say that I have put myself in a good position at least.’
That best-ever result for an Irish Alpine skier Jack refers to arrived last month in Zinal, Switzerland.
‘It was in Super-G and on the Europa Cup tour which is like Formula 2, except a lot of the top skiers use it as a warm-up race. I got a 13th position in a very world-class field, which translates pretty well to what you can look at in major competitions. I feel very proud to have that result,’ he says, before providing a crash course in his sporting love: Alpine skiing.
‘There are five disciplines in Alpine skiing: downhill, Super-G, giant slalom, slalom and combined,’ he says.
‘I compete primarily in the speed events, so I compete in four, which are downhill, Super-G, combined and giant slalom. Especially in the downhill we hit some pretty fast speeds, like 140kph and more. In the World Cup season, the guys can clock out at around 160kph, but it is normally around 140kph. There are large jumps and the biggest ones we do are around 90 metres.
‘As you go down, from downhill to Super-G to giant slalom, the turns get bigger and the speeds decrease and it becomes more technical which adds other elements. In terms of having a blue riband event it would be the downhill; that’s the one that people tune in to see and it’s a very exciting event. That is where my focus is. This year I am competitive in four events but focusing on the speed events.’
Jack switched from representing Great Britain to flying the Irish flag last summer. He comes with pedigree and an impressive CV. When he was just 16 years old he won the world junior title at giant slalom. He was number one in the world for his age – and his career snowballed from there. But last summer he switched to Ireland. It’s a move he is glad he made as it has allowed him to find a new set-up that works for him, including reuniting with his former coach, Canadian Christian Hillier, who helped him win the world junior title.
‘I decided to represent Ireland because what they were able to provide for me was brilliant,’ he explains.
‘Team Ireland is very super supportive of my goals, they want to help me succeed at my goals and they are very happy letting me run a programme that will get me where I want to go. They were very supportive of me partnering up with Switzerland which has been a huge win for me and has really helped me this season. I am so glad and so proud to be skiing for Ireland.’
Jack’s sporting genes are strong. His dad’s first cousin is legendary British cricket player and commentator David Gower, or as Jack calls him, ‘Uncle David’.
Jack’s need for speed is even stronger again. His Alpine skiing specialities are the speed events. He hits high speeds in Super-G, and he has enjoyed most of his success here. There are big jumps in downhill. The giant slalom is quite technical. They also share one common theme: speed.
‘I have been lucky that I have always been quite a fan of going fast. It’s a great outlet and it’s a brilliant place where you have a lot of freedom. The whole point is to go faster,’ Jack says.
‘It’s like a lot of things in life, once you start to train and prepare and do these things competitively, things start to slow down. That is very much the case in skiing. Once your skillset improves and you have done it for years and years, those speeds don’t feel like the speeds that they are. You feel very calm and you can make those decisions at high speed. It’s when things are going well that it feels really slow and you feel very in control.
‘It’s a challenge, but for a lot of athletes it’s a big draw and it’s a very exciting part of the sport, but it’s your preparation that also helps you get more comfortable and confident at that speed.’
Alpine skiing is a high-risk sport, too. Jack knows this. Injuries go with the territory. He has broken both collarbones, dislocated his right shoulder twice, suffered three leg breaks, dislocated his hip, had ligament damage to both knees and had one serious concussion – but he keeps coming back for more and more.
‘You have to accept that these things happen in sport and especially in a sport like skiing. There definitely are repercussions when you crash at that speed. You have to be comfortable with that,’ he says.
‘When you get to more challenging tracks or faster tracks these thoughts do come up in your mind, but a massive part of the job is to be able to control your thoughts and your thought process through the competition and through training. In a competition you need to be able to hone in and focus on what you can control and at that point you have made your decisions and there isn't a point to back out.’
Jack’s desire to go faster has taken him on an incredible journey, and to some of the world’s most beautiful destinations, and the next stop could be the Beijing Winter Olympic Games next month. Then in the summer his plan is to visit Skibbereen and discover for himself the magic of a place that means so much to his family.