When the snow melts, when fields of white turn luscious green leaving no remnants of winter behind, Harry Laidlaw will leave Europe and return to Australia.
The 23-year-old dreams of being like the rest of the world’s elite skiers, of following the snow all year round. But financial constraints mean that after spending the last seven months flying down colossal mountains, the Alpine skier must head home, to live with his parents and work on a construction site.
His sole aim will be to earn enough money so that he can slip into his ski boots and hurtle down the slopes when winter returns to Europe’s peaks and, just perhaps, become his country’s finest skiing export.
Though money does not motivate Laidlaw – “what I’m doing now is pretty amazing,” he says – he will not progress in the sport without it.
The Australian is not yet one of the world’s best Alpine skiers and neither does he come from a country with infinite resources to finance his ambitions, which means reaching the pinnacle is not only a question of talent but economics, too.
It can be a brutal existence, akin to climbing Everest in flip-flops: Few become great without funding, but few want to fund those who aren’t great.
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“It’s not easy,” says Laidlaw in his easygoing Australian manner.
“Australia doesn’t have as many skiers because they quit quite early because we’re so far away from home and have to live in Europe for seven months of the year. It’s an expensive sport so when there’s no support from the federation it’s hard to make it work.
“We have a ski federation, but Alpine skiing is not something they support really because we have Scotty James, who is a halfpipe snowboarder, and we have some really good mogul skiers, so a lot of the money and support is driven to them. It’s left to us to find sponsors and money to keep it going.
“When I’m home I’m working and trying to make as much money as I can to go towards my skiing. It’s purely trying to make enough money to break even by the end.”
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By spending the off season on a building site and working at Hotham Alpine Resort in the Victoria, around 132 miles (213km) away from his home city of Melbourne, Laidlaw, with the added support of his parents, keeps alive his dream of climbing up the world rankings.
There have been times, he admits, when he has considered giving up. Times after a bad race or practice session where he wishes he could speak to his brother, once himself a ski racer, or his mum, a former ski instructor.
“Sometimes it feels like I’m alone a lot,” he says of half a year spent thousands of miles from home.
“But it’s not really hard to get motivated because I have my goals that I want to achieve, and I know the top guys have so much more support around them, so I have to work harder than them to achieve what I want to, or to get to that top level where those guys are,” says Laidlaw.
“Australia hasn’t had a Top 30 giant slalom skier ever so that’s one of my goals, to be ranked in the Top 30 and go beyond.”
At the World Ski Championship in Are, Sweden, he finished 37th in the Super G, but did not complete the first run of the Giant Slalom. Ranked 96th in the world in the Giant Slalom and 256th in the Super G, Laidlaw knows he has much to do.
Once a promising AFL player, he could have been on a lucrative contract in Aussie Rules by now, but the skier has no regrets.
Since joining a small private team, Global Racing, a couple of seasons ago, Laidlaw – who is also studying to be a paramedic – has never been happier; he is more appreciative of the opportunities that the sport brings; the different cultures, the adrenaline rush of spending his days working at high velocity.
He has made friends, he says, with the 10 skiers of various nationalities who make up the team created by the American coach Paul Epstein. They are a crew of skiers who either have no backing from their country’s federation or who are on the fringes of their national team’s set-up.
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“I’m envious of teams that have physios and equipment guys but, no, I’m really happy at the moment with our team,” says Laidlaw.
“It is quite special because we’re really good friends, whereas I think on those national teams they’re all fighting for a spot. From what I see they don’t really vibe so well.”
During the season, Laidlaw will train four to five days on the snow, resting on the off-days which will often involve staying with his European teammates “sleeping on the couch or something.”
Best photos from the 2019 ski season
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He often spends time with teammate Dries Van den Broecke, a Belgian in his second season with Global Racing, who before joining the team would spend his evenings looking online for cheap hotel deals, booking flights or driving to the next race.
Though he now has a coach, a program to follow, teammates to learn from and travel arrangements taken care of, money still is, the 23-year-old says, “for sure a worry.”
“We have to pay the program fee, which is $21,000, and we have to pay travel costs. It’s a lot of money,” he says.
“Luckily enough I found a sponsor to pay a program fee because I don’t make enough money yet so my parents have to pay the rest.
“The minimum we spent is around 45,000 euros ($52,000) a year. This year I got 21,000 euros ($24,000) in sponsorship.
“Before I had sponsors it was hard. My parents, mostly my mother, was always talking about the money, it was actually demotivating and you almost start to think it’s not worth it.
“In ski racing, if you’re top 15 you can make a living and you have the money.
“I will make money, but I have to spend it. We are running at the minimum, we’re spending the least possible amount.
“The struggle for money, you have to get over it, because if you keep worrying about that you won’t get good results. If you set your mind on the task you have to do, the training, it is beautiful.”
Like Laidlaw, it is a love for skiing, a sport he learned on a dry ski slope in Belgium, that drives Van den Broecke. They both believe they can improve, that they can compete with the best.
“The big goal is of course the next Olympics,” says Van den Broecke, while Laidlaw admits that he wants to “be the best.”
“I’m trying not to make it so serious and I think that’s when I do well, when I can be free and be enjoying it,” says Laidlaw.
“At the moment it’s fun and I’m having fun so I think that’s the most important thing for me.”