TIC TALK Podcasts

Exploring personal experiences of inclusion

TIC TALK 10: Sylvana Mestre

A podcast with Sylvana Mestre

 

Sylvana Mestre

Sylvana Mestre

Play and Train

Sylvana Mestre is the driving force behind Play and Train in Spain, an organisation that is really making a huge difference to opportunities in sport for people with disability. She is also one of the worlds leading advocates in sport for people with disability and key figure in the international community of disability sport.

Transcript TIC TALK with Sylvana Mestre

Peter:

Welcome to today’s Tic Talk and it’s a great pleasure to introduce Sylvana Mestre today, hello Sylvana.

Sylvana:

Hello, how are you, Peter?

Peter:

Good, I’m good. It’s a real pleasure to be able to come across Sylvana because I’ve known about her work for many years, now Sylvana is involved in a variety of roles which we’ll talk about in here but also was awarded last year the Spirit of Sport Award from IPC, the International Paralympics Committee. That was last week, wasn’t it?

Sylvana:

Yeah it was the Sport Award.

Peter:

Sport Award.

Sylvana:

Yeah.

Peter:

Okay, okay. And it’s called a recognition, I wanted to mentioned that because it’s recognition of many, many years of work at all levels of sport from the high performance right through to grass roots.

Sylvana:

I was flattered for that award because you never think you merit it.

Peter:

So tell me, Sylvana, how did you get first involved in this area, what happened to your—

Sylvana:

Well what happened, life has interesting ways of turning around. My husband died, we were very young, I was 38 years old, my background is sport as an athlete before in the Alpine skiing team then as a coach. And when my husband died, we had two little girls at that moment and I was a little bit depressed. So a sport journalist from Spain, he told me no way you are quitting the sport, you need to see it. So I went with him for one week to the French Alps to see the Paralympics Games, Alpine skiing Paralympics Games. And I have to tell you, I was astonished.

At that moment, I was working in Salomon, the binding and skiing company. In fact, I was responsible in the marketing department and I was giving material, equipment, for the Paralympics teams but I never thought I was giving that equipment say to poor people who need to give them equipment. But I never thought what it would have meant. And what I saw in those mountains was, honestly I saw athletes. So something inside me triggered. This was October, in November I was called to guide a blind youngster from 15 years old so I thought why not? I quit my job in Salomon so I started to guide, we started to race, we raced for several races that year. We won quite a lot of races and yeah, that was the start and then I became a coach for the Spanish team and then technical director for the Spanish team.

And in 2002, during the Salt Lake City Paralympics Games, I was selected by the nations to become part of the, what it was called in the moment, the Alpine skiing committee from the IPC. And in 2007, I became the chair of the sport technical committee for Alpine skiing for the federation of the sport.

Peter:

I’m interested to talk to you about the connection between grassroots sport and high performance sport because you crossed that divide, but particularly in a sport like skiing as well which is very interesting to see how you connect. What are the connections between grassroots work and your high performance work?

Sylvana:

I think that life is competition. We cannot forget that. Whoever says that life is not competition, I think is wrong. Life is pure competition and sport is the same. We need to have good high performance sports to go down to grassroots. We cannot forget that we need grassroots, grassroots is where everything starts. It starts when a child starts playing at six months, there is a progression and kids should do all types of sports disabled athletes because it has become very professional until 13 years old 14, leading disabled athletes to 15 years old. At 15, they have to decide what sport they want to practice more strong.

But what is clear is we need a clear image and clear structure in high performance for the youth to look up. It’s like, you know, we say in Spanish, I don’t know how you say it in English, when you do a race of dogs, then put the rabbit in front so we need to put the rabbit in front to see where you can arrive. Then you can decide I want or I don’t want to arrive because I think it’s good, everything, so you know, sometimes society tends to say in sport, if you don’t arrive, you are nothing. No. No, that’s wrong. That athlete who wants to arrive to the high performance needs all the teammates in order to arrive there.

So everybody’s part of the success of that athlete and we need to remind that athlete, he needs—you are here because of everybody so for me, it’s a kind of education from the grassroots. We need to educate the grassroots and to educate grassroots, we need to make the high performance athletes come down and educate grassroots. It’s a double thing. When I was a coach, because I never forget first thing, I am a coach simply as that. When I was a coach, I used to say to my athletes, you can ski incredibly well, but the races, you win with your head, your mind. So never forget that.

Peter:

I want to do a bit more about how you get—skiing is a very individual sport in many ways, but how did you get that team, you were talking about being able to get a team spirit to see what the next level is and you need to feed off your other teammates. How do you engage that team spirit in an individual sport like that?

Sylvana:

It’s a challenge because yeah you are right, skiing is difficult and from my experience as an athlete, you are together in the hotel, you are physically training together but then when you are on the slopes, it’s sorry, you or me. There is no other way. The first loser is the athlete. This is the truth. In the end, this is the truth so what we need to help our athletes to understand and our youth to understand because it also relates in how they performlater. So we need to teach them that to arrive to the top, you need the teamwork of everything each moment when you are having lunch, each discussion even regarding a fiancé or a girl you like or a sport you like because you watch other sports, you can be from one team or the other one, how you do the interaction so sometimes coaches forget that and they only center on the pure sport.

But I think a coach for youngsters, children and youngsters, is much more than that and a coach for high performance, sorry, it doesn’t exist, that what we call. I was a high performance coach, we are just a tool because a high performance athlete, he already knows what he has to do. He already knows. The only thing is we are there to remember him because success, it fades very fast. I mean, you know?

Peter:

One of your first roles was a guide to a blind skier. For people who are listening to this, if you see anything to do with blind skiing, it’s extremely impressive to see and it’s scary to see the first time when you do that. Can you just tell me about that experience as being a guide for a blind skier?

