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Peak performance

Pembroke’s women take to the ski slopes.

Back at the start of December, when most of Pembroke’s undergraduates were preparing for the end-of-term Christmas bop, Liz Adams (2013) was delving into the bottom of her wardrobe to find her helmet, boots and skis. Along with three other Pembroke students – Sarah Flaherty (2014), Maya Gordon (2014) and Angus Hopkinson (2012) – it was the day that she would board a plane to France and begin training to enter the world’s oldest continuing skiing competition: the Varsity Race.

ski 1The Varsity Trip dates back to 1921 and is organised annually by a committee of students from both Cambridge and Oxford Universities. In 2014, nearly 3,000 students went along to enjoy a week in Tignes packed with skiing, partying and relaxing. The highlight of the week is the Varsity Race, which pits the Oxford and Cambridge University Ski Clubs against each other on real snow. Those hoping to race arrive four days early in order to undergo intense training on the slopes.

For Liz, who grew up in Switzerland, it was a chance to return to a childhood passion. ‘I used to ski a lot when I was younger,’ she says, ‘I competed in the British Championships and that sort of thing when I was about fourteen. I think I was something like seventh in the UK, but I haven’t skied much in about three years. The trip gave me a chance to dip back into that kind of intense training for a bit, which was great.’

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In Tignes, the racers get up early to catch the first lift at 8.30am and hit the slopes before the crowds arrive. It’s a rare opportunity to ski on real snow – those who choose to train back in Cambridge have to give up almost half a day each week to travel to the dry slopes in Milton Keynes. It’s so time consuming that many keen skiers simply cannot afford the time, meaning that Liz had not met Sarah and Maya until they arrived in France.

All three girls succeeded in their trials and were awarded places on the Cambridge Blues team. ‘I was so happy that half of the skiers on the Women’s Blues team were from Pembroke,’ says Liz. ‘It tends to be a lot of international students who end up on the Blues team. I’m British but have spent most of my life in Switzerland and Sarah is Canadian. You get all of the different languages coming together, which is really fun.’

On race day, each team member had to prove their skills at both the slalom and the giant slalom. The difference between them is about more than just the positioning of the poles; Liz assures me, ‘They have completely different techniques.’ In both races the Cambridge women’s team were victorious, beating Oxford by an overall time difference of 9.27 seconds.

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Skiing is a sport in which being a girl is often portrayed as being a disadvantage. For the cuppers match, each team was told that they had to either have one snowboarder (given the difference in techniques, they’re bound to be slower on the ski slopes) or a girl. However, the Pembroke team – consisting of Liz, Sarah, Maya and Angus – were determined to prove everyone wrong. The team made it to the semi-finals, where they were the unfortunate victims of the rising fog. Liz says: ‘We were just really happy that we had a team with three girls and we were probably the strongest team there. It was great, especially as this year Pembroke are celebrating the achievements of women with PemWomen@30.’

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Plenty of other Pembroke students also joined the trip to enjoy some non-competitive skiing. According to Liz, it’s a really ‘fun, happy week’ for everyone: ‘I didn’t go last year because I didn’t realise the races would happen on the trip and I missed out. I had a great time this year and I’ll definitely go again in 2015.’

Until then, it’s back to the cobbles of Cambridge. So what’s it like returning to the flattest part of the UK? Liz smiles: ‘I think we’re definitely all missing the mountains now.’

To get an idea of what the Varsity Trip is like, why not watch the video of the 2014 trip?

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