Archives

Magic on ice

Posted on January 8, 2014 by

In late 2009, NSWIS ice dancers, Danielle O’Brien and Greg Merriman missed out on selection for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games after Merriman fell ill prior to the final qualifying tournament. It was a cruel blow for the young athletes, who at 19 and 21 respectively, would have gained an invaluable amount of knowledge from their experience. However, four years on from their near miss, O’Brien and Merriman are now set to compete on ice dancing’s biggest stage at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. The pair recently navigated their way through the Nebelhorn Trophy, the event they missed in 2009, to finish sixth overall and secure a spot in Sochi, as well as feel the euphoria of seeing their hard work pay off. “For me there was an overwhelming sense of relief,” O’Brien reflected. “For the past two years our progress had put us in strong contention for the spot and to have our preparation pay off in qualification was extremely rewarding.” “Like Dani said, there was definitely a huge sense of relief. Our Free Dance performance wasn’t quite as clean as what we had prepared so we weren’t sure what to expect, which made the judging time feel like an eternity,” Merriman explained. “However, once the scores came up and I knew we had qualified, there was a great feeling of excitement and relief.” With their Olympic selection secured, O’Brien and Merriman will become the first Australian ice dancers to compete at the Olympic Games since Monica Macdonald and Rodney Clarke in 1988, and only the second Australian team in history. Macdonald was the team’s first coach, and has played a significant role in their careers as they’ve progressed through the ranks. “Monica has had a huge impact on our skating career, and her inspiration is a huge reason that we are still in the sport today. To be the second dance team to represent Australia at Olympics after Monica & Rodney is a huge honour.  “It’s hard to sum up 12 years of work with Monica as our coach into any specific advice, though she has definitely shaped who we are as athletes and played an influential role in developing our training ethics,” Merriman stated. O’Brien and Merriman have come a long way since their start in the sport, and one of the key components of their success in the lead up to the 2014 Winter Olympics was relocating to Detroit, USA to make the most of their preparation for Sochi. Their first experience of training overseas was in 2010, when they visited Detroit for four weeks, before returning for a further six months ahead of the 2011 world championships. Following the world championships, where O’Brien commented that they had a “disappointing finish,” the duo decided to commit 100 per cent to their goal of representing Australia at the Games, and decided to make the move permanent. “Detroit has brought greater concentration to our training. Having relocated specifically to train, our primary focus is training with our minds set on achieving our goals,” O’Brien said. “Our coaches Pasquale Camerlengo, Angelika Krylova, Massimo Scali, Elizabeth Swallow and Natalia Deller have created a very structured training environment, and having the opportunity to train every day with a large number of internationally competitive dance teams promotes a great learning environment, which promotes improvement every day. “I definitely attribute our improvement, and as a result, success in qualifying for the Olympics, to our training opportunity in Michigan.” Aside from the obvious differences in climate and food, O’Brien and Merriman have enjoyed living and training in Detroit, and are looking forward to taking the next step in their careers by competing in Sochi.  Figure skating is an often overlooked sport in the Australian landscape; however next year’s Games will provide the Australian public with an insight into one of the more interesting sports on the Olympic schedule. Australia is sending its largest ever figure skating team to Sochi, with four athletes scheduled to compete, and both O’Brien and Merriman are keen to see the sport grow on home soil. “Hopefully this will bring increased exposure to Australian figure skating. The Olympics are the only time in which figure skating receives national media attention in Australia, and hopefully this will encourage the future champions of Australia to take to the ice,” O’Brien commented.  “The current generation of figure skaters in the country are making huge impressions on the international circuit, so hopefully the Olympics will shed light on the strength and potential of Australian skaters, and inspire a new generation of skaters,” Merriman added. Though until that happens, the pair will continue working to ensure they are in peak physical and mental condition come February 2014. On the mental side of things, O’Brien and Merriman have learned to channel the pressure and nervous energy of competition into positive thoughts and movements, while physically their consistent training methods and environment have allowed them to successfully navigate the fine line between success and disappointment. “Developing consistency in practice through repetition brings peace of mind to competition, and enables us to focus on exactly what we do in training, as opposed to trying to bring anything extra to the performance,” Merriman explained. “Timing is an important factor in our performance, with each other and the music, and we’ve learnt over the years that it is important to skate within the limits of our performance. Adding too much extra in competition doesn’t work, nor does holding back.” The next major event on the cards for O’Brien and Merriman prior to Sochi is the ISU Four Continents Championship in Taiwan during January. Being so close to the Games, the duo is not looking to make wholesale changes, but rather to improve the quality and delivery of their routines ahead of Sochi.  When they finally arrive in Russia during February, O’Brien and Merriman will no doubt be taken aback by the spectacle that is the Olympic Games. Mixing with thousands of athletes from hundreds of nations is an experience that few people ever encounter, but they are determined to not let that overwhelm them before their competition. Four years ago, after missing out on the Vancouver Games, the duo could have lost their drive and desire to represent Australia on the biggest stage in sport. However, ironically, it’s one of the main reasons why they’ll be in Sochi.

