Talking To I Gal Jakic
It’s March 2012, Obama is in office (those were the days), Lance Armstrong is cleaner than clean and everyone is obsessing over whether London will be ready in time for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. In the sun soaked mountains of Planica, Slovenia, 200 metres above the crowds gathering for the opening ceremony of the FIS World Cup Ski Jumping Finals, sits Gal Jakic. Surveying the valley below, he takes one last deep breath, before tilting his sit-ski to meet the incline of the slope, sending him hurtling down the hillside, reaching speeds of up to 120km per hour.
As he arrives in the out-run, some 20,000 spectators go wild, pumped up by the carnival atmosphere of the event, and perhaps one or two ‘Slivovkas’. Jakic, however, betrays the adrenaline pumping through his body, calmly executing his finish before giving the crowd a wry smile and an understated wave. No big deal.
To most, what would be a lifetime ambition is a footnote to Jakic, an interesting anecdote. To list all of the strings to his rather large bow would mean a serious rethink of this article’s word-count. So here are a select few. Paralympian, Adventurer, Marathon Racer, Endurance Kayaker, Extreme Athlete, Sports Developer, Entrepreneur, Photographer, Blogger, Loving Husband (he told us to write that), Father.
Gal refers to the common thread which runs through all of these activities as ‘mentality’, his way of describing the ability to switch your perspective in order to deal with life’s inevitable ups and downs. “the media feed us these stories of people at their peak, ‘this guy made it, this woman made it’ but nobody talks about the valleys in between”.
There are various points in Gal Jakic’s life where he was at the summit, but he is keen to stress that to him, the journey is more important than the destination. UP, a film charting Jakic’s life is due for film festival premieres in Autumn 2017, and documents the challenges, failures, distress and delight that have moulded him.
I ask him to describe the importance of the Paralympics to his life and subsequently the narrative of the film. His response is clear, that although important, it isn’t the full story “Sure, it’s part of it but so are all the other crazy things I’ve done”. He doesn’t like to be defined by one tag.
Although he speaks English with an almost American accent Jakic’s sense of humour is 100% Slovenian. When describing his first Paralympic Games experience in Torino his delivery is so dry, it’s hard to discern whether he’s joking or being serious. “I had long hair at the time, so the organisers thought I was a girl”. It turns out he was being serious. The Slovenian team were only allowed to enter one male and one female wildcard, and were obviously confused by Jakic’s flowing locks.
Flights and hotels were booked, not to mention the hours of training Jakic had put in, but it seemed his Paralympic dream would be put on hold. Although the administrative cock-up meant he couldn’t compete, a compromise was reached by the local organisers which meant that Jakic could be a part of the Paralympics. He stayed at the athlete’s village, trained with the team and then took the role of fore-runner for the Slalom race. In the correct gender category.
The long wait ended in 2010 at the Vancouver Paralympics, where Jakic competed in Slalom and Giant Slalom. An event which he picks out as a highlight of his Paralympic career “The Canadian crowd got it. They knew that they were watching competitive athletes. As an athlete you can just tell when there’s a crowd who appreciate what they’re watching and haven’t just been bussed in to fill the stadium.”
However, he’d always seen Sochi 2014 as his chance to medal. “You need one Paralympics just to get used to the magnitude of the event, the second you want to compete but by the third you have to be on the podium.” To Jakic’s noticeable disappointment, he didn’t follow this trajectory. Blaming his own attitude “I’d have a decent run, the coaches would be happy, the team would be happy, but I’d obsess about the one or two things that weren’t right. It was never good enough”. This is of course a common trait among elite athletes, but Jakic was unable to turn this perfectionism to his advantage.
In the lead up to the Sochi Paralympics, things came to a head. Frustrated by his own high standards, a falling out with an unnamed coach, altitude sickness affecting his training and injury hampering his race times, Jakic had begun to fall out of love with skiing. “I was at the Europa Cup Finals in Slalom” referring to the downhill discipline renowned for its demand for quick decision making, and certainly not a place for self-reflection “I was mid-course, the gates were coming at me fast, but all I could think was, why am I here?”
