Many 18 year-olds spend their gap year between school and university getting drunk.
Some go travelling, while others do absolutely nothing. Rachael Ferrier, however, is going to the Winter Paralympics. Ferrier, from Kilmacolm in Renfrewshire, is an alpine skiing guide to Millie Knight who, at 15 years old, is the youngest Paralympics GB Winter Olympian ever. The pair will compete in both the slalom and giant slalom events in Sochi with their January selection coming as a monumental surprise to both of them.
Ferrier began working at the Glasgow Ski Centre as an instructor when she finished school last year, but the thought of becoming a guide had not entered her head until one of her coaches suggested in November last year that she give it a try. When she initially raced with Knight, they hit it off immediately, winning two silver medals in the slalom events at their first event together in Landgraff in the Netherlands. Selection for Sochi still did not cross their minds though. The pair were added to the long-list of Paralympics GB athletes and, after winning two gold medals in an event in Austria in January, they had their selection confirmed.
Loading article content
"I was on holiday in Italy with my dad when I got the phone call to say Millie and I had been selected and I just couldn't believe it - it's so exciting," Ferrier said. "When I decided to take a gap year, I would never have believed that all of this would have happened. Even six months ago, I would never have imagined that I'd be going to the Paralympics."
Knight competes in the B2 category for partially-sighted athletes, having only 5% peripheral vision in her right eye and between 10-20% in her left after suffering a rare eye condition during childhood. Ferrier explains that it can take some time for the guide and athlete to work together efficiently.
"It's a lot of responsibility to be a guide because I'm Millie's eyes," she says. "We're trying to keep the distance between us as short as possible - I'm less than two metres in front of her so there needs to be a lot of trust in the partnership."
Ferrier and Knight, who is from Canterbury, have formed a tight bond. When the pair attend training camps they spend almost all of their time with each other, training and competing together as well as rooming together. "The first thing is that the guide and athlete need to be friends," said Ferrier. "That's important, firstly because we spend so much time together but also so that you have that trust there."
Ferrier, who took up skiing at the age of seven, competed in able-bodied racing before her Winter Paralympic adventure began but that has now been put on the back-burner until after the Games. The Scot's excitement about attending her first Paralympics is palpable, particularly with Russia having hosted such an overwhelmingly successful Winter Olympics last month.
"When I was watching the able-bodied Games a few weeks ago, I just couldn't believe that I was going to be there. I was watching my heroes, so it's still strange to imagine that I'll be there too," she said.
Paralympic sport has been given significantly more media attention as a result of the 2012 Paralympic Games and Ferrier agrees that the London Paralympics were hugely valuable in helping people understand para-sports. "I didn't know much about Paralympic sport before London so it taught me a lot," she said. "It's great that it's getting more coverage because people can then see what we really do"
Knight and Ferrier do not have significant pressure on their young shoulders to come home from Sochi with a medal, with the next Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in 2018 Knight's target. "We're just going to try to do our best," explained Ferrier. "It's a huge experience for both of us and it's good that we're not under any pressure."
If Knight and Ferrier do manage to get among the medals, the Scot, as guide, would join the young Englishwoman on the podium.
"It's definitely different to racing individually, but I still get the same sense of achievement," said Ferrier. "And at the same time you get to share all of the highs and lows with someone else, which is great."
Ferrier admits that neither she nor Knight know quite what to expect from the Winter Paralympics, despite having seen pictures of the Athletes Village from the Winter Olympics last month on Twitter. "I'm just trying to stay focused and not get overwhelmed by everything," said Ferrier.