Skiing: Chemmy Alcott in pole position for Sochi test
Britain's top skier has recovered from injury but must prove her form ahead of the Winter Olympics
Chemmy Alcott is a week into her latest comeback, hacking down the slopes of Val d'Isère en route, she hopes, to Sochi. Tomorrow Britain's veteran downhiller flies home for two days, then it's more piste-bashing in Austria.
This, at 31, will be her fourth and final Winter Olympics. For 111 days leading up to her return to snow she was chalking off the hours like a convict counting down to release. Her crime, on the last day of summer training in August, was to re-fracture the double break of 2011 that might have ended her career.
Alcott has what is effectively a giant nail connecting her ankle and knee. Remarkably, it was elation not trepidation that filled her being when she clamped her right leg back into a ski boot last weekend.
"It was just magic," she said. "I know what I'm supposed to be doing, these slow exercises. I can't do it. My heart knows that I'm ready to go fast. From the very first turn that I made I just started carving. We are supposed to do all this foundation work. I just knew I was ready. The angles I was making were exactly the same. It's hard not to be cheesy but my soul is singing right now. I'm not skiing with pain.
"My enjoyment is sky-high, partly because I know what the last 111 days were about. They were for this moment, and it is epic."
Though qualified to compete at the Games by virtue of her performances pre-injury, she still has to convince the British Olympic Association of her fitness. Three weeks at the BOA's Intensive Rehabilitation Unit at Bisham Abbey would appear to have gone some way towards making the argument.
"I have already qualified," she said. "Now I have to show my form. I'm not really sure what that means, but if I can show I'm skiing my best I know I'll be at the Olympics. It's a bit of a grey area. It's the BOA that decides. They know I'm determined. The IRU guys said they had never seen anyone work harder."
Her stay in Bisham was painfully instructive in ways that had nothing to do with her injury. Alcott has spent the best part of her career self-funding. In the absence of any kind of national infrastructure or support, Alcott trains with the Norwegian ski team, paying £50,000 for the privilege. The money is guaranteed by sponsors, every one of whom she has persuaded via an endless cycle of networking and glad-handing. It could be worse. Before the Norwegians took her in she was flying solo at a cost of almost £200,000 a year.
"I got so much out of that professional set-up at Bisham and it made me think that this is what the cyclists and other athletes have all the time. I progressed hugely in three weeks there. To think that is what other athletes have in their lives.
"I'm amazed I have got as far as I have in my career. It is the first time that people have been trying to help me instead of me ringing them up trying to get help. I was so thankful for it. When I left I sent them an email thanking them. They said it was so rare that anybody ever did that, because other athletes are so used to that kind of support."
Lack of funding is a running sore among skiers, who, unlike our snowboarders and snowstylers, face impossible demands against fully backed squads resident in the Alps. Alcott does not have the option of an indoor snow facility on which to practice. For her and her ilk, it is the mountain or nothing.
"I'm a speed skier, and our national federation has chosen not to support any speed skiers," she said. "That has been quite tough. I was ranked eighth in the world when UK Sport dropped me. I got injured and that was it. They didn't believe in me any more. That was my worst day, not breaking my leg. That's just a skiing injury, something to deal with. It was when I flew home that they dropped the bombshell. Oh, fantastic, that's great.
"At the same time, I have gained a lot from it. My peers have never had to go into meetings and vouch for themselves, make businessmen believe in them. I've gained a lot of life skills because of what I've had to deal with. My business head is a lot more exercised as a result. I'm still looking for a head sponsor but I'm not having to remortgage my house right now, which really is the big success for me. I don't quite know what I'm going to do to change things in the future. All I can do now is ski fast to prove to everyone that we can be a competitive ski nation."
Alcott's experience ought to counter the widely held perception that skiing is a sport for posh girls. "I know there is a certain image," she said. "I've had 'daddy's money' comments before. When I go to pay for petrol, people give me that look of disdain. I have to tell them my whole life story. I work really hard to make ends meet, to pursue a skiing career. My father helped at the start but, when I was 13, mum made me go into rooms full of businessmen.
"I had to start networking. Part of the reason I can still ski is because my mum passed away in 2006. She believed in me more than anyone. When she passed away and we sold the family house a lot of the proceeds went into my skiing. So it is hard when I hear people judging me."
Vonn bombs out in Val d'Isere
Lindsey Vonn is confident her latest knee trouble will not stop her from competing at the Sochi Games in February despite failing to complete a World Cup downhill race in Val d'Isère yesterday.
With boyfriend Tiger Woods watching from the bottom of the slope, Vonn missed a gate as her troublesome right knee buckled under her and gave way.
The American was clearly distressed after skiing off-course and looked close to tears. She didn't fall but grimaced as she pulled up, clutching her knee.
Vonn needed surgery in February to reconstruct two knee ligaments after a crash at the World Championships, and then partially re-tore one of them in November.
Vonn said she will give herself plenty of rest and only compete in "one, maybe two races before the Olympics. That's it".
Chemmy Alcott is sponsored by foreign exchange company Caxton FX
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