British Ski Cross champ, Emily Sarsfield, has to ski at scorching speed with big air, high banking turns AND potential mid air shoves from the three other competitors, racing at the same time. There are, also, potential bone-crunching crashes and career-ending injuries.
As well as giving her views on what is stylish skiing joining the STYLE ALTITUDE debate, Emily, 31, talks about what it takes to race in one of the most popular - and aggressive - freestyle winter sports. And how gutting it was to miss the Sochi Winter Olympics owing to red tape.
Having skied since you were three years old and competing in Alpine disciplines, you changed to Ski Cross in 2005 because various ski coaches advised that your 'skiing style and attitude' would be suited to this new extreme event. So how would you describe your style and attitude and how is it suited to Ski Cross?
I think it is my ‘all or nothing’ attitude. When I raced Alpine prior to Ski Cross I would just go. I’d either pull it off and went fast - or crashed.You could say I was - I am - a bit of a risk taker. My style is ‘go hard, or go home’. I don’t really have that button to just go controlled. Control to me isn’t as much fun! Also, I am pretty competitive so being literally lined up shoulder to shoulder with my competitors really excites me and spurs me on.
What does ‘stylish skiing’ mean to you and how would you define it?
Well, living in Meribel and often popping to Courchevel you would think stylish skiing was all skin-tight pants and fur collars! But I definitely think it’s about being able to pull it off; whether that’s a head to toe matching outfit or the ultimate slash in the powder;. Having some grace and floating around the pistes or town is pretty cool.
'Skiing is a hugely psychological sport and, sometimes, women hold back'
Can anyone learn good style – or do you need natural ability?
I have just launched a ski school called EmSkiSchool which I do while I am not competing. My first five minutes of every lesson are always spent teaching them how to carry the skis. It's all about being able to carry it off so the beginners, who have never seen skis, know how to pop them on their shoulder and get to the après bar looking hot and not decapitating any locals along the way! There is nothing worse than looking like ‘all the gear, no idea’.
Do you think women differ in style ie ride differently to men? If so, how?
Yes, I think so. But I think it all stems from our minds. Skiing is a hugely psychological sport and, sometimes, women hold back a little more than men, so often appear more controlled or tentative. I like to spend my down days riding with the guys, so I like to ski fast.
Have you always been competitive and enjoyed adrenaline sports?
I have an older sister who I have always idolised. I think my competitive edge comes from this, as I always wanted to do what she was doing and try and beat her. I am not sure when the adrenaline junkie side of things kicked in, but I know my parents encouraged me to try all sorts of different sports and activities as a child.
We were always climbing trees, building crazy go-karts and competed at National level in Sports Acrobatics. I was on the top, so constantly getting thrown in the air to perform stunts. That might have something to do with needing an adrenaline rush.
'I don't tend to do things by half'
How did you injure your knee in 2009?
At the Olympic test event in Vancouver, I was racing in the finals and trying to overtake. I came over the penultimate jump and saw a huge hole in the snow where it had become really soft from where people had been landing. I tried to avoid it and one leg landed in it and the other didn’t. That was it, I managed to snap all the ligaments in my knee, fracture my femur, tibia and damage the meniscus and cartilage. I don’t tend to do things by half - it took a couple of operations to fix and a long rehab to get me back on my skis
Did it make you more cautious? Ski any differently?
Part of the rehab was psychology, so we worked a lot on trusting my knee. But there was no better test than actually getting back on the skis! It wasn’t until my first real jump and big crash and my knee stood up to them then I really started to believe it was going to be fine.
'I made myself get back on skis as soon as possible'
I was in such a rush to make sure I was fit for the Olympic Games that I just had to push myself and worry about the consequences later. I made myself get back on skis as soon as possible and probably competed a little too early, but at that time the goal and the focus was the Olympics so I did everything I could to be there on the start line. Unfortunately it wasn’t the fairy tale ending, but I can walk away knowing I did everything in my control to make it happen.
'Last year was a tough year, probably the toughest one yet'
Even though you are Britain's No 1 Ski Cross women's athlete, you were sadly – and many would say, wrongly - denied a place in Sochi competing in the Winter Olympics in 2014. How is your petition going? Any chance that it will change the exclusive policies of the British Olympic Association that prevented you from accepting the perfectly legitimate 'hand-back' spot to compete you were offered from the International Ski Federation?
Last year was a tough year; probably the toughest one yet. To strive to make a goal and essentially achieve it through my performance, but to then be denied the chance of competing in the ultimate sporting event in the world due to what was pretty much some red tape, was extremely tough to take. I achieved the performance criteria and was in the top 30 female Ski Cross athletes in the world, I just wanted that opportunity to compete with them. I was absolutely devastated when GB turned down my invite.
'In a week there were over 8K signatures'
However, I was overwhelmed by the public support and saw the petition for the first time on social media (which had 2K signatures in a matter of hours). I didn’t know where it had originated, then realised an old friend from university had started it. In a week, there were over 8K signatures. It was so overwhelming to witness the support, It definitely made those dark days easier knowing I wasn’t fighting alone. The International Ski Federation offered to fast track a nation change that normally takes two years as there were limited females who actually achieved the Olympic criteria and they wanted those 32 girls at the games.
