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Page last updated at 17:21 GMT, Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Gardner on the slopes

Frank Gardner
By Frank Gardner
BBC News security correspondent

The words "Celebrity Giant Slalom Race" should really have rung a few alarm bells.

I have never raced down a slalom course, never even raced downhill and I certainly don't consider myself a celebrity.

Frank Gardner and Graham Bell
Sunday 17 February
1900-2000, BBC TWO and BBC Sport website

But the chance to compete on BBC TWO's Ski Sunday programme against Heston Blumenthal, Fiona Bruce, Marcus Brigstocke and others at Italy's premier ski resort, Courmayeur, was too much to resist.

So here I am, wondering what I am letting myself in for.

Since surviving a terrorist attack in the Middle East four years ago that left my legs partly paralysed I have managed to return to the ski slopes in a "bobski" otherwise known as a "sitski".

It's basically a wheelchair without wheels, a moulded plastic bucket mounted on a spring, attached to a racing ski, in my case a short and manoeuvrable 168cm long.

In each hand I hold an "outrigger", a collapsible mini-ski on the end of a pole to help me balance and steer down the mountain.

The outriggers can be folded closed to act as ski poles when you need to propel yourself along a flat or uphill slope, or, when clicked open, they act as balancing skis on either side of you.

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Without wishing to sound cocky, skiing in a bobski is not difficult to learn - you can pick it up in half an hour - but it does bring new challenges and obstacles.

I had skied a fair few times - sometimes in unusual places like Transylvania and Iran - before getting shot in 2004.

But it has taken some getting used to, not being able to walk up the steps and into the cable car, or having to be helped onto the chairlift.

The bobski has a switch below the seat which, when opened, allows the chair to pitch upwards and forwards so that the chairlift can swing round and fit into it.

The first time I did this I was convinced I was going to fall right out of the bobski just as the next bunch of skiers were queuing up behind me.

Frank Gardner and Graham Bell
Frank quickly got to grips with his Bobski

It's unnerving at first but you do get used to it.

When it comes to technique, the principles are similar to ordinary downhill skiing. You still have to follow the fall line down the mountain and you still have to reach out with your poles and carve a turn.

Ski Sunday had organised for Dave Chugg, the development officer for Disability Snowsport UK, to give me some coaching and he soon showed me the error of my ways.

Since my spinal cord injuries are relatively low (L2 incomplete, in medical jargon) I still have full use of my hips and abdominal muscles.

Being strapped tightly into my bobski, rather like an able-bodied skier's foot is fitted tightly into a ski boot, I have been able to turn the ski to left or right with just a flick of my hips, hardly using the outriggers at all.

Ski Sunday presenter Graham Bell

This, said Dave, was bad practice.

So now I am having to relearn how to carve a turn from a sitting position, resisting the temptation to steer with my hips and wondering, privately, if all this tuition is going to go right out the window once I am faced with the terrifying prospect of a slalom course that starts off on a black slope.

Out on the slopes the temperature is a crisp -4C, the snow has been falling for weeks and I've had the last-minute training.

Now I just have to get down this thing without wiping out in a jumble of poles, limbs and snow. Let's do it.

See how Frank fares on Ski Sunday on 17 February from 1900-2000 on BBC TWO and the BBC Sport website.

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