Al the champ

Photo by V. Hempel


Olwen after doing the Cairngorm ski lift road 2.5 times! 2005

Photo by K. Joy



Cross-country news - 8/2/6
Interview with Alastair Duncan and Olwen Thorn of the GB Development squads

The magazine editor of the London Region Nordic Ski Club has kindly allowed us to publish an interview with Alastair Duncan and Olwen Thorn, of the GB Junior and Senior development squads. The article was first published in 2005, and since then both have done very well at the National Championships (see article).

The LRNSC is the UK's biggest cross-country ski club and annual membership is only £15. Membership includes an excellent magazine which is published four times a year. Their website is


By Veronica Hempel.

I was lucky enough to watch Olwen Thorn and Alastair Duncan, both from Scotland, race at Hayes for the British Rollerski Championships on the 2nd July, 2005. They each won their respective divisions and both were extremely impressive! It is wonderful to see talented young people striving so hard for success and athletic perfection. They are also very down to earth, helpful and friendly. I interviewed them via email about skiing, Scotland, racing and ambitions.



To begin with I asked them both a fairly predictable question about their passion for skiing.

Al: ‘Stack of things – I feel free; I stop worrying about everything and focus on the moment or at least on not falling over!’

Olwen: ‘I enjoy the challenge of racing, winning is important to me and I want to keep pushing myself to find out what I’m capable of.’


I wanted to know how long Al and Olwen have been skiing.

Olwen: ‘I was about two and a half/three years old when I got my first pair of skis and I used to go skiing round the local forests with my parents.’

Al: ‘I learnt to ski alpine when I was 3 yrs old – a Canadian mission I’m told.  Thereafter, I was regularly subjected to the Cairngorms. I have tried most types of skiing but got hooked on rollers after going to the Huntly Outdoor Centre – the folk at Huntly are so positive they could sell snow to an Eskimo – I reckon every young person in Scotland should get to go to Huntly to learn roller skiing. Sandy, Roy and Peter are just typical of the brill folk you find in this sport.’


To complement this I asked them who they were taught by and whether they found it easy.

Al: ‘I got the loan of a pair of skis from Mike Dixon – his wife Dulsie teaches my sisters music - when I showed interest one evening while waiting for my sisters to finish their lessons – Mike offered me the loan of a pair of skis – that was it – got back to Kingussie – mum dropped me off and I skied home – a bit shaky.  Mike couldn’t believe I’d managed to ski on them first time – I guess I discovered that I have better balance than I realised and Nordic, alpine etc all blend in together – so I had a pretty good alpine base to build on.’

Olwen: ‘Until I was about 8 I just skied with my parents and then I joined the junior development squad at Huntly.  I was taught by Peter and Liza Collins before joining the GB Junior development squad when I was 11.  I think because I had always played about on skis I had reasonable balance on them and I did a lot of cross-country running at school so once I had some instruction I picked things up pretty quickly.’


Al and Olwen are proudly Scottish and I was curious to know some more about where they come from.

Olwen: ‘The part of Aberdeenshire that I live in is right on the dividing line between very agricultural scenery to the east and more mountainous scenery to the west as you head towards the Cairngorms. The forests make for really good training and when it snows the landscape is completely transformed. When the snow is good it feels like you could be anywhere in Europe, the only thing that gives it away is the lack of any Alps appearing from the tree line.’

Al: ‘I come from one of the most beautiful parts of the Highlands of Scotland – the Spey Valley.  I think I was destined to take up Nordic – I have the perfect training ground on my doorstep – hills behind my house and a 3-mile cycle path at the end of the drive.  It’s stunning here summer and winter, but when it snows and you ski to school – well, it’s my idea of heaven.’


I asked them about global warming and the possible impact it has on their part of the world and their skiing.

Al: ‘The issue does concern me – I think the whole G8 event is a scam – I don’t think we are fully informed about what governments are really doing – the USA spend so much more than the UK on clean technologies but the UK sign up to all sort of things but invest little or nothing in technology that might help the planet. From a skiing perspective – I read everywhere that X-C skiers are made in the summer not the winter – I am so looking forward to the various camps etc that Angharad etc is organising.’

Olwen: ‘It does worry me, winters do seem to be slightly less snowy than in the past, but what worries me more is the general apathy in this country towards really cleaning up our act.  It is very easy to blame governments for a lack of action (the USA being one of the worst offenders) and yet people are very unwilling to change their lifestyle and take responsibility.  For example, glass, aluminium cans, paper can all be recycled, there is absolutely no excuse for people to just bin stuff like that. When you leave a room, switch the light off.  Want to nip to the shops? Walk. Cycle.  World leaders need to do more, stricter rules for industry are needed, but ordinary people also have an important role in protecting the planet.’


I asked them a number of things about their decision to take up cross-country skiing as a sport and who may have been instrumental in that decision.

Al: ‘While a member of Cairngorm ski club (downhill), I raced for the club in Tignes and was presented with the opportunity to try X-C ski-ing. I just loved it from go – it presents a different challenge – you get a chance to really test yourself and discover aspects of your mind and character that you didn’t even know about.  Being able to balance and ski fast on rollers round corners – just awesome.’

Olwen: ‘I have always been very competitive. I can’t even think of a sport I have ever taken up that hasn’t had a competitive element to it, so it really was a natural development that I wanted to race.’


Olwen feels that many people have influenced and encouraged her positively: ‘it has really been a steady progression with input from many different people over the years.’ Al cited Mike Dixon as his number one influence, stating: ‘I saw him on his rollers on one of most beautiful country roads near Kingussie – we drove behind him for a little while and it was superb to watch – I just wanted to try it.’


