Schussing down snowy slopes is an exciting way to spend a winter break, especially for teenagers from Hong Kong who never get to see snow in their subtropical home.
But when Hongkonger Audrey Alice King decided to turn her favourite family pastime into a professional sport, she realised she was racing into a whole new world.
The 17-year-old has been skiing since she was four, and used to visit ski resorts like the ones in Niseko, Japan, with her family four times a year.
The Hokkaido town was also where Audrey got her first taste of ski racing, which eventually led to her joining the Hong Kong alpine skiing team four years ago. The niche national team at the time only had a few members, who were mostly based outside of the city.
After years of cultivating young skiers locally and abroad, Hong Kong was finally able to send two representatives to the 3rd Winter Youth Olympic Games currently under way in Lausanne, Switzerland. And Audrey is one of them.
“Skiing and ski racing are two very different things. The former is fun to do with family, while the latter is a lot more thrilling – and it comes with risks,” says Audrey, who is competing in the women’s Giant Slalom.
The Olympian describes the opportunity to compete at the elite games as something she “would have never imagined”, as she began racing much later than most skiers.
“It’s been really hard to catch up with people my age, because I started racing so late,” the Chinese International School student says.
“Even now, I’m not getting as many days on snow as I would like,” she adds, referring to her dry land training in Hong Kong.
Although Audrey has found it exhausting spending most of her school holidays training in Europe, as well as taking extra days off school for overseas competitions, the Year 13 student considers herself lucky to be a member of the small yet growing national team.
“Because I represent Hong Kong, where fewer people are into skiing, I do get a lot more opportunities to compete internationally than teen skiers from other countries,” she says.
Like most athletes, Audrey is aware of the dangers in her sport but the lionhearted teenager is not deterred, even after she seriously bruised her back when she fell on her ski binding (the device that connects a ski boot to the ski) during a training session in France a year ago.
“It was really scary and painful at the time; I had to be taken to the hospital by helicopter,” Audrey recalls.
“Thankfully, it was not too serious, and I was able to get back on my feet after two weeks.”
Alpine skiing is without doubt exciting, but many are put off by the high cost of equipment, not to mention the expense of getting to the snowy mountains in the first place.
Audrey acknowledges the sport can be financially prohibitive, but says the Ski Association of Hong Kong, China, is doing everything in their power to ease athletes’ financial burden, such as by covering part of their competition fees, transportation and accommodation costs. It is all part of the association’s effort to put the sport on the map in the city.
“The association has been doing a lot of work in recent years, and I think skiing is really moving in the right direction,” says Audrey.
As a member of the national team, she feels a duty to train hard and appear at major events like the Winter Youth Olympics, so that more Hongkongers become aware that there is a a national alpine skiing team that competes internationally.
“I hope that more teenagers in Hong Kong would look to skiing as something they could potentially do, rather than seeing it as an impossible dream,” she says.
After racing in the Winter Youth Games, Audrey will take part in her first-ever World Junior Alpine Skiing Championships in March.
But soon after her junior worlds debut, the student athlete will need to put her mind to studying, as she has university entrance exams coming up. Audrey has plans to attend university in the United States, ideally studying education.
While Audrey sees herself taking more of an academic path, it doesn’t mean she will easily let go of her favourite sport. She hopes to join a university skiing team so she can still tear up the slopes once in a while.
“I believe skiing will always play a big part in my life, “ she says. “I definitely don’t see myself giving it up too soon.”