So are you on for South Korea in 2018?
I can’t set the Olympic Games as a goal right now as, ultimately, it was out of my control to compete in the games and, as an athlete, you can only control the controllable. However, I am still competing on the World Cup circuit and I am focusing on becoming a faster and stronger athlete; and, if this happens, it will go hand in hand with Olympics as I will be skiing faster and stronger so I will put myself in the strongest position to be part of the Team in South Korea.
'Right now I am on a mission to be in the best shape'
However, I am focusing purely on my own performance but my competition goals may change in 12/18 months and the Olympics might become my focus again. Rght now I am on a mission to be in the best shape I have ever been and skiing faster.
Since it's first introduction in 2010, Ski Cross in the Olympic Winter Games has become one of the most popular events, watched by over three million UK viewers. Do you think it is influencing a new generation of Ski Cross riders?
Ski Cross is such a great spectator sport. You never know what is going to happen with all the obstacles - and seeing people race head to head is fun It’s the 100 metres of winter sports.
'I would love to see more people get involved in Ski Cross'
I would love to see more people get involved in Ski Cross; it is certainly growing in popularity. However, it is an ‘extreme’ sport so the female influx is not as huge as the males. But it is great to have new competitors to race against. I have been setting up some Ski Cross camps, too, for people to give it a try. All the details will be on my website: www.emilysarsfield.com.
You actually coach Ski Cross training camps? Any tips for those wanting to get to your level?
Ski Cross requires a good all round skier; someone who is versatile on their skis. So the best training is getting out there and going skiing. Ski the whole mountain, the powder, the park, race technique and just pushing your skiing. When you're racing Ski Cross you're never going to be 100% in control so you need to be able to react to everything and everyone quickly. It’s a fun sport to train for.
And, so, you are, also, a qualified ski instructor? What advice re improving skiing style do you give?
Yes, I have just launched my ski school EmSkiSchool which is exciting. I love watching people enjoy the mountain and seeing them move from green to black runs. I love teaching kids, too. They have such a low centre of gravity. Once, in a week, we went from first day on skis to a black run. They were so excited and I was extremely excited to see them achieve so much!
My tips would be have a lesson every year, just to get rid of any bad habits. And try something new. That way you can see more of the mountain and have a new challenge.
Watching other people ski, what makes you cringe? Any bad habits you see?
I love watching the folks with all the gear. It's ever so slightly disappointing, though, if they have ‘no idea’! You see a few bad habits from people just throwing their upper body around to try make their skis move; but this is the opposite to what you need to do. Everything should come from the legs - and the upper body should remain pretty quiet and relaxed.
'The mountains can be a dangerous playground sometimes'
But my biggest cringe is when you see people venturing off piste and they don’t have any safety equipment with them. That is scary. The mountains can be a dangerous playground sometimes, so it's best you are always prepared.
'There is no way you can ski it (Meribel) in a day'
Where’s your favourite place to ride when you're not competing?
Meribel in The Three Valleys. It is the heart of the world's largest ski area and has so many skiing options and terrain from beginner slopes to big mountain. There is no way you can ski it all in a day.
For Ski Cross do you dress aerodynamically? Does Lycra make you go faster?
It’s effectively a downhill race so dynamics play a huge part in it. But we aren’t allowed to wear the tight Lycra suits they wear in Alpine skiing. They want to keep the ‘cool factor’ in ski cross as it is a Freestyle discipline so we have rules on how ‘baggy’ our clothes have to be!
'Everyone is always looking for the tiny margin to be faster'
However, everyone is always looking for the tiny margin to be faster which has resulted in us all getting specially designed Lycra baggy suits.
You have to go fast, turn and jump in Ski Cross. So what profile skis do you use?
Yes, Ski Cross is a mix of all sorts of features but speed is still key. So we use pretty much a giant slalom ski - women around 185cm and men around 195cm. This way we can keep the speed and still have the stability on landing jumps.
'My favourite après boots at the moment are my Sorrel Joan of Arctics'
And what do you wear on the hill when you're not competing?
I’ll probably be wearing my Head BIG Joy skis as I'll be searching for powder! I feel the cold so I always make sure I’m wearing my Mons Royals thermals; they are so warm made from merino wool. And I'll be wrapped up in a matching Dare2b outfit. I’m quite into their luxe range at the moment; I’m loving a fur hood! Nowadays, I’m always wearing a helmet, too. The POC Receptor Bug is pretty cool and I know I am in safe hands with all their technology. Then the finishing touch will be a pair of Oakley goggles which will probably match my whole outfit!
And for après, what's your style?
Après is all about looking relaxed with a touch of faux fur!
I spend so much time in tracksuits when I am away competing so it's nice to pop a pair of jeans on for après! Whatever I am wearing I always have my staple wardrobe essential Sorels. My favourite après boots at the moment are my Sorel Joan of Arctics. They are super warm and practical but girly with the fur trim. Ladies they are a ski holiday essential; they take you from mountain to bar in one perfect pair of boots!