Sylvana:

Well people tend to—when they see people with disabilities skiing, society tends to say, or people tend to say, wow the blind skiers, this is the worst, how will they do that? And I will disagree with that. For me, the most as a coach, the most challenging and critical disability to teach and to achieve something is hemiplegia.

Peter:

Okay. Why is that?

Sylvana:

From a mechanical point of view, it’s hemiplegia. For me, it’s a question of confidence and it’s a question of communication. Like everything, you were asking me before how you build teamwork. Communication. How you build confidence? Communication. How you build confidence with a blind athlete? Confidence. If you have confidence in me, you will go behind whatever I say. So it has this point and then the confidence of when you are teaching that athlete a movement and now I speak technically, this athlete needs to feel inside that he’s doing correctly or not correctly the movement that he’s doing something so he’s learning something.

Peter:

Tell me about your role with the IPC now.

Sylvana:

Well at present, I am the chair of the sport technical committee. The sport technical committee is the core of the International Paralympics sport for Alpine skiing. So we manage all the sports from rules, calendars, qualification criteria, everything that will be a sport. But also lately because I believe in development, I have been pushing for that and thanks to the Agitos Foundation that we have it now, we are doing the development projects. And we are doing development projects because I believe the federation has a lot do to as a federation on that field – is the only way that we can concentrate, we say in English, worldwide, similar working way.

So you have Australia, you have USA, you have Austria, you have Spain, each one you have government, each one has their own way of working and we need to create a network where all these countries, all these—because how it works, this part, this is the first question, you have the International Paralympics Committee. You have the NPC stakeholders of the stakeholders of the National Paralympics Committee, the committees inside the federations and then you have the clubs, the association. So again, we go down the row and we have in the end, clubs in small communities or the park or the base, where the base of the sport—and we need to put them all—we need to help them to get together and to start this—to communicate again. This work we’ve been doing for some time.

Peter:

Effective communication can make a massive difference, particularly when you’ve got a structure like you just explained, which is quite complex, really, and quite deep.

Sylvana:

It’s complex, it’s deep, it’s not easy to work because it has a lot of also political impacts that we cannot forget, this is the International Paralympics Committee but the federation can do a lot of things and we start it little by little, the first camp was in 2006 in the French Alps where we have the kids from—that camp was through the NPCs, okay? So it was IPC event skiing who contacted the National Paralympics Committee to come. So we had kids from Canada, we had kids from Slovakia, we had kids from Slovenia, from Spain, from France, from Belgium, so okay, a number of kids. In that moment, I was able to raise money from the International Skiing Federation, from the IOC, from the IPC and then some private donors.

And it worked incredible, it worked so well that today as we saw in the last four championships, we have five, six athletes who are in the top 10 in IPC Alpine skiing. They recognized that the small moment for me was when they won the medals in the world championship and they recognized to the press that if it was not for that camp, they will never have continued skiing maybe. So it had an impact. So this gave me the strength to push to have more camps. And actually we have a project, ongoing project—again, in Europe and European countries, but this is kind of a model that I want to implement. In fact, next week I have a meeting here with the disabled winter sports to explain how this has been done and if we can implementing something here between the region of New Zealand, maybe New Zealand, Australia, Korea, Japan, you know? Why not?

And this camp is an ongoing camp but the most important thing with this project is that I wanted not to involve the National Paralympics Committee although they are aware and they are invited, I wanted to tackle organizations inside each country who were working with grassroots. And these organizations that I tackle, one per country, they should get in contact with other organizations inside their country to bring the kids. So it has been a success, honestly. So we have Spain involved with Play and Train, we have Italy involved. For example, in these two countries, two organizations and working with organizations inside their country, so each one of them, they bring kids from other organizations.

So already the network inside, Italy was—then you have Netherlands with Netherland Federation and also the johan Cruyff Foundation. We have Germany, Germany is the only one that it’s their National Paralympics Committee—it’s not the National Paralympics Committee, it’s—how you call it, I don’t know in Germany. It’s the skiing federation of the—German Disabled Skiing Federation, in a way, it’s related. And then we have Slovenia with a foundation created, in fact, very powerful, it was fashion model Alan who became suddenly blind because of retinosis. So he created this foundation and I say Alan because it’s impossible for me to pronounce the name of the foundation. And he’s working also with other organizations inside Slovenia. So far it has been very successful with the sport but we do also education because it’s the base that—

Peter:

Wow, you’re incredibly busy, it seems to me. Well I would like to ask you finally what motivates you to keep—you’ve been involved for quite some time and you’ve very, very busy now, what continues to motivate you?

Sylvana:

I love what I do. You know, people come to me and say oh, Sylvana, what a great job you are doing and I say sorry, you are wrong. Don’t—for me, first as a coach, it’s so challenging as a coach when I need to help a hemiplegic or a blind or a paraplegic or a cerebral palsy or a spinal cord to be able to ski, I need to be creative so it’s what I study. It’s incredible. It makes your mind and yeah, as a coach, it’s the most rewarding work in the world. As a person, I have fun. I mean, it’s incredible and it’s incredible when you get disabled kids together and you see the transformation, you know? When this kid comes and say oh, because this is the truth, this is what he sees. This is what the parents tell this kid and when they see that kid who they were calling, is a better skier than they, ah, my friend, this changes. So I have fun, I love it. I love what I do.

Peter:

I wish you very much the best with it, Sylvana, I’m sure you’ll continue for many more years. So I thank you very much for this Tic Talk.

Sylvana:

I want to say one thing, I want to say thank you for Tic Talk and I hope that with this Tic Talk, we are able to help put all these different organizations together and IPC skiing is there to help. Thank you very much.

Peter:

Thank you.