Read more

Simply unstoppable

Posted on January 8, 2014 by

By her high standards, ski cross athlete Sami Kennedy-Sim did not achieve the best of results on the slopes for the 2012/13 season, despite notching a top-16 finish at the world championships. The 25 year old carried a knee injury into the season but stated that while that didn’t help, it wasn’t the main factor; she simply wasn’t able to capture the same form from previous years. Following the end of the season, Kennedy-Sim said she was keen to spend some time during the Australian winter to ramp up her preparations for a shot at Olympic selection in early 2014. The ongoing knee issue was fixed with minor surgery only a week after returning home, but just two days after surgery, Kennedy-Sim’s immediate future, sporting or otherwise, was seemingly thrown into chaos. She suffered an infarct stroke. “It happened at about 6:30am when I kicked the cat out of bed, because she was trying to attack my foot,” Kennedy-Sim explained. “I felt bad, so I went to get her and bring her back to bed. In my mind I felt weird but I thought I was just sitting on the bed, trying to get into bed and act as normal as possible.  “Then I felt things weren’t right, my face started to feel really weird and I couldn’t control the left side of my body. My hands were curling over and I had trouble breathing.” Luckily for Kennedy-Sim, her husband Ben Sim, an Olympian in the sport of cross country skiing, was on hand to take control of the situation. “Ben said I sort of dropped the cat and collapsed onto the bed, but I couldn’t tell him what was going on,” Kennedy-Sim said. “He then saw I was trying to turn on my bedside lamp but couldn’t, and when he turned on the lights he saw I had a full facial droop on my left hand side.” Kennedy-Sim recalled the moment, saying, “At that time I felt there was no blood in my face and it was really confusing, but as soon as he saw my face was distorted he called the ambulance. “We live literally two minutes away from the hospital, so the ambulance was there within five minutes and I was in hospital within 15 minutes.” Kennedy-Sim credited her husband’s quick action in assessing the situation was one of the most crucial aspects of the ordeal, and ultimately made a huge difference in the severity of the stroke and time it took Kennedy-Sim to recover. “The best thing was that Ben acted fast, and did exactly the right thing in calling an ambulance and getting me to hospital. “I’m so lucky, if I hadn’t got to hospital in time then things could have got a lot worse. I could have ended up in a nursing home and that’s not somewhere for a young person to get better. It’s quite shocking to think that could have happened.” Medical staff at the hospital ran a series of tests to find out what happened, with the suspicion being that a blood clot from the knee surgery had become loose and travelled to Kennedy-Sim’s brain. However, once the staff located the blood clot in her brain, further tests determined that had a clot travelled from her knee it would have ended up in her lungs. Doctors then tested Kennedy-Sim’s heart before she was given the all clear. “Everything else pretty much came back normal, and by the sounds of it its quite common thing in young people,” she said, before explaining that about 30 per cent of young people who have strokes don’t know why they have them. A positive that Kennedy-Sim has drawn from the experience has been the opportunity to learn more about strokes through her work as an Ambassador for the National Stroke Foundation (NSF). While her involvement with the NSF has so far been limited