Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

“I was put on ski’s as soon as I could stand”: Laurence Willows on skiing, Olympic dream and the art of balancing academics with sports

Posted on 3 December 2019 by Laoishe MacCana

Ski Cross made it’s debut on mainstream television at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.

What is ski cross? It is a race, roughly one kilometre with added air jumps up to 4 metres high and steep turns side by side. It is a freestyle discipline with more than one skier racing down the mountain at the same time.

Having taken inspiration from the race, Willows went on to race for England just two years later. And five junior world championships, two world university games and six Europa Cups later, he is set to take a step further, having secured accreditation with Team GB this summer.

However, Willows skiing endeavours had started a long time before his Vancouver inspiration. With his parents being keen skiers, his encounter with the sport began when he was a baby.  Laurence recalls;

“I started skiing at 18 months old. I was put on ski’s as soon as I could stand”.

His parents didn’t intend to get him into racing, but they soon realised he had a natural talent. Aged seven he attended ski school whilst on holiday and positioned surprisingly well at the fun race, finishing 24th out of 300 children whereby he was the youngest competing.

Credit: Laurence Willows

Willows then took up dry slope skiing and attended his first camp abroad with the British Skiing Academy when he was 11. Sadly, shortly after this his father passed away, leaving him unsure where to promote his growth within the sport.

“I still did dry slope skiing and kept that up till I was about 15. When I was old enough to decide for myself, I decided to go back to BSA and try skiing again abroad,” Willows explained.

Despite a loss of direction and lack of regular training, Willows shined in the first race of his second innings, thanks to his natural talent and desire to work hard. Daunted by the challenge due to a number of British team skiers in the race.

“One of the funniest things I remember was my friend’s dad was one of the coaches on the radio and they were like ‘who is this guy, he’s come in from the back and now he’s dropped into fourth’. At the end of the round of races I had finished fifth and it was the only race I had ever been to that had a fifth place medal,” said Willows.

Willows growing interest in ski cross drove him to make contact with coach Ian Finley, beginning his first year of international ski cross in 2012. He competed in his first World Junior Championships a year later.

Credit: Laurence Willows

However, ski cross has not always been Willows primary focus. During his sports career, he not only successfully completed school, but achieved a first class degree in BSc Economics, Finance and Banking at University of Portsmouth.

During secondary school, Willows used to miss four weeks of school a year for ski cross, but his communication and honesty with teachers alongside BSA’s support, helped him stay ahead in academics.

“When I went away to the British Ski Academy, they had teachers there, so I would sometimes come back from camp and I’d only do three hours a day but I would actually be ahead of everyone at school,” he said.

Credit: Laurence Willows

Willows kept this approach throughout his time as a Portsmouth University Sports Scholar. The program included strength and conditioning, physio therapy, sports psychology and financial support.

In terms of balancing a university degree, training and competing, Willows used his maturity and high motivation in his sport to ensure he succeeded throughout all three disciplines.  He was determined to complete each stage of education at the earliest possibility, to avoid impacting on his future ski cross dreams.

“I think it links back to when I lost my father, I have always had a very mature mind-set as I’ve had to grow up in a house with just my mum and sister and its been quite different. My drive comes from my Olympic dream growing up, which later was channelled into my university education,” said Willows.

“I got a 2:1 in second year and that was another push for me, I wanted to prove to myself that I could ski and it not hinder my education.  The last three months of university, I was in the library at nine every morning and leaving at 11/12 every night and that’s how I managed to get that first,” he added, as his face beamed with pride.

Credit: Laurence Willows

Willows advice to young sports athletes going through the education system alongside sport is to communicate and to look at the bigger picture.

“What I’ve learned is, it’s all about staying open and being organised and that was the same at university. If you approach teachers or lecturers at the beginning and explain that you want to catch up and work hard to stay ahead, they’ll be a lot more understanding,” he said.

“I think its very easy to get sucked in to one particular channel, when you do a sport. It’s a matter of even for just 30 minutes of the day, setting that aside and thinking about everything in the bigger picture. The reason I did all my education alongside the sport was, I knew there was a chance I could get injured at some point and it’s just having something to fall back on,” said the 23-year-old.

Credit: Laurence Willows

Funding is another hurdle Willows had to overcome throughout his skiing journey.  With the majority of his journey being self funded and the university sports scholarship only being able to cover a certain amount, it has proved to be incredibly difficult to travel around the world as a student. Go Fund me pages have helped Willows live his dream of being a ski cross athlete.

“From the beginning it was when I could afford to do it, I got selected for the World Junior Championships from when I was 16 up until I was 21, and it was a case of trying to fit it in” said Willows.

This week Willows has released his headline sponsor IG Index (trading and investment services firm), which is also his current employer. To support with his ski cross career, IG Index has given him a total of three-months off a year for training and competitions.

Credit: Laurence Willows

However, Willows was hit with a minor setback coming into the current season. He has been in rehab and unable to do any pre-season skiing due to a back injury. Now with Surrey Physio, he aims to be fully recovered and back on the snow in 6-8 weeks.

“The Olympic Games is a long term goal, the dream of every athlete. It could be 2022 or 2026 that I target.”