The adrenaline rush of hurtling down the snowy slopes, weaving through gates at 100km/h is the stuff that alpine skiers thrive on.
Just ask Lara Falk. The world championship skier from Cooriemungle says as extreme sports go, nothing quite compares to the thrill and freedom of alpine skiing.
But imagine doing it blindfolded.
Falk knows better than most how that feels.
Not only has she done it, it’s her job to be the “eyes” for legally blind Para alpine skier, Patrick Jensen.
The Paralympian has less than five per cent vision. On the ski slopes, he relies on Falk to make up the difference.
She’s been Jensen’s guide for the past two years, a partnership that has taken them around the globe, most recently to the PyeongChang winter Paralympics where they finished a creditable ninth in the giant slalom event.
Together they’ve skied some of the most iconic ski fields across Europe and north America, rubbing shoulders and making friends with the sport’s elite.
With their sights firmly set on the World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Switzerland next March and ultimately the 2022 Beijing Paralympic Winter Games, Falk is optimistic their best is yet to come.
At just 21, she is the only female and one of just three guides Australia-wide for visually impaired Paralympic alpine skiers. It’s a role she combines with her Australian winter job as a ski instructor and events organiser at the Mt Hotham ski resort.
For someone who by rights should now be working in an office somewhere in town planning, Falk is acutely aware of the uniqueness of her role and her good fortune in landing what she views as her dream job.
But it was finding herself on the world stage of PyeongChang a couple of months ago that reinforced her appreciation of just how far she’s come.
“It was a bit of a pinch yourself moment,” she recalls of walking into the stadium for the opening ceremony. “Once, I would have been pretty excited just to be there watching the Games, but to be involved in it was just the most gratifying experience.
I just can’t describe how much I enjoy it.Lara Falk
“It was the realisation that this is my job and this is what I get to work towards. It’s just amazing, I just can’t describe how much I enjoy it,” says Falk, whose mother Carla and two aunts were on hand to watch her compete.
Falk pretty much grew up on a pair of skis, hitting the slopes at Mt Hotham regularly every winter from the age of about three with her father, real estate agent David Falk and later her younger sister Pia.
By 13, the girl from Cobden had started alpine skiing as part of the resort’s race club program, later competing at Mt Buller, Falls Creek, Perisher and Thredbo on a seasonal basis.
“It just turned into something I loved doing,” says Falk. Equally at home in the water, her commitment to swimming and surf lifesaving meant she couldn’t spend as much time training on the slopes as some of her competitors.
By 2015, Falk went into the Australian ski season “fairly committed” but niggling injuries and juggling her first year at university studying a degree in urban design and planning affected her performance, finishing only two races.
She deferred her studies, opting to focus instead on turning her passion for skiing into a career.
In 2016 after landing a job at Mt Hotham as a ski instructor to six to 14-year-olds, Falk was approached by an Australian Para alpine ski team organiser to try out as a guide for Jensen, 22.
She recalls being more than a little hesitant at the prospect and was far from convinced after her first attempt.
“There’s no manual for being a guide and I wasn’t very sure that I would make a good guide. I still had a lot of questions after the first day, but I knew I definitely wanted another go at it.”
The pair spent the following four or five days together on the slopes, getting to know each other and gradually building a rapport.
Built on a foundation of absolute trust, two years of patience, persistence and hard work have forged a highly productive partnership. They are now ranked 13th in World Cup standings with aspirations for a top-five finish next season and possible podium success.
Their best result to date is a fourth placing last January in the slalom event at the World Cup competition in Croatia, followed by an eighth in the giant slalom a week later in Slovenia.
Falk has watched footage of her first outing with Jensen and marvels at just how much they’ve improved. “You just can’t compare it. It’s like night and day,” she says.
It’s hard to imagine another sporting partnership more reliant on trust.
The pair communicate via a Bluetooth microphone system clipped to the side of their helmets, Falk skiing no more than five or six metres ahead, guiding Jensen through the course with a detailed commentary.
Jensen sees Falk as little more than a blur ahead, but how she communicates with him can be the difference between success and failure. It’s her job to alert him to any changes in pitch, rhythm and conditions.
“I have to verbalise everything I see or anything that could affect him,” says Falk. “Just the tiniest little things can make a difference. There’s a lot of trust in our relationship.
“It’s like playing football, or netball or whatever sport you play, with your eyes closed, but we’re skiing downhill at 80 to 100km/h.”
Of all the potential problems, Falk says microphone failure can be the most challenging.
Training can be relentless, the prolonged concentration exhausting.
“After a day of training I’m ruined,” she admits. “Especially if it’s been a long day.”
Keen to experience the sport from Jensen’s perspective, Falk once donned blackout goggles.
The result was a bout of motion sickness and an even greater appreciation for Jensen’s achievements.
“I still don’t know how he does it,” she says.
Theirs is very much a 50-50 partnership.
“We both have to put in as much as we can otherwise it’s not going to work together.” Despite the challenges of the discipline, Falk prefers the environment of Para alpine competition to the able-bodied version.
“Able-bodied is deeply competitive. For me, the Para events are much more enjoyable. It’s just a better environment.”
Barring injury – Falk has suffered a number of concussions and a subluxated shoulder – she is optimistic her partnership with Jensen will continue as a force to be reckoned with into the 2022 Paralympics.
Following this winter’s domestic ski season, the duo will head north in November for their third season on the para alpine World Cup circuit in Europe and north America. From their base in Austria, they’ll hit the slopes in Slovenia, Croatia, Switzerland, France, Canada and Denver.
After a likely short break at home for Christmas with her parents, who now live in Cooriemungle, and some downtime swimming and on patrol at Port Campbell Surf Lifesaving Club, Falk’s focus will turn to the World Para Alpine Skiing Championship in Obersaxen, Switzerland.
“For us, the world championships are just as important as the Paralympics,” she says.