It was at this point that that he opted out, withdrawing from national team training and instead skiing for himself, to see “if I still liked it”. The Sochi 2014 Paralympics loomed large, but he struggled to regain his form and bad weather at his hometown World Cup in Rogla prevented his only chance at elite competition before the start of the event in Russia. In hindsight, it’s clear to Jakic that he wasn’t physically or mentally ready for an event of such a scale.
“Honestly, Sochi was shit. Looking back I don’t think it was a good idea to go”. Struggling with the much criticised snow preparation on the course and technical setbacks, Jakic did not finish in two out of his three runs. It’s clear that this performance still angers him. However, his major frustrations are reserved for the way the media handled him afterwards. “They don’t really consider you as an athlete, so they won’t judge you if you crash. I think they were quite shocked with how direct I was, but I told them - this is not what I came here to do, I had a shit experience”
Loyalty was the motivating factor for Jakic to appear at the Sochi Paralympics, even if he knew deep down that it wasn’t the right decision. “I felt obligation to people who had supported me during my whole career, not just the sponsors and the guys who did my skis, but the techies, my family, everyone.” Feeling that he had re-paid that faith as best he could, Jakic retired at the bottom of the course.
Not the fairytale ending which is so often reported in the world of Parasport. This narrative didn’t fit the template which we like to report on and like to read. The formula of ‘Life Changing Injury + Victory at Paralympics = Redemption’ cannot be applied. But this is fine with Jakic. Who sticks to his mantra of “Being an athlete means being human”. Essentially that we are defined by our bad days as well as our good days.
His retirement from competition, allowed him to pursue all of the projects which had been put on hold whilst he trained or prepared for upcoming competition. “I went from one extreme to the other” switching his focus and energy from the slopes to the office, where he threw himself in to the world of work. With an athlete’s mindset, this is not always the easiest transition.
“I have problems working for somebody. I’ve realised in my post-Paralympic career, I’m not good at being the employee. People have a lot of problems with me because I have my own way of doing shit.” This of course, is not an uncommon phenomenon for elite athletes, especially in individual race disciplines such as downhill skiing. Used to being the centre of a team, where coaches, technicians, physios, even friends and family, are all working towards achieving one common goal; to make said athlete go faster.
Jakic remains involved in Parasports and although he has no desire to progress further within the traditional structures of the sport he is an activist and an advocate nevertheless. He organises training camps for young sit-skiers and tries to create as many opportunities as possible for children and young people to become involved in the sport.
His views on the future of Parasport are forthright. In particular, how developments in technology will inevitably shape the future of the Olympic/Paralympic relationship. “It’s all fine and dandy at the moment, but I’m not sure it will stay like that. We’ll very soon arrive at a point where technology is will level the playing field.”
Although there are a number of athletes who have crossed over from the Paralympics to the Olympics, most are not reliant on technology such as blades to do so, competing in events such as table tennis and archery, without significant technological support. However, given the leaps in the advances in technology over the past 20 years in Parasport, Jakic suggests that like in most areas of life we don’t fully understand the impact that technology will have.
“Where do we draw the line? How can we tell someone like Jonnie Peacock that he can’t use the best technology available to him? He’d be a top 8 sprinter in the world, Olympic or Paralympic if he had the right technology. One day we’ll have that.” I put it to him that this is the responsibility of the governing bodies to police, his response is characteristically blunt. “The cat’s already out of the bag, you can’t just throttle it.”
Having already crossed Slovenia on a bike and kayaked 500km in nine days, who knows which metaphorical mountain Jakic will tackle next. But one thing you can be sure of is that he won’t spend long at the peak. Preferring instead to descend as quickly as possible in order to find the next challenge.
Interview by Ben O'Rourke for Parasports World.
Photo credits: Gal Jakic for Parasports World