Road To Russia: North-Easterner's Winter Olympic hopes hanging in the balance as weather conspires against her (From The Northern Echo)
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Road To Russia: North-Easterner's Winter Olympic hopes hanging in the balance as weather conspires against her
IN 2010, Emily Sarsfield missed out on the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in heartbreaking fashion when she suffered a catalogue of serious injuries in a high-speed crash in the build up to the Games.
Four years on, and the fear is that history is about to repeat itself with the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi little more than four weeks away.
With the British team due to be finalised in less than a fortnight's time, the Durham ski cross star finds her hopes hanging by a thread. This time around, however, if she does not make the biggest event in winter sport, it might not be because of her own failings.
Instead, it could be because of that most bizarre of circumstances that occasionally affects Winter Olympians – a lack of snow.
“It seems a strange thing to be saying, but if it doesn't continue snowing like it has in the last couple of days, that's probably going to be bad news for me,” said Sarsfield, who was raised in Brancepeth and learned to ski on the artificial slope at Silksworth, in Sunderland. “I suppose it's typical though. I've had so many ups and downs that it probably wouldn't be right if there wasn't one more bit of drama along the way.”
The qualifying process for the Sochi Games will see the 32 highest-ranked skiers in the Ski Cross World Cup standings on January 19 selected to compete.
Sarsfield is currently ranked 33rd, but with the three remaining World Cup competitions scheduled to take place in Europe, on slopes she knows well, there is every chance she will climb into the top 32 in time. Or at least there will be if the events actually take place.
The two German legs of the World Cup series have been cancelled because of insufficient snow, and while they have hastily been rescheduled in France, the fluctuating weather patterns means no one is taking anything for granted before the start gate actually opens.
“It's been really warm in Europe, and as things stand, we can't be 100 per cent certain if we're going to get another race or not,” said Sarsfield. “It's great that it looks like we're going to get some rescheduled races, and I'll be doing all I can to do well in them.
“It's been frustrating because I started the season in North America fairly well, but in the last few weeks I've slipped from the safe zone in terms of qualifying into the unsafe zone.
“The weather hasn't been on my side, but there's been a bit of fresh snow recently and that's good. I haven't done a lot wrong, but I had a couple of races that didn't quite go right for me and then I had a crash when we were racing near where I live in Meribel.
“It was nothing serious – one of the jumps was about 40m in height, and as soon as I came off it, I knew I wasn't going to be able to land it so I took evasive action – but it was enough to knock me down the rankings a place or two. That's what's causing the problems.”
There is another element to Sarsfield's story as even if she finishes outside the top 32 by this month's cut-off point, she will almost certainly still be invited to the Games. There is a limit to how many competitors each nation can field, and with a large number of Canadians at the top of the rankings, some will have to drop out and Sarsfield will be elevated into the field as the first reserve.
However, the British Olympic Association has previously said that it will not select competitors who are a “second invitation”. Would that apply to Sarsfield if she was elevated into the field? Or would she be classed as a first pick because others are ineligible? Frustratingly, even at this late stage, no one seems to know.
“It's a massive grey area, and it might come down to the discretion of the selectors,” said Sarsfield. “I've been trying to get a dialogue going with them to explain why things have got to this point, and show what I would be capable of if I was given a place at the Games.
“Ski cross isn't like a lot of other sports where there are huge gulfs of class between the competitors. Our sport is so unpredictable, and there are so many crashes, that anything really can happen. I've beaten pretty much all of the girls above me in the rankings at some stage, and on any given day, there's no reason why that couldn't happen again.”
Having shelled out a fortune of her own money to compensate for a lack of central funding in order to keep her Olympic dream alive, Sarsfield would inevitably be hugely deflated if she was not allowed to compete in Sochi. As she knows all too well, however, it would not be a matter of life or death.
At the end of last year, Sarsfield was on a training run at Meribel when she passed a host of medics attending a stricken skier on the slope. Only later did she discover that the skier in question was Michael Schumacher.
“It was a huge shock,” she said. “The whole place has been in a state of shock because Michael has a house over here and you see him about all the time. It's awful, but it sounds as though wearing a helmet has saved his life. Thank God he had it on.
“Whenever you see or hear about something like that, it puts things in perspective. He wasn't skiing anywhere extreme, but that happened. Everyone's just hoping he'll be all right.”
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