Repurposing a leading ski racer


Formerly one of New Zealand’s top ski racers, Erika Harris talks to PHILIP CHANDLER about how she’s adapted to life after she retired, and why her hubby’s happy she didn’t run in the Queenstown Marathon last weekend

After a life dominated by ski racing, then being a stay-at-home mum, 2020’s been a coming-out year for Queenstowner Erika Harris.

In May, the former NZ Winter Olympian, who was already on Snow Sports NZ’s alpine sports committee, became chair of the Queenstown Alpine Ski Team (QAST).

Last month, she graduated, after nearly two years, from the second intake of the NZ Olympic Women’s Sport Leadership Academy.

And all year, she’s been sponsorship manager for the NZ Sotheby’s International Realty Queenstown Marathon, which ran last Saturday.

‘‘I tell you what, it’s been a long, interesting road actually finding out who I am, other than an athlete and a mother, and what it is that I’m actually passionate about.’’

Anyone unfamiliar with ski racing probably doesn’t appreciate how all-consuming it is.

In the case of Harris (nee McLeod), who turns 39 this week, it dominated her life from the mid-‘90s till the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy.

Growing up north of Auckland, she learnt to ski, then race, at Whakapapa in the mid-North Island.

‘‘I got into one of the club races at the age of six or seven and won that and kind of from then on just went, ‘I love this’ — just the thrill of trying to get from the start to the finish as fast as you could.’’

After making the national junior team, at about 13, she had her first northern hemisphere experience at 14, then didn’t have a summer for nearly 12 years.

‘‘It was my life, like, everything was sacrificed for that.’’

Even between seasons she was preparing for the next one.

After leaving Auckland’s St Cuthbert’s College, she shifted to Queenstown in ‘99 and joined QAST.

While winning the overall national championship five times, she missed out on the 2002 Olympics by two FIS points so had to wait four more years to reach her ‘‘all-time goal’’.

In Turin, she crashed in her favourite event, giant slalom, then, in very foggy conditions, finished 40th in the slalom.

It wasn’t her best performance, but just to experience such a huge event was unforgettable.

What was also special is she had 22 supporters in tow including her partner, Mark Harris, whom she’d met three years earlier — the year before, he’d also co-founded NZ Sotheby’s International Realty.

Erika, who then retired, says ski racing’s such a specific sport — ‘‘it’s just such a small margin between first and 10th’’.

‘‘It’s very much an individual sport when you’re in the start gate, but it takes a real team around you to achieve and to succeed.’’

However, it also taught her many life skills like self-management, she says.

Retiring after the Olympics, Erika and friend Sophie Lucas then ran a personal training business for about two years before having a family — she has three kids, 11, 10 and six.

‘‘I was very lucky to be able to be a stay-at-home mum for a lot of those years when they were little.’’

Now, however, she’s very happy to be putting something back into her sport by chairing QAST, which her children are also in.

‘‘I think it’s dawning on me more and more how big a responsibility it is.’’

But she credits the Olympic women’s leadership academy for having given her more confidence in the role.

‘‘It will be something I will constantly refer back to and use for personal development.’’

As for Saturday’s marathon event, she quips that her sponsorship role gave her an excuse not to run it this year.

It also meant her hubby wasn’t embarrassed about her beating him again, joking he was quite happy she didn’t run so he got ”a clear field”.