MORE than a few Scots will fling themselves into the frozen fray as Winter Olympians for Team GB this fortnight in Salt Lake City. Even if, in the shape of Alain Baxter, Aviemore slalom specialist with the apt and rather stirring moniker, there can be only one Highlander. Then again, maybe not.
Making his Olympic debut in the same alpine discipline will be young half-brother Noel, at the precocious age of 20. He may not yet boast the fanbase of his renowned sibling, nor the obligatory website to which ski enthusiasts dispatch goodwill messages, and Noel has not even acquired a nickname. But if he did? "Eh, Highlander II?"
While Alain, 28, has been busy blazing a trail for British skiing for a decade now, through edifying dedication and innate ability, Noel now follows that exhilarating path with alacrity, demonstrating similar traits of persistence and performance. Both were home in Aviemore in recent days, catching all-too-rare spells of creature comforts before heading to Austria for final race practice, then across the Atlantic to Utah.
Noel made sure that he popped into his grandparents for an enjoyable natter. "My Gran’s so excited. They’re just so happy and so nervous, I’m sure. During the racing she’ll be sitting there shouting at the telly." In their house, says Noel, are loads of photographs. "They have so many pictures of Alain with his skis and Lesley with a snowboard." That is Lesley McKenna, cousin of the Baxter brothers, who has made a huge impact on snowboarding since switching from skis, and will be in contention for a Games medal.
That brings us to three Highlanders from the same family. A fourth competitor from these parts is Mike Dixon, who again carried the British flag at the opening ceremony. A veteran of the biathlon, Mike, from Kingussie, embarks on an unprecedented sixth Games. Noel described how the community of Aviemore have prepared suitably-sized banners to demonstrate the support that the competing quartet will have behind them in the US.
The one who has the largest international recognition is Alain - Austrian journalists bequeathed the Highlander tag - though cousin McKenna has gained no end of prominence in her discipline. This is Alain’s second Winter Olympics: he was there in Nagano, Japan in 1998, but was disqualified late in the day for straddling a gate.
After the hardship of years spent competing with scant financial support and carrying out labouring jobs in Aviemore summers to fund his slalom pursuits, Alain - named by his skiing parents after 1970s French slalom racer Alain Penz - switched to short carving skis at the behest of his Austrian coach, Christian Schwaiger, in 1999. His performances got better and better, so much so that in the 2000/01 season he grasped four top-10 World Cup finishes, and was the only competitor to score in each round. In the season finale in Are, Sweden, he came fourth overall.
It was the best British World Cup alpine finish since Konrad Bartelski some 20 years previously. The Highlander ("a bit of fun, it’s where I’m from after all and it’s good for headlines"), having broken into the top 100 in 1998, went from No55 to 11th, the highest spot for a Briton, in one hugely-successful year.
This season has been rather an anti-climax, with Alain dogged by more technical problems, which his ski equipment providers seem finally to have sorted out. He was 16th last month in Wengen, where he says he "nailed" the problem. "It’s like Formula One with the suspension and tyres. The right set-up makes things very different. My last three races have been a lot better. I have a feeling now I can start doing something again. It’s been a tough season, especially at the start. Last year was difficult because I was coming through at the top level. Maybe the expectations were a bit high. There was extra pressure, but it’s all right now. It would have been great to have swapped seasons and had this one before the last. But I made it."
After being at close quarters in World Cup action these past few months, Baxter believes that several contenders will be there or thereabouts when slalom medals are distributed. American Bode Miller, Jean-Pierre Vidal of France and Austria’s Rainer Schoenfelder are, according to Alain, all on fire at the moment. "It’s a race to beat them really, and maybe the rest of us can then get in about."
The previous best Briton was Martin Bell in Calgary in 1988. He came eighth in the downhill, and how does Baxter rate his own chances? "Anything can happen. If I pull two good runs I have a fighting chance of a medal. If I don’t make the top 15, then I would have hoped I had done better."
He does not yet know if he will contest the giant slalom, too. "Last year I didn’t at the world championships. I didn’t want to finish 30th and take a slagging from the press. I didn’t want to deal with that."
Perception counts for much when you are pitching for the top rung. He will remain in the US beyond the Games, as Noel will, for more racing: "There is prizemoney to go for."
Despite now gaining sponsorship from Drambuie, Alain retains an appreciation of the value of money. In Salt Lake City he will share living quarters with Noel. Not surprisingly, given the familial bond, they share their experiences for mutual benefit, and Baxter snr is highly positive about Noel and his progression. "He was already standing out last year. Now he’s got the best equipment in the world, and he’s on really good form. We train together all the time, commenting on each other’s runs."
Noel reciprocates: "We’ve spent our whole time together, and we played ice hockey together [they recently gave up part-time appearances with Perth Panthers]. It’s a good relationship: we help each other. Alain has put British skiing on the map. There are more sponsors and lottery funding, and it has made a huge difference.
"It is great for me. The companies look, I have a name. Alain has done so well - they look at me and think I have a chance. It helps a lot."
For Noel, who only recently made his World Cup debut, Turin 2006 might have seemed the more likelier target, but Utah will provide valuable experience. In spite of the past year or so providing his comeback from a serious knee injury during training, the former British junior slalom champion gives a clear impression he is where he belongs: "I would have been upset not going to the Winter Olympics, but it is still a great feeling to reach the standard."
Then still at school, Noel was in Japan spectating four years ago, but will now be performing for the crowds. "To be honest I’ve had no nerves so far, but it can come down to how you feel on the day. If you have a good run and you risk quite a lot, you can be right in there. I’d be happy with 20th, to be honest, but I still have to go there believing I can."
The Baxters have built much with their shared belief and abilities. Those back in Aviemore, and across Scotland, will watch with great interest when the pair embark on challenges of true Olympian proportions.