Magic Menna going for gold
WINTER SPORTS GARETH EVANS
THE Macclesfield area is not without its links to sportsmen and women who have reached the very top of their professions.
Reg Harris, who spent his later years living here, was a four-time winner of the track cycling world championships.
A gold postbox stands in the town by way of tribute to Britain’s most successful yachtsman, Macclesfieldborn Ben Ainslie. And there are others in Disley and Poynton celebrating the achievements of paralympic cycling heroes Ben and Sarah Storey.
Now we have another world champion. And at just 17 she looks set to dominate her sport for a considerable time to come.
Menna Fitzpatrick, a Media Production and Technology student at Macclesfield College, earlier this month travelled home to Tytherington after winning the Overall Women’s Visually Impaired World Cup alpine skiing title in Aspen, Colorado.
Together with her sighted guide, Jennifer Kehoe, Menna, who has no more than five per cent vision in her right eye and barely any at all in her left, took the world by storm in a series of disciplines - becoming the first-ever British athlete to lift the World Cup Globe trophy.
It was not simply a case of finding room in her luggage for the one trophy, either! She also needed to pack a second as newlycrowned Giant Slalom World Champion, along with three gold and three silver medals.
If these achievements at such a tender age were not already enough, they are made all the more remarkable by the fact that merely entering the World Cup was not even on Menna’s radar when the recent winter season began.
As Menna explains: “Both Jen and I were really shocked as we didn’t believe that we could have won it, because it was only our first season skiing together.
“And we only qualified for the World Cup partway through in January.”
The points-system in paralympic ski competition enables athletes to graduate between different levels of international racing. Menna’s original ambition for 2015/16 had been to compete at Europa Cup level, but her results were so good that she was able to make a speculative World Cup debut at St Moritz - only a month before heading out to Aspen.
Menna races at speeds of up to 100kph some four or five metres behind her guide, who wears a hi-visibility jacket.
“Jen is my orange blob to follow,” she says, “but good communication and trust between us is also critical.” The pair keep in ‘radio contact’ using Bluetooth headsets attached to their ski helmets.
Menna’s first ‘orange blob’ was her father, David - during family skiing holidays that, from the age of five, she spent with him, her mother Mair and elder sisters Elin and Ffion.
“To my horror,” admits David, “I occasionally forgot she was skiing behind me, as I went off piste!
“But Menna was always fearless about going fast. We knew even then that she was a natural racer.”
His youngest daughter is quick to agree with him, adding: “I’d just have to be ready for anything!”
Menna had not long moved up from Prestbury Primary School to become a Fallibroome Academy pupil when, as a 12-yearold, her ability was noticed by the British Disabled Ski Team (now ParaSnowsports GB) during a talent-spotting day at Chill Factore, next door to the Trafford Centre.
An invitation to train with BDST in Austria followed. And so began in earnest a rigorous regime for Menna of attending further training camps - as well as quite unholy 6am Sunday morning practices at Chill Factore!
She started competing on the ParaSnowsports GB Development Team, with David as her guide, and training across Europe and the UK as she further honed the fundamental skills of a racer over the next four years.
In all this time Menna never neglected her studies. And she kept on top of an ever-increasing homework load by completing it between races or during ‘down time’ at training camps.
Then, after taking her GSCEs at Fallibroome, she went to a specialist boarding college for the visually impaired in Hereford. And, for a few months at least, the sporting side of her life lost its appeal.
“I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do,” she explains, “and I fell a little out of love with skiing.
“But a family ski-trip over Easter got me interested again. And I was then invited to join the Welsh team for training last summer in the Netherlands, on the world’s largest indoor slope at Landgraaf - which I really enjoyed.”
With her passion reignited, she teamed up in November with Jennifer, 32, a racer for the Army Ski Team. And the rest, as they say - and, incredibly, within less than four months - was history.
Because the individual World Cup results were based on performances in a number of events, Menna and her team were back at their Colorado training camp when they heard that the overall title was hers.
“Jen took the call from Aspen,” the new World Champion recalls. “And the champagne was brought out...”
Pausing to turn to her father, the diminutive teenager adds, with an impish smile: “... well, for Jen anyway!”
Next season will bring with it a new goal for Menna at the World Championships in Italy. And 2018 perhaps the ultimate one, when South Korea host the Paralympics.
Maxonians may well anticipate seeing more of those gold postboxes around the town!
●● Menna Fitzpatrick won the World Cup Globe trophy