Winter Olympics: Meet Lothians hopefuls

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WITH a knackered hand and guts of steel, Anna Vincenti threw herself and her skis down a Colorado mountainside and took one giant slide closer to her dream.

The light had faded. Her fellow Team GB skiers were finding the conditions tough, but with Sochi in her sights – and a stookie to help mend a badly broken thumb – the Colinton teenager snapped on her Atomic skis, fixed her goggles in place and set about defeating a slippery course of jumps, rails, awkward barriers and towering obstacles.

Anna Vincenti has gone through three years of intensive training. Picture: Getty

Anna Vincenti has gone through three years of intensive training. Picture: Getty

Her performance on Wednesday against the best freeskiers in the world took the Edinburgh teen another vital step along the way to the Winter Olympic Games in Russia, in one of sport’s most demanding categories.

Slopestyle is hardly for the faint hearted, a potentially catastrophic combination of speed and tricks performed over a man-made downhill terrain, where a 
moment’s lack of concentration or sheer bad luck, fading light or a misplaced landing could mean much worse than a snapped digit.

And simply getting to the bottom of the run intact is no guarantee of success – that’s down to the verdict of judges who may or may not be impressed by the twists, turns and fresh air tricks that got you there.

Next month the sport will hit the big time when it moves for the first time ever from the thrills and spills of the winter X Games to the high profile, global arena of the Olympics, and the living rooms of television viewers around the world.

Vicki Adams. Picture: Peter Foster

Vicki Adams. Picture: Peter Foster

Being there would bring three years of intensive training – some of it in the picturesque surroundings of the world’s most beautiful ski areas, much more of it against the less stunning backdrop of Bearsden’s dry slope in Glasgow – to a thrilling climax for the girl who for years seemed destined not to ski for her country, but to kick a football for Scotland.

But forced to choose between representing her country on the football pitch or the slopes, the former George Watson’s pupil and devoted Hearts fan grabbed her skis and headed downhill.

Now 18-year-old Anna, whose sponsors include local underwear business Bawbags and solicitors’ property group ESPC, is among the Team GB hopefuls who are days from finding out if they’re among the select band of winter sports stars who will turn three weeks in February into a thrilling whiteout, from the speed of downhill skiing to the elegance of figure skating through to the bullet like speed of the bobsleigh and the pinpoint shooting accuracy of the biathlon.

“I’m feeling pretty nervous but very excited at the same time,” nods Anna, chatting from Breckenridge in Colorado where she’s been taking part in the Freestyle Skiing World Cup. “To go to Sochi would be amazing and a great honour. I’ve trained for almost three years for this. It will be a great achievement if I’m selected.”

Tom Killin. Picture: Getty

Tom Killin. Picture: Getty

Of course hitting the Breckenridge park with a cast on her hand wasn’t part of the plan – not when the World Cup event means vital points towards raising her worldwide rank to meet criteria for Olympic selection.

Her thumb snapped as she practised on the slopes of nearby Copper Mountain the week before Christmas. The injury raised major questions not only over her potential to perform to her highest standard – many freeski moves involve gripping the edges of the skis not only for style but balance – but whether insurers would agree to cover her in case of further injury.

While Anna, who first learned to ski on a family holiday in La Plagne in France aged just three and perfected her skills on the matting of Hillend, shrugs off the risks, just a glance at recent headlines concerning Formula One ace Michael Schumacher’s horror injury are a reminder of the dangers of snowsports.

It’s certainly never far from Anna’s mum Christine’s mind as she watches her daredevil daughter throw herself downhill at lightning speed and, as she runs through her series of tricks, often upside down. “My heart’s in my mouth most of the time,” groans Christine, 54, who lives with husband Kevin, 56 at the family home in Colinton. “I’m not a good skier – I just potter around – the opposite of Anna.

“She’s had a few torn ligaments, her leg, knee and her hand injury, but I keep telling myself she is wearing all the protective gear, back protection, impact shorts, so you have to hope all will be fine.”

Nevertheless there is no denying the dangers: freestyle skiing pioneer Sarah Burke, who specialised in superpipe and pushed for the freeski events to be included as a Winter Olympics event, lost her life last year aft er a slope accident.

