Distance no barrier for special Australian skiing bond

Team Australia excited for Special Olympics (2:56)

Team Australia have departed for the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria, each member ready to give their best in the green and gold. (2:56)

Kristian Sandercoe has touched a lot of hearts in his 29 years and as he takes on the slopes of Austria, representing Australia in the Special Olympics World Winter Games 2017, he'll have supporters stretching from Australia's Snowy Mountains all the way to Switzerland.

The progression to international athlete has been a hard-won victory for Kristian having been born with Autism. He started skiing at six years old when his father shared his own love of snow sports with Kristian and his brother, Kyle, who also has autism.

Kristian's mother, Jan, recalls some initial struggles, before he became a competent skier, participating in school snow sports. Then at 13 years old, his dad died.

The death of a parent is a heartbreaking thing for any child, but for a teenager who found change in routine confronting at the best of times, it was particularly devastating. Not long after, Jan made a decision that would change their lives.

"The year after his Dad died I felt he (Kristian) needed a bit of 'male bonding', so [I] approached Perisher [ski resort] in regard to giving me an instructor for him," Jan Sandercoe told ESPN.

Enter Luke Fitzpatrick and the start of a lifelong friendship; although he and Kristian endured an inauspicious start when bad weather closed in at Smiggins Holes Ski School during their first lesson.

"After a couple of runs at Smiggs, Kristian told me that he didn't want to ski anymore, he was cold and wanted to go inside," Fitzpatrick told ESPN. "We headed for what used to be the kids room to warm up. After offering him a warm drink we basically sat there in silence. I remember watching the clock thinking this is going to be a long couple of hours.

"He had just lost his Dad, which he understood very well. He was very shy, you could almost say he was a little guarded and it took him a while to warm up to new people. Here was this weird ski instructor guy that made bad jokes, I wouldn't have wanted to talk to me either."

From that low key start, Luke and Kristian would quickly forge a close bond which Jan credits as a transforming factor in her son's life.

The Sandercoe and Fitzpatrick clans have long considered each other family. Kristian travelled to Switzerland for Luke's wedding and while he now runs a ski school there with his wife and children, the two keep in regular touch through WhatsApp and Skype.

Luke's sister Gemma is closer to home and regularly goes mountain biking with Kristian as part of his off snow training while skiing with his younger brother Kyle in the winter.

Luke's jokes from those first days might still be bad, but Gemma says they've been an integral part of the Kristian/Luke relationship.

"Luke spent many years pushing the boundaries in respect of both skiing and personality, no-one could tease or muck around much with Kristian before and I guess in a way Luke gave him a sense of humour," Gemma said. Kristian would certainly have needed that sense of humour when Luke decided to give him a nickname, though even he's not sure what made him settle on 'Stinky'.

"When I started calling him Stinky it had nothing to do with body odour, a flatulence problem or anything like that," Fitzpatrick chuckled.

"I remember we were having a great time making jokes and just being silly when I for some reason decided I was going to call him Stinky. His response was immediate and very direct: 'My name is Kristian and not Stinky!'

"I explained that we were friends and friends have nicknames for each other. Maybe I should have come up with another nickname but then again he did start calling me "Big Bum" shortly after so I guess I had that coming."

The learning curve has swung both ways over the years.

When Kristian won a long running battle to go up the Olympic T-Bar at Perisher, Fitzpatrick stood with his friend and student at the top of what was then the steepest, most formidable run on the mountain. As he nervously pondered how to get them both down unscathed (and never to return), Kristian turned to him and said: "It's OK Luke, don't be scared."

Fitzpatrick remembers the moment with absolute clarity.

"It never fails to make me smile. I never underestimated his ability after that."

Off the slopes, a little cooking tuition was in some ways less successful.

"I remember trying to teach him how to make spaghetti bolognese," Fitzpatrick recalled. "I was on a little trip with him and he said he wanted that for dinner. I told him that he was cooking. We found a recipe, wrote it down and went to the shops.

"I wanted him to do this, I wanted him to think about what had to be done and not just wait for dinner to be served. It was a painstaking task for him to find the ingredients, this took a very long time and he was getting very frustrated. I could have jumped in and just grabbed everything in two minutes but I had to let him struggle.

"As much as I didn't like to watch, I let him get frustrated and angry because he couldn't work it out. In the end we ended up with everything needed, including ice cream and went home to cook. I think we ended up eating pizza that night as he burnt the mince-meat."

"I guess we both learnt a valuable lesson that day. For me it was don't let Kristian play PlayStation and cook at the same time."

PlayStation has had its benefits though and when Kristian's competent yet casual approach to completing a race course needed a boost, it was Crash Bandicoot to the rescue. Kristian understood the mechanics of completing a ski-race course perfectly, however the need for speed was something Fitzpatrick struggled to instil. When the star of his favourite video game became his 'virtual' training partner there was no looking back, and pursuing Crash down the mountain still remains the goal today.

Jan is still the phenomenal unwavering support crew behind her boys and you can be sure she'll be bursting with pride watching Kristian represent Australia in Austria. She knows it won't be just Crash Bandicoot on the mountain with her son.

"I've also got no doubt that every time Kristian races, he carries a bit of both his father and Luke with him in his heart."

Fitzpatrick, too, is hugely proud of the man and athlete Kristian has become.

"He has a whole community behind him in Australia and lots of little ones supporting him around the world," he said. "Speak to anyone that knows him and they will all say the same: 'Just knowing him makes us proud...good luck Stinky!"