22/03/2022

Gordon Skiers coach reflects on 'emotional' gold for Simpson brothers

The Simpsons won a historic gold for Paralympics GB in Beijing

When Banchory brothers and superstar skiers Neil and Andrew Simpson carried the British flag at the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games closing ceremony, no-one watching on would have been prouder than Gary Whatford.

Whatford is the head coach at Gordon Skiers, based at the Alford Ski Centre in Aberdeenshire, and oversaw the brothers’ journey from beginners to elite athletes.

Neil became the first British male to win a Paralympic gold medal on snow with a phenomenal run in the men’s Super-G vision impaired class in Beijing, with Andrew playing the role of guide to perfection.

It culminated in what had been an amazing journey for the brothers, who have come a long way from starting out on the dry mat over a decade ago.

Even Whatford couldn’t have predicted their rise when first meeting them on the slope when the brothers weren’t even teenagers but Neil was demonstrating a steely resolve even back then.

“I started skiing with Neil when he was about nine or ten,” he explained.

“He started going on these training camps and on one of these, my own son – who I used to dress up like a matchstick with a massive orange head so I could find him on the hill – was skiing with Neil.

“I quickly noticed Neil would ski very, very close to Ben, my son. So one of the days I asked Neil to ski with me, stick on my tail. I couldn’t believe how close he skied to me.

“Neil was the kind of kid who was all or nothing – he still is – and he’d wipe out, dust himself off and go again.”

In fact, it was through Whatford’s coaching that the full extent of Neil’s visual impairment was revealed.

He explained: “One day his goggles had broken, I’d been sweeping snow out of his face all day, and I said to him at one point: ‘Neil, there’s no way you can see properly, what’s going on?’

“And he went: ‘Oh, it’s just the same.’ It took me a while to realise what he meant by that. His vision didn’t change no matter how much snow went in his goggles.

“We started to look at whether there was more to this visual impairment than we thought. It transpired there was.”

From coaching them as young skiers, Whatford was uniquely positioned when watching the pair go for gold in China.

To him it wasn’t just another British athlete to support, he was watching two friends fight for their dream.

When it was confirmed Simpson’s time would not be beaten, Whatford admitted he was overcome with emotion - while the brothers left with not one but two medals after earning bronze in the super combined.

“I was a bubbling wreck when they won that gold, it was a really emotional moment,” he said.

“Neil and Andrew’s race is the most emotional I’ve ever been.

“I was there at every turn with them. I knew what Andy was saying to Neil, I knew what was going through the intercom. I know how they speak, know how they communicate.

“It was an amazing moment. A few days ago I got a message from the Paralympic team coach thanking me for the part I and the club played in their development and that means a lot.”

Their brilliant performances were among the highlights of the Games for ParalympicsGB and Whatford also believes the knock-on effect on his Gordon Skiers club will be huge.

He added: “I’ll be using their success for the club. It would be absolutely crazy not to. This is the first success at that level – I get lots of people in the national team but this is different.

“I’ve spoken to them pretty much every day (since returning from Beijing)

“I’ll get the guys to come to the club and flash the medals. It will show the kids we have that you don’t have to be aiming for this, but if you do work on improving your skiing, this is what can happen.”