because of her recovery schedule and preparation for the upcoming season, Kennedy-Sim is keen to help raise awareness about strokes, especially in young people. Through social media she has been able to connect with a 19 year old American girl who suffered a stroke. Kennedy-Sim said her newfound online connection came off a lot worse than she did, but having someone to talk to around the same age who’s experienced the same thing was a rewarding experience. “It’s been really nice getting an email every now and then from this girl. If that’s all that happens then that’s all that happens, but stroke is one of the leading causes of death in Australia, and the NSF receives no Government funding for research into why, so if I can help in any way then every little bit helps.” Extended time away from training and competition was not what Kennedy-Sim had envisaged, especially with the Olympic Games less than a year away, but luckily she did not experience any further complications. Kennedy-Sim spent nine weeks not allowed to raise her blood pressure, and when she did return to training there was naturally a period of readjustment to being back in the game. “I was pretty nervous in the beginning, that I wouldn’t be able to function how I’d like, but it’s just like riding a bike,” Kennedy-Sim said. A return to the gym in June allowed her to activate the nerves and muscles that had been rested, before her first foray onto the snow in August. Sport psychology played a key role for Kennedy-Sim in her return to the slopes, with a strong support network including her husband also being available to help where necessary. “I’ve been really lucky with Ben, he’s one of the most patient people I’ve ever met and his support has been outstanding. He’s gone above and beyond to make sure I get back to where I’d like to be, and where I should be. “On a great day when there are blue skies and it’s warm, training goes fantastic, but when the weather comes in and I can’t see I sometimes begin to doubt myself. “I might say ‘I’m not very comfortable with this’, and my coaches will say ‘Well you need to be because it rains in Russia,’ so working through that has been really good.” A hectic schedule means Kennedy-Sim will have to find her rhythm fairly quickly if she is to cement her spot in the Australian Olympic team, with the final deadline for selection being January 20, 2014. A series of world cup events prior to that date will determine selections for the team, with Kennedy-Sim’s fellow NSWIS athletes Katya Crema and Jenny Owens also in line to represent Australia. The Olympic hopeful has not put an expectation or goal before her, other than earning a spot on the team, because after the events of the past eight months she simply doesn’t know what she’s capable of when back in the competitive environment. However, being back in the thick of racing is undoubtedly a welcome change for the naturally competitive Kennedy-Sim. Well on the road to 100 per cent health, she is looking forward to enjoying a successful season from a personal point of view, as well as witnessing the continued rise of Australian athletes competing in winter sports. “We’ve got four world champions and everyone else is up there as well. I had an average season and I’m still 23rd in the world,” Kennedy-Sim outlined. “We aren’t just a small nation that occasionally wins something here and there. We’re steadily progressing to be a force to be reckoned with, and I think it’s a good thing we’re constantly underestimated.” “There are a few people in a range of sports who are ready for gold. It’s going to be a cool season to watch.”

