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Sarsfield ready to give her all in pursuit of a Winter Olympic place
FOUR months from today, the first full day of competition at the Winter Olympics in Sochi will be drawing to a close.
With a number of British athletes in the world's top ten for their chosen discipline, it promises to be one of the most successful Winter Games in history for Team GB. Yet while the countdown clock continues to tick, only one sport, curling, has selected its competitors for 2014.
For everyone else, the remainder of this year promises to be a tortuous mix of waiting and wondering, with the vagaries of form and fitness determining whether they are handed an opportunity to compete on the greatest winter stage of all.
Durham skier Emily Sarsfield has been here before. Four years ago, ahead of the 2010 Games in Vancouver, Britain's ski cross number one suffered a horrific crash that left her with four ruptured ligaments, a broken femur and tibia, damaged knee meniscus and a wrecked Olympic dream.
Having rebuilt both her body and career in the intervening period, little wonder the 29-year-old is determined not to miss out again.
“I know what that feels like, and I'm not going to go through it again,” said Sarsfield, who attended Belmont School and learned to ski on the artificial slope at Silksworth, in Sunderland. “Missing out because of injury is one thing, but in some ways, I think failing to make the qualifying criteria when you're fully fit would be even worse.
“We've got seven World Cup events between now and the start of the Olympics, and I just have to perform well enough in those to maintain my position in the world rankings and qualify for the Games.
“If the Winter Olympics were taking place tomorrow, I'd be going because I'm ranked 30 in the world and the top 32 are guaranteed an invite. I need to keep my ranking place where it is, but ideally I'd like to improve it because I think I'm capable of so much more and I feel like I'm improving all the time.
“Last year was the first year where I was pretty much working with a coach full time, and it's made such a big difference to my racing. I feel like this could be a really big season for me.”
Be that as it may, given the heartbreak she suffered when crashing in a pre-Olympic test event in Vancouver in 2009, is there not a temptation to err on the side of caution so close to the start of the Sochi Games?
Statistically, ski cross is the most dangerous of all the Winter Olympic disciplines in terms of the regularity of accidents and crashes, hardly a surprise given that the sport sees four skiers racing head-to-head on a 1.5km course that features turns, banks, humps and jumps that can be up to 100ft high.
In such a volatile environment, is there a need to strike a balance between pushing hard enough to maintain your world ranking while also taking precautions to guard against unnecessary risks?
“The minute you start holding back in our sport, that's the moment when you're most likely to get into trouble,” explained Sarsfield. “If you had a cast-iron Olympic place, you could probably try to take a few less risks, but that's absolutely no guarantee that anything would be any different. There are three other people in your race, and you've got no control at all over what they're doing.
“You can only control yourself, and personally, I'd much rather be pushing myself to the limit in every race because that's what you train to be able to do.
“The fact that nothing's guaranteed at the minute keeps me hungry as an athlete, and that's what I'm used to. I don't get a penny of funding – everything I spend, I raise myself from sponsorship or fund-raising initiatives – so I feel like I've been battling against things throughout my career and that's where the hunger comes from.
“The fact I haven't had anything easy has given me my motivation so far, and that's what I thrive on. The fact I've still got to go out there and qualify for the Olympics is probably a good thing because it should drive me to produce my best performances.”
And if she does make it to Sochi, Sarsfield is expecting an explosion of interest and publicity on the back of last year's successful summer Olympics in London.
“The British team has had one preview media day, and it was like nothing any of us had ever seen before,” she said. “I think they were having to turn people away in the end.
“There's definitely been a knock-on effect from London. We're the next group of Olympians, and people are watching to see if we can reproduce some of that spirit and success.
“It won't be easy because, historically, we've never really had a great record in terms of Winter Olympic success, but things are definitely changing. The whole 'Eddie the Eagle' image is gone now – we're serious athletes and we're achieving serious success on the world stage. Hopefully, some of that will translate into medals next year.”
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