Here is where my secret winter playground got me

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  •  Sabrina Wanjiku Simader,25, was born in Kilifi County.  Her family moved to Austria when she was three years old.
  •  She learnt the sport from her step-father who passed away in 2012.
  •  Sabrina first represented Kenya in the 2016 Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer in Norway.
  •  She competed at the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang in 2018, where she finished 38th out of 44 skiers.

Sabrina Wanjiku Simader aka the Snow Leopard, is an accomplished Kenyan alpine skier who is based in Austria. She has represented Kenya in several international championships, including the Winter Olympics and World Championships. On Thursday last week, Sabrina suffered a crash during a super-G training session, and is now recovering at home.

Where do you get the confidence to participate in such a scary sport?
I got the confidence to get into ski racing when I was three years old. As a child, I was always interested in the ski wear and the act of racing in the snow, and my confidence continued growing as I grew older. I had a lot of fun skiing. The most important thing in this sport is to be confident, and to have fun.

What role have your parents played in your skiing journey?
My parents were always supportive. They always said, “just do what you love and enjoy”. They never pushed me into more popular careers such as medicine. They just told me to find what I really loved and was passionate about. For me, that was ski racing. It is now my job. It is my business. I am living my dream.

I have never thought about doing something else. Sometimes when I lack financial support I question myself and my decision, but in the end, I always feel content that I chose this path.

Apart from skiing, what other activities do you enjoy doing? 
Ski racing is a full time job. I mean, you have to train hard, especially during summer. Ski races are made in the summer. You can’t be mentally and physically fit enough to go down a slope at 120 kilometres per hour in the winter if you have not trained in the summer. You have to be really prepared. From April to October, I do a lot of conditioning, functional training and strength training. Sometimes, it looks so easy to go down the slope. But there is a lot of work behind it, so there’s not a lot of time left for me to do something else. I have hobbies, but as I said, ski racing is my main job now. If I’m not training, I attend meetings with sponsors and organisers to try and get the support I need to keep doing what I do.

You live in Austria and grew up there, why did you choose to represent Kenya?
I was born in Kenya. My whole family is from Kenya and I look like a Kenyan, so I’m happy to represent my motherland. It is really a pleasure for me to represent not just Kenya but the whole of Africa in this unique sport. I am the first female alpine skier in Kenya, and the first African female alpine skier to finish in the World Cup and also Winter Olympic Games. So, I hope I can inspire more girls out there who want to take up any kind of winter sport.

That said, nothing ever comes easy. There are always some struggles and challenges that may make you give up. I always see the challenges as tests from God. I believe he throws challenges my way to see how much I want to pursue my dream.

Tell us about your experience at the World Ski Championships held recently in France...
It was really cool! That was the best experience I have ever had at a World Championship. I felt really confident skiing at high speeds, even though I had not engaged in a lot of speed training like Switzerland or France and other teams. I just didn’t have enough funds to do speed training.

I visited the Kenya Embassy in Vienna to request for financial support to aid my summer preparation, because that is the most important thing – to prepare well and gain as much confidence as possible. That is the only way you can get good results. And that’s why I was really happy to finish in 26th place worldwide in the Women’s Downhill category. I was competing with the best and fastest athletes.

Do you feel burdened by the fact that you are the only Kenyan representative in international winter competitions?
Not really, but there’s certainly a bit of pressure to post good results. I felt this pressure most during my first Winter Olympic Games in 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea. Millions of people were watching the tournament on TV! I was still young and there were so many doubts in my head. I wasn’t as confident or as experienced as I am now, and the pressure almost consumed me.

I am now trying to become better in all aspects, and I know that every Kenyan is cheering me on. I get so many messages, with people telling me they are so proud of me. That kind of attention no longer makes me feel pressured, it motivates me to work hard and excel. I believe any athlete can transform external pressure into positive energy. I think that is key.

What’ are your short term goals?
To win a few gold medals for Kenya at the Olympics, and to someday break into the top-30 in the World Cup races. My dream is to get to the top of my career, and to keep improving.


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