The sports world is littered with athletes whose accents may not chime with the flag they stand below. It’s not uncommon to hear about athletes who have chosen to sing a different national anthem and represent a country in competition based on other reasons than birth alone; sometimes it’s residence, a long forgotten grandparent or that it’s more of a national sport, with associated infrastructure and support.
Every now and again it also happens in alpine racing, but it’s usually where an athlete moves from a bigger to a smaller nation to lay claim to more competition time or consistency. With Estelle Alphand, however, a move from her country of birth to that of her mother’s meant a change between two of skiing’s superpowers, France and Sweden. As unusual as it is, for Estelle it made an immediate contribution to a string of positive results.
Growing up as the daughter of one of France’s most successful alpine racers ever, skiing came as natural as breathing to a young Estelle. Her father Luc won the Downhill cup three times, with titles for Super G and the World Cup also lining the trophy cabinet. Having a French legend as a parent, and living her whole life in Briançon, France was clearly ‘home’, but every summer she would top up on her Swedish roots, spending time with her grandparents outside Gothenburg.
— It’s natural that I’ve always felt more French than Swedish. My mother is Swedish, but I’ve been living my whole life in France.
But despite the feelings, and winning gold at the Youth Olympics for France, there was something in being part of the French team that was holding Estelle back. She knew she had the speed in her, but she also knew that to unlock that speed required a different approach, which failed to resonate within the French structure. So when the opportunity arose, and Sweden came calling, the choice was more natural to make.
— I needed a fresh start. My skiing wasn’t progressing any longer, and I felt that I had to prove myself constantly. I never had the peace or sense of quiet and calm needed to perform. There was a constant pressure and it came to a point where I felt that this was no longer what I wanted. So when I got the chance to join the Swedish team, it felt good, and right.
The clock and results don’t lie, which seems to suggest that it was an excellent decision. Last year, her first year under the Swedish flag, immediately led to several top ten results. With a focus on slalom and giant slalom, she now has more energy left for the races, and she’s not afraid to let her skis go into the falline.
— At this level, it’s such a mental game. There are many girls who can ski fast, but to do it on race day takes more than good technique. I knew I had fast skiing in me, but it wasn’t until I felt calm in the Swedish team that I could do what I knew I could. It’s a different mentality there, more positive and maybe less macho too. It’s easier to feel safe and secure in that kind of environment, and it suits me better. Of course, everyone can work on their technique, and I’ve also done that since the move to the Swedish team. But for me the game changer was more the mental aspect. It felt like I was part of something good and positive from the beginning, from the trainers to the other girls. And that was the missing piece for me.
Could the reduced pressure on results and a more secure environment also lead to a reduced drive for future wins and success?
— No, at all. The drive is the same and I have my goals, which as any racer will know is critical. But now, a little reminiscent of my holidays with my grandparents, there are fewer distractions so I can really focus on what’s important.