The Olympic skier from the Caribbean who inked tattoos to fund her comeback

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Anaïs Caradeux likes a challenge. After spending her childhood in Guadeloupe, she moved to the Alps, took up skiing and took on a hazardous Olympic sport. A report by Jonathan Drennan for London’s Guardian.

Fear is a constant companion in Anaïs Caradeux’s sport of choice. The freestyle skier has won four medals at the X Games and represented France in the Winter Olympics but she is always aware of the dangers posed on the superpipe, a 22-foot high icy structure from which she she launches herself and contorts her body into spins high above the watching spectators. “I don’t think you ever truly escape from fear,” she says. “At least I don’t. It’s not as bad as it used to be, but once I stop feeling that raw fear, then I know that I could really hurt myself.”

Caradeux’s event is rife with injuries and she has been no stranger to them herself. She has spent the last two years between events on the operating table with knees that have refused to comply with her demands. When Caradeux is high in the air, she is working with small margins for error. If she tilts her skis just a few millimetres in the wrong direction, the consequences can be fatal.

She talks softly about her friend and role model, Sarah Burke, who died tragically in a training routine in 2012. “Sarah was better than all of us put together, yet she always found time to help. She helped us to travel and compete at the highest level. You couldn’t have found anyone who was a better role model, when she died, things changed for everyone.”

Caradeux is only 26 but she knows she doesn’t have long in her chosen sport. The injuries have taken their toll and finding sponsors continues to be an elusive quest. Two years ago in Sochi, her event was entered into the Olympic Games for the first time. Three weeks before the Games, Caradeux injured her left knee badly competing in Aspen. She arrived in Russia on crutches, trying to keep them out of sight of her opponents. She knew she shouldn’t compete but she was desperate to represent her country, whatever it took.

“Sochi was a nightmare to me. I remember arriving in Russia on crutches and then having to take a painkilling injection just to make it function. It wasn’t wise but, regardless of the pain, I wanted to do everything to represent France. I mean it’s the Olympics. I had problems with training there – my coach couldn’t enter the area – so I was alone. I managed to do my first run somehow and then, for my second run, I told my coach: ‘I’m going to leave it all out there and do something amazing.’ The walls of the pipe were hard ice and I still remember it, I misjudged things just so slightly, and then, as in slow motion, I slammed hard against the wall and blacked out for 30 seconds.”

Caradeux’s relatives were watching on TV across the world in horror. The girl who had spent part of her childhood under the hot sun in Guadeloupe before moving to the French Alps slowly woke up in the snow surrounded by medics. After Sochi, her knee problems continued for two years as she swapped the slopes for the surgeon’s scalpel. From being on top of the world, she lost the majority of her sponsorship and was left to rely on the generosity of a private benefactor, people in her local town and her diminishing savings.

Caradeux is highly intelligent, articulate and is studying for a Masters degree, so why does she continue to put herself through it? “Do you ever know when you feel really stressed? Your whole body is contorted and you feel everything so vividly. Well, when I compete, I ski angry at the start. I’m afraid at the top. How could you not be? Then when you take off, you’re in the air and you’re gliding. It’s the most incredible feeling of peace, the world seems to stand still as you spin. If I could explain it better in English I would, but I live for that moment. It’s like nothing else matters in those seconds.”

The life of a freestyle skier comes with sacrifices. Caradeux grew up the daughter of a dance teacher and she has always moved to her own beat, choosing to spend her spare time hiking in the mountains and building forts as a child. Her Huckleberry Finn childhood brought her cherished friends, who took in the little girl from the Caribbean who had never known the cold. Caradeux arrived in the French Alps at the age of seven and, with the help of her new friends, she become an accomplished teenage skier.

She thinks about those friends often. “When I was 20, I used to get my friends being so envious of my life. I was travelling the world doing something I love but things change when you get older. At 26, you have that bit more perspective. I see my friends doing these incredible things with their families and their careers, and I have so much admiration for them. As you grow up, it’s sad, but you grow apart. I don’t want that but I am never in one place for more than three months. I have made my decisions and am grateful but I have never had a boyfriend. I never had time. I start to think about the future a lot and what I can do with my life.”

While waiting for her knee to heal last summer, Caradeux needed to make money. She found herself employed as a temporary tattoo artist, travelling throughout French market towns. None of her customers were aware that they were being inked by an Olympian and that was how she liked it. “I have always thought to myself, ‘I wonder what else I am good at it.’ This sport has been my life since I was 15. Then I started travelling at this job and I loved the different people I met and the stories they had. It was so nice to be out of that competitive environment and just building these relationships. I loved doing something so different that brought me out of myself.”

Caradeux’s has knee strengthened gradually and she is about to fly out to the US to train, feeling as fit as ever. “I feel strong and ready, and in my mind I know if I keep my body healthy I can go on for a while. I want to make the next Olympics and then we will see how everything is. We get a very short life and I feel a responsibility to try to represent myself as best as I can in something I love so dearly. I know when it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

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