EACH of Team GB’s Winter Olympians will be able to tell a different story about the moment they became inspired to pursue their chosen sport.
Some will describe winter holidays that sparked a lifelong love of skiing. Others might talk of trips to the local ice rink or the sight of Torvill and Dean on television.
Of all the athletes preparing to compete in next month’s Winter Games in Sochi, however, it’s a safe bet that South Shields biathlete Amanda Lightfoot will be the only person to have experienced a sporting epiphany during a six-month tour of Iraq. In the searing heat of the desert, a Winter Olympic dream was born.
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“I joined the army as soon as I left school,” said Lightfoot, who is one of two North-East biathletes to have been selected for next month’s Games along with fellow Armed Forces member Lee Jackson, who hails from Stockton. “I did a year of basic training at Harrogate and then was posted out to Germany for three years. In the third of those years, I was posted to Iraq for a six-month tour.
“It was there that I first heard about Army biathlon. My captain over in Iraq was Sarah Hadley, and she was heavily involved in the biathlon programme. The Army have always supported the sport, and she was looking for fit females to join the Adjutant Generals’ Corps team.
“When I got back from Iraq, I made a few inquiries and was selected as one of the females within the regiment to attend an adventure training course for biathlon. I’d never skied in my life before, but it sounded like a bit of a challenge so I thought I’d give it a go.
“At the end of that year I went to the British Army Championships, and then a year after that I was chosen for the development squad for the GB team. Six years or so down the line, and here I am preparing for the Winter Olympics. It’s incredible really.”
The Armed Forces are proud of their Winter Olympic record, with Lightfoot set to become the 101st member of the Army to compete in the Games since the end of the Second World War.
Without military support, a number of winter pursuits would barely exist in this country, with biathlon boasting a special resonance because of its unique combination of endurance skiing and rifle shooting, both of which have obvious connections to the forces.
In an era of widespread military cutbacks however, nothing is sacrosanct, and towards the end of last year, the Army announced it would not be continuing to fund the British Biathlon programme beyond the end of the Sochi Games.
Since then, administrators have been desperately searching for sponsorship, but unless a £50,000 hole can be plugged before the end of this month, next month’s Games will be the last to feature British biathletes.
Both Lightfoot and Jackson would be required to return to their previous military duties, even though they have sacrificed potential promotions in rank in order to pursue a career in sport.
“It would be a big change,” said Lightfoot. “The Army have been brilliant right through this and, if the worst comes to the worst, they’ve promised to be fully supportive of my move back into a military role.
“There’s a job there for me and I’m grateful for that, but having turned my life upside down in order to move from being a soldier to a professional athlete, it would be hard to flick a switch and change right back.
“We’re hoping it doesn’t come to that and there’s a lot of work been going on to try to come up with the money we need. I’ve given up so much to be able to compete at world level that it would be really disappointing to have it all taken away. But if it comes to that, at least I’ll go out knowing I’ve made to the Winter Olympics.”
Lightfoot is only the second British female ever to have satisfied the qualifying criteria for a Winter Games, with her decision to base herself full-time in Norway for the majority of the last two years having helped her soar up the world rankings.
Based outside Lillehammer, the venue for the 1994 Winter Olympics, the 26-year-old is reminded of just what she is up against every time she opens her front door.
She didn’t put on a pair of skis until she had turned 19, but in Norway, as well as Sweden, Finland, Germany and Russia, biathlon comes as naturally to young children as walking or running.
“It really is a way of life over here,” said Lightfoot. “People go skiing over here like they would go jogging back at home. There’s a thing called roller skiing, which is basically a set of skis with wheels on them, and that means the kids can ski all year long.
“Coming from a country like Britain, you’re at a massive disadvantage because there isn’t that tradition or culture of skiing. Over here, biathlon is a massive deal, and for the major World Cup events, it wouldn’t be unusual to get more than 30,000 spectators turning up.
“I think they’re predicting those kinds of crowds in Sochi, and it’ll be an incredible experience to be part of that atmosphere at the Games.”
Lightfoot will compete in the sprint, which features a 2.5km loop interspersed with two bouts of shooting, and the individual competition, which will see her ski 15km while taking on four shooting breaks. Her performance in the former will determine whether she also qualifies for the pursuit.
Her target is a top-30 finish, with the sprint likely to be her strongest discipline, and if she achieves it, she can claim to be the best female British biathlete in history.
“It’ll be tough, but I think it’s achievable,” she said. “I’ve been doing quite well recently, and my main aim is to achieve my best-ever career performance at the Olympics. If I do that, I’ll feel like I’ve done myself justice and all the hard work and training will have been worthwhile.”