With the Winter Olympics opening in Pyeongchang on Friday, Alasdair Hooper talks to ski cross athlete Emily Sarsfield about finally making her Games debut at the age of 34
Emily Sarsfield will not believe she is actually at the Winter Olympics until her skis plough a furrow in the Pyeongchang snow. After all, this will be third time lucky for Britain’s number one ski cross athlete who, for one reason or another, failed to make it to the Games of 2010 and 2014.
“Sarsfield and the Olympics haven’t exactly gone hand in hand,” she says ruefully. The 34-year-old from Durham is not wrong there.
Her misfortunes began back in 2009 at an Olympic test event ahead of the 2010 Games in Vancouver when she snapped all the ligaments in her knee and broke her femur and tibia. Despite being told that the injury was potentially career-threatening, in a desperate attempt to qualify for Canada she rushed her recovery and rehabilitation. Amazingly she was back skiing in a matter of months, but unfortunately it wasn’t fast enough to make the British team and the question of whether she should have come back as quickly as she did often comes up.
“I ask myself that every day,” Sarsfield admits. “I do have niggles in that knee resulting probably from that first injury. But would I do anything different? 100 per cent not. The goal was the Olympics in 2010 and that was what I was aiming for. I did everything I could to come back quickly.
“But I do ski cross and it’s an extreme event. There are four of us racing head-to-head on a downhill track with 30 to 40-metre jumps. It’s kind of like two double-decker buses out parked and we’re knocking each other on the way down. In that sport, and in that environment, there are going to be injuries; when people crash they are going to go down hard.
“We have this unwritten rule in ski cross where we say if you haven’t had at least one knee surgery then you’re not a ski cross athlete. Pretty much everyone out there has done at least their ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] or something like that.”
While serious injury is an unfortunate occupational hazard, what kept Sarsfield out of the 2014 Games in Sochi was something completely different. After performing strongly throughout the year in an attempt to make the grade she controversially missed out on selection in the final qualifying event. Only the world’s top 32 are invited to the Winter Olympics in ski cross and she fell just short.
“In 2014, I ticked those performance boxes that Britain asked of me and then, literally at the last competition, I dropped out of being in the top 32 in the world,” Sarsfield explains. “I dropped out of the 32, to something like 33, in the last competition of the qualification period, and Britain said, ‘Yeah, but today we announce the team and you’re in 33’.
“The following day, once they had taken out the people who couldn’t go because there were too many people from one nation, or people were injured, I was actually 25th in the world. But because Britain take the list from the first date, and not the second, they declined my invitation and a load of people who were ranked lower than me in the world went instead.
“That was probably the toughest thing I’ve faced in my career – that was harder than all of my injuries – because it was something that I wasn’t in control of. As athletes you get taught to control the controllable. You always get taught this from your sports psychologist and I was like, ‘Well, I’ve controlled everything I can control, but this thing I’m not in control of – somebody else has made that decision for me’.
“As far as I was concerned I had done everything that they wanted of me with regards to performance. I knew I was skiing my best, and I knew I could go out there and get a really good result for myself and for Britain.”
Not surprisingly, Sarsfield started doubting whether she should be involved in the sport at all. “Ski cross is such a spectator sport. I wanted to be that person that Britain had to support at the Games. I just wanted to put my sport on that stage.
“That was the toughest one of all, especially when you are self-funded and I didn’t have a coach. I was doing all of this stuff on my own and suddenly somebody else made this decision for me and I was like ‘wow’. That wasn’t an easy one. That put a load of question marks in my head and I really struggled at that point.
“I actually had to have some knee surgery. That gave me a little bit of respite just to work out what I wanted to do as an athlete because it killed a lot of the passion that I had for the sport. But once I was on that rehab train again I realised I was still an athlete, I still had stuff I wanted to achieve in my sport. That was it then – it was just ‘Right, I’m going [to Pyeongchang’.”
Sure enough, Sarsfield’s resilient mindset and determination paid off. Just two weeks ago she received confirmation of the news she had been waiting years to hear: she will finally be a Winter Olympian.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alasdair Hooper is a gold standard NCTJ-qualified journalist working for Essex Live and the Essex Chronicle. He is the co-presenter of the SportSpiel podcast and is also the host of the Humans of Chelmsford podcast. A former British fencer, he is also a big fan of both football and ice hockey. Alasdair’s latest articles.