19 December 2018
Fitzpatrick and Kehoe - the perfect pair
There’s no advantage or disadvantage for visually-impaired ski sensation Menna Fitzpatrick and her guide Jen Kehoe – they both have the same goal with different roles.
After completely surpassing expectations at the 2018 PyeongChang Paralympics in March, winning a gold, two silvers and a bronze, the pair received their MBEs from the Queen at the beginning of this month.
Now, as Britain’s most decorated Winter Paralympians gear up for another World Cup season, the duo are ready to make waves once again.
Fitzpatrick, who took up skiing competitively when she was 12, is completely blind in her right eye and can only partially see with her left.
She has five per cent vision overall – and that’s where Kehoe comes in.
A British Army officer in the Royal Engineers, the 34-year-old was introduced to FItzpatrick as a potential guide in September 2015, and they immediately hit it off.
“We really just did get along like a house on fire,” said Kehoe.
“Given we spend 23 hours a day together when we’re training, we’re very lucky that we can count the arguments we’ve had on one hand, so less than one a year is pretty good going!”
The role of a ski guide for a visually impaired athlete is intrinsically intense and complicated.
The duo have code words that can have a number of different meanings, as Kehoe explains.
“If there’s a bit of ice for example, I’ll say stand on it and so we have a dictionary of different commands that we read in training,” she said.
“And those words have a whole meaning to them. It’s not just stand on your ski – it’s dig your edges in, get your knees over, and really channel your energy into the skis to stay upright.
“It’s a whole movement.”
Although their communication, the most integral part to visually impaired skiing, is clearly well-fined, the jubilation the pair felt at the Paralympics, where they won slalom gold, wasn’t without its setbacks, not only during the Games, but on the day itself.
Jen Kehoe (left) and Menna Fitzpatrick tasted success at PyeongChang 2018
In their first downhill race, the pair crash and confidence was understandably low.
“We had less than 24 hours to get back onto our A game. It took a lot of time chatting together and to our sports psychologists,” said Fitzpatrick.
Kehoe added: “Confidence was low for both of us. Menna, because she physically fell, and mine because I felt quite responsible as the guide.
“But there was no blame between us. We moved on.”
But, even after winning two silver medals – in the super combined and the giant slalom – and a super-G bronze, their path to slalom gold day didn’t get off to the best of starts.
“I had a terrible morning!” said Fitzpatrick.
“I got hit by a ski boot in the head on the bus and we weren’t allowed to inspect the gates, which is really important for me to get my line. I think there were a few tears!”
However, there were tears of a different kind afterwards, after a thrilling win capped off an unforgettable Games for the pair.
Despite her inspiring success on the snow, Fitzpatrick is well aware of the bigger responsibility she now has as a role model, despite her young age.
“I’m now talking to little kids who are wanting the same dream and wanting to hold my medal because that’s where my inspiration came from – holding Steve Redgrave’s medal,” she said.
“We’ve always promoted that the Paralympics is the same as the Olympics – it’s just the athletes have a hurdle to overcome getting to the start gate.”
“It’s awesome to be that person and doing it gives you the most amazing feeling.”
Kehoe, who is confident of continuing as a full-time guide until Beijing 2022, is also all too aware of the importance disability sport can play in changing people’s lives, especially with the increasing recognition of events such as the Invictus Games.
She said: “It’s so important because sport is an equaliser.
“I’ve got this amazing memory of this guy called Grant Harvey, who’s got really severe multiple sclerosis and who is in a wheelchair most of the time.
“We were hosting some sponsors in Meribel, and Grant skied down perfectly, and the sponsor was gobsmacked!
“It’s so important that people see disability not as a hindrance, but as an enabler to do different things, just not in the same way everyone else does.
Fitzpatrick added: “We’ve always promoted that the Paralympics is the same as the Olympics – it’s just the athletes have a hurdle to overcome getting to the start gate.”
The spreading of that message could well turn out to be their greatest legacy, but in the short-term, it’s all about enjoyment, even with January’s World Championships on the horizon.
“We want to have fun and do as well as we can – if that means medals we’d be absolutely delighted,” said Fitzpatrick.
Have fun they undoubtedly will, as that seems to be the simple, undervalued catalyst for their monumental success.