Professional musician. Silver medal winning Triathlete. Gold medallist Para Alpine skier. Shona Brownlee has the sporting world sitting up and taking notice.
The words “Brownlee” and “triathlon” have felt like natural partners in the British lexicon over the past decade. Add “musician” and “skier” to the mix, though, and you might realise we’re in different territory here.
And while she might not be as well-known as Alistair and Jonny today, there’s every chance that Shona Brownlee (who, for the record, is no relation to the aforementioned brothers) maybe the name on the nation’s lips when the Beijing Paralympic Games begin in March. Not a bad prospect for an athlete who, by her own admission, “got into skiing almost by accident”.
The journey began with a leg injury sustained during training with the RAF in 2012 and leading, eventually, to the decision to receive an elective amputation in 2018. “I’d never skied before my injury,” Brownlee explains, “and it wasn’t something I’d ever considered until I was offered the opportunity to take part in the [MOD, Help for Heroes and British Legion led] Battle Back programme”.
As she got started, did she see it as a way into a sporting future? “Not at all! The idea of ski racing had never occurred to me at that point.” Instead, she explains, “I just saw it as the chance to take a break from the intensive rehabilitation programme I was undergoing, and the opportunity to try something a bit different. I could never have imagined where that 10-day introduction in Bavaria would lead!”.
Three years later, it’s led to the emergence of an athlete who seems ready to take her sport by storm. Her first season of competitive racing saw her land three British Championships gold medals, two further gold medals at Europa Cup finals and an overall third-place finish in the season’s Europa Cup competition. How did that first season yield such rich rewards? Brownlee puts it down to a mix of desire and freedom from expectation.
“It was a bit of a baptism of fire,” she says. “I’d only recently had my leg amputated and was still going through rehabilitation, while throwing myself into a busy season of races. Obviously, I wanted to do well, but having never done anything like it before there was very little pressure as I had no expectations to live up to”.
That, of course, is no longer the case; selection for the Beijing Paralympic Games is a real prospect. To Brownlee, it represents the opportunity to fulfil a real ambition. “The idea of being selected to represent GB at the Paralympics is really exciting. I think competing at the Olympics or the Paralympics is every athlete’s dream, and it would be a huge privilege to represent my country”.
As for the triathlons, they’re another newish string to Brownlee’s bow. “My Armed Forces Para Snowsport Team coach, Nikki Jordan, actually encouraged me to enter a charity triathlon in 2019. Partly it was a rehab goal, as I’d just started cycling and running again post-amputation, and partly it was to help raise money for AFPST”.
The experience sparked a new passion. “I ended up enjoying it so much, I did another one two weeks later! When it came to lockdown last year, triathlon training helped keep me occupied and fit, and it complements my ski training really well too.” And, as with skiing, Brownlee discovered there was real talent there too; she took silver in the 2021 British Para-Triathlon Championships.
Brownlee’s talents extend beyond the sporting arena too; with a Master’s degree in Music, she might well be the most talented musician in Britain’s snowsport ranks too. “Music’s played a massive part in my life,” she explains. It’s a practice which has stood her in good stead for the rigours of elite sport training. “Ever since starting piano lessons aged 7, growing up my evenings and weekends were spent rehearsing and playing in concerts”. As undergraduate and post-graduate qualifications followed, before beginning a career as a musician in the RAF. “It’s almost all I’ve ever known!”.
It’s been quite the journey for Brownlee since 2018 – “a whirlwind”, as she describes it. “I don’t even think it has sunk in yet that going to the Paralympics could be a possibility”. With the clock ticking down towards Beijing, though, it won’t be long until the newly crowned RAF Sportswoman of the Year knows whether that idea will become her reality.
— RAF Music (@RAFMusic) November 19, 2021
Shortly after this interview was conducted, Shona Brownlee was among the British Para-Alpine squad that returned with four medals from the NorAm Cup in Panorama, Canada, with Brownlee taking a gold and two silvers.
shona brownlee Biography
- Born: 1979
- Discipline: Para Alpine
- Hometown: Livingston, Scotland
- Top Results: 2 x gold medals, Europa Cup finals
Header Image: Shona Brownlee photographed by Marc Amann for GB Snowsport