Both have their idols, Olwen favouring Bjorn Daehlie and Ushi Disl: ‘I saw Ushi Disl ski at the British Army championships racing against the British men and it just amazed me how strong and fast she was.’ Al’s favourite is closer to home as he states: ‘Mike Dixon would be at the top of my list, then some of the folk at Huntly.’ However he does cite some top European skiers including: Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, Mathias Fredrikkson and Raphael Poiree.


Good skiers are to some extent made but they also train extremely hard.

Al feels that he does not train as much as he would like to: ‘I try to get on the rollers or go to the Gym 5 days a week and I have now started to do long slow bike rides to build endurance – this is a long term thing for me – I hope I’ll be skiing when I’m 106.’  

Olwenis keen to point out that: ‘everyone, male or female, needs to carefully tailor a programme to their own needs, the important thing is to highlight areas in which you personally can improve and plan how you are going to achieve those improvements.’

Although Al does,as he says, ‘a stack of stuff: rollers, swimming, running, cycling, gym and the trampoline,’ he also feels ‘it is good sometimes just to veg out and read.’

Olwen’s training programme includes, ‘building in more rollerskiing as we head towards autumn but until now it has included a lot of running (up hills), biking (mainly road but some mountain to keep thing interesting) and swimming.  I also do core strength and weights regularly and more specific training such as running with poles and ski-ganging.’


Both of them see rollerskiing as an extremely important component of their training, although as Olwen points out: ‘it has to be quality training. It is essential to keep thinking about good technique and that way it can even be possible to improve your on-snow technique before the winter arrives.  Another important point is not to spend the whole time skating, a balance between skate and classic is crucial.’

Al also takes great pleasure in seeing his friends ‘taking a real interest in rollers – little do they realise that they would be learning how to ski on snow too.’


Of course these two are racers, so I asked them some questions about racing, beginning with the attractions.

Al: Just getting out and having a good time – taking part and hopefully finding others who see sport for what it is – just good fun and healthy – you get a chance to push yourself and find out how you have improved or what you can improve on.  I am astonished at the technical aspect of the sport – just learning new skills gives me a buzz.  It is also good to see how I can motivate myself to achieve more – I really just love this sport and I just love going fast beside a bunch of other people who are having as good a time as me. I’ve made a lot of new friends through this fantastic sport – interesting folk who have done all sorts of things with their lives – that too is inspiring. .

I gave Olwen a slightly different challenge asking her to design an advertisement to attract more women to racing: ‘Hmmm… that’s a tough one, I think encouraging people to race is dependent on presenting plenty of opportunities to race.  There is a lot of emphasis nowadays on taking part and participating in sport just for the fun of it, which has its place but I would try to highlight how good it feels to have set goals, to work hard and to achieve them.  One things for sure though, I would steer clear of end of race photos; I don’t think there are too many girls who aspire to the “snot dripping off chin” look.’


Olwen’s choice of surface is resolutely, ‘Snow!  So you don’t have to wax your rollerskis but come on, given the choice between any of our lovely British rollerski tracks and a forest in Austria, there’s just no contest!’ Whereas Al replies: ‘I think I just enjoy them both – I do love snow – and is better if you fall – on tarmac however I’m really motivated not to fall!’



I’m always curious about what people think about during a race.

Al: ‘Music inspires me – Rolling Stones, Sex Pistols, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Billy Idol, The Clash, Janice Joplin – but not necessarily in this order.’ 

Olwen: ‘I don’t let my mind wander too much otherwise it is very easy to slow up without realising, I just try to keep my head up, keep my technique together and get over the top of each hill. That’s certainly how I deal with a 10km or similar.  I have done longer races (the Koenig Ludwig Lauf) and then I just think about who I’m going to catch next.’


I also wondered what their ultimate goal with racing is.

Olwen: ‘This year I have a full FIS licence so the aim is to do as many FIS points scoring races as possible. I am going to be based in Grenoble so I should get plenty of training and racing opportunities.  I’ll also be heading to the British Nationals, I have a few personal goals there.  This year for me is all about finally making the leap from national to international competition.  Of course there is also 2010 and to qualify for it really would be the ultimate achievement.’

Al: ‘It would be great to go to Vancouver 2010 for the Olympics – the Canadians have a web site with a section called Podium 2010 – I hope that I’ll see some of the GB junior squad out there on the podium and I’d love to be with them too – a bit of work to do!’


They both really enjoyed coming down to London Hayes for the Championships, Al describing it as ‘terrific – even before we came down we had really helpful and welcoming emails from Hilary Fields – that just set the tone – everyone was so friendly and encouraging.  It was good because I had met some of the members in Aviemore previously and this experience was great too – to see people ahead of you and what they are doing and how they perform in a race is great for a junior like me - I just enjoyed the whole thing – I wanted to go down at the weekend but my folks thought it best not to travel given the atrocities in London – but there will be other times for London and I hope LRNSC members will come up to Scotland and enjoy the Huntly and Kinloss events.’

Olwen loved the race stating the‘track is good and the race was well organised and great fun. Obviously winning was a highlight.’ She felt it was ‘a shame that we couldn’t have had everyone on the same rollerskis but apart from that it was great.’


To conclude the interview I asked whether they would like to devote the next ten years to skiing.

Al: ‘No not ten years –much, much longer! I’ve lots of other things I want to do too – but most of them involve skiing or teaching skiing in my spare time – I would really love to see Nordic take hold in the UK and roller skiing seems like the perfect hook.’

Olwen: Has anyone got a lot of money that they’d like to fund me with?  It would be a very big step to take and I could do with finishing uni first but if I can find a way to do it then it is a definite possibility, I certainly haven’t come up with a post uni career that I’d rather have!!

Thanks a million Al and Olwen!


Huntly Nordic Ski Club

Cairngorm Biathlon & Nordic Ski Club

London Nordic Ski Club

GB rollerskis series 2005 – final standings