But that has to be the last thing on Anna’s mind as she pushes herself to make the team: “The adrenaline of the sport is incredible,” she adds.

“When you land that trick for the first time that you may have been trying for a few hours, there’s no better feeling. It’s just an amazing atmosphere.

“We know the consequences, but that is a risk we are willing to take. If we didn’t enjoy the sport we wouldn’t do it.

“Accidents happen all the time all over the mountain.”

Bobsleigh

Gillian Cooke, age 31

IT takes nerves of steel to hurtle down a winding icy track at speeds of up to 120km an hour, just a glorified tea tray and a touch of lycra between you and oblivion.

Credit then to Edinburgh-born Gillian Cooke, who after suffering the misery of crashing out of the Vancouver bobsleigh event four years ago – ripping most of the flesh off her hip – is now within touching distance of another bite at Olympic glory.

The former world champion has been paired in the role of brakeman with former skeleton specialist Victoria Olaoye in the GB3 sled. But with potential places limited, the race is on to secure the coveted Sochi spot.

The former George Watson’s pupil from Colinton has a back-up plan. An excellent long jumper, she is also hoping to represent Scotland at the Commonwealth Games.

Wheelchair curling

Tom Killin, age 63

TOM has been paralysed since a traffic accident on Regent Road when he was just 17 years old.

Determined not to let disability hold him back, the Abbeyhill father-of-one went on to embrace sport, participating in basketball at table tennis at national level and then winning two silver medals for fencing in the 1980 Summer Olympics.

He returned for the 1984 Games before switching sports and heading onto the ice in 2003.

Tom competed for Britain in the first Paralympic wheelchair curling event in the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, and won a silver medal.

He followed it up in 2010 at Calgary, finishing in sixth place.

He has already been told he is to join the wheelchair team in Sochi.

Halfpipe skier

Murray Buchan, age 23

THINK of skateboards on snow. Now triple the speed, the thrills and the potential for getting hurt. Switch the board for two planks and imagine taking in so much fresh air between them and the snow that you can squeeze in a spin, a flip, maybe strike a pose in between. The result is fast, elegant and, when Olympic hopeful Murray Buchan is on form, breathtaking.

Raised in Firrhill, his ski skills were carved on the slopes of Hillend, where there isn’t even a half pipe to practise his moves. Yet he’s within touching distance of snaring a place at Sochi. Last week saw him in Calgary for the World Cup, where, despite poor light, he scored 13th place – the best yet for a British halfpipe skier. His current world ranking of 28 is currently just within the top 30 required for a shot at Sochi.

Speed skater

Elise Christie, age 23

THE golden girl of the ice rink is Team GB’s biggest hope for a medal on the ice. The short track speed skater from Livingston has come through a difficult 2013 that saw her stricken with mumps and grieving the loss of her grandmother.

But with Sochi in her sights, she’s hitting top condition – despite a nauseating tumble last week – to challenge in the 500m, 1000m and 1500m.

Elise is Team GB’s highest-ranked female short track skater on the world circuit and recently scored the world number one spot in the 1000m following multiple medal successes in the 2012-13 World Cup.

She is also the first British woman to win an individual World Championship medal.

She first tried speed skating aged 12, within three years she was so fast – speed skaters can hit 35mph on the ice – she had decamped to Team GB’s icy home, Nottingham, to perfect her skills.

She took part in the 2010 Vancouver games, but was still too raw to make it the later stages of her three disciplines. Most recently a string of world cup medals has set her up nicely for a potential podium place in the heat of the Sochi rink.

Women’s curling

Vicki Adams, age 24

FOR a sport that few pay attention to outwith the Winter Olympics arena, curling certainly makes up for the icy reception when the Games come into play.

The Team GB women’s curling team’s efforts becomes compulsive viewing for many –probably because of the exclusively Scottish element.

This time around, Edinburgh-born and raised Vicki Adams joins Vancouver 2010 veteran and rink skipper Eve Muirhead in the four-woman squad which already has a world championship.

Team GB has won two curling gold medals at past Olympic Winter Games, most recently when Rhona Howie (formerly Martin) skipped her rink to victory in a nail-biting final against Switzerland at the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympics.

Vicki now lives in Tullibody, Clackmannanshire.