Read more

Back from the brink

Posted on January 8, 2014 by

John Farrow’s Olympic dream was on the verge of becoming reality in 2010, before a last minute cull of entrants in the men’s skeleton event saw him narrowly miss out. Nearly four years on, the former mountain biker is well placed to make his Olympic debut in Sochi, but there was a time on his journey from Canada to Russia where he was almost forced to walk away from his sporting career for good. Farrow’s start in skeleton came after competing for five years at the highest level in downhill mountain biking. A series of injuries resulted in both shoulder blades being shattered from his time on the bike, so Farrow decided on a change of scenery, swapping the summer for the winter and the dirt for the ice. “I’d always wanted to do skeleton from seeing it in the 2002 Olympics,” Farrow explained, “but it’s a random sport and there’s not much information on how to do it, so all my attempts failed." In 2009, while he was nursing his second shoulder blade injury in Canada, Farrow eventually managed to find a skeleton recruiter, who directed him where to go to kick start his career in the sport. Being an adrenaline junkie he picked it up straight away, and immediately targeted a start at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games. Farrow said a lot of the skills he learned while mountain biking translated into skeleton, which is why he was so close to making an appearance at the Olympics after just one season. Though it was the 2010/11 season following the Olympics when Farrow confirmed his place among the world’s elite, finishing 23rd in the world with just two seasons of racing under his belt. “In 2010/11 I had a full season after the Games and put in a lot of effort. We normally do eight races in a calendar season and I was able to put in 16 because I wanted to get in as much as possible,” Farrow said. “I had an awesome season. There are about 10 tracks around the world that you slide on, and I got to learn all those tracks in one season, which was a huge step for me.” All signs pointed to Farrow enjoying an even better season in 2011/12. After a strong off season he commented he felt better than he ever had; he had a new sled, new gear and a lot of the elite level athletes were commenting on how much speed they thought he had picked up during the Australian winter season. However in November 2011, just two days before he was to embark on what was meant to be his best season yet, Farrow found himself wondering if he would ever compete again. “I was sprint training in New York and I slipped on a spike, twisted my knee, and all the ligaments let go. I remember it so vividly,” Farrow recalled. “The second I was on the ground it brought back memories of my mountain bike injuries; the pain, the feelings and the unknown.” As he faded in and out of consciousness from the pain and the -2 degree temperature, Farrow thought about giving up, before a clear question popped into his head. “The one thing I asked was, ‘Well what are you going to do now?’” Farrow said. “You have these goals all your life as an athlete and you need something to work to. What was the goal? I had nothing of any substance that gave me drive. I said, ‘it’s not meant to end like this.’”  Doctors eventually determined that during the accident Farrow ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament, lateral collateral ligament and biceps femoris, fractured his tibia, tore his posterior cruciate ligament, damaged the peroneal nerve in his leg, and paralysed his foot as a result of the accident. In the days immediately following the injury he underwent surgery in New York, before waiting two weeks to return to Australia. Only part of the surgery could be undertaken in the USA because of the build-up of scar tissue in his knee, and after playing a months-long waiting game, he opted to have surgery in April 2012. Farrow spent most of his downtime in the living room, noting that one of the biggest achievements of his recovery was being able to crawl into the bath for the first time. It was during his recovery that he met John Marsden, Head of Physical Preparation and Sport Science at the Olympic Winter Institute of Australia. An initial meeting scoped the length and process of rehabilitation, before Farrow began sliding without running in March 2012. “I went back to sliding to keep my mind in the game,” Farrow said. “At 140 kilometres an hour you have to be sharp, and it takes a while to get that back, so the runs were to keep the mind sharp.  “I remember my first training session where we did just little stuff, and I threw up because my body was full of so much junk. Walking and small conditioning stuff like box steps were a big deal.” Another issue Farrow faced was the prospect of being unable to run because of his paralysed foot. During rehabilitation, Farrow and Marsden decided to give his foot some time to recover and allow it to begin firing on its own accord. However, with the 2012/13 season on the horizon, and Farrow needing to compete to have a shot at Sochi, he used his mechanical skills and took inspiration from Paralympic athletes. “We had braces that I walked with and I thought, Paralympians can lose limbs and it doesn’t stop them from doing great things, so I had no reason to give up.” Farrow and his mountain biking friends tested a series of braces before incorporating a blade design into the brace, which eventually worked. He broke a few braces while overseas prior to the 2012/13, but his friends sent more while he was on tour. The braces, along with the intense rehabilitation work during the middle of 2012 obviously worked; in the first two weeks of the 2012/13 season Farrow equalled his best ever result, before setting a new personal best of ninth place the following week. His continued success for the rest of the season earned him a spot at the 2013 world championships, where he finished 27th, and an all-important spot on the world cup tour for 2013/14 ahead of the Sochi Winter Games. With a strong season under his belt and the prospect of a debut Winter Olympics on the horizon, Farrow is brimming with positive energy ahead of his departure for Europe. “I’ve been able to work like a proper athlete. Last year was rehab, the year before it was the injury,” Farrow stated. “It’s been nearly two years now and I’ve just started training like a powerful athlete, not just a guy coming back from injury. “I’ve been able to do a lot of powerful stuff, and I don’t need a brace anymore. We found a company which made a professional brace for me, but I’m hoping I don’t have to use it.” During Farrow’s moment of clarity as he was lying on a stretcher, about to be loaded into an ambulance and taken to hospital, he finalised his goal. He never set a date or put a number on which placing he wanted to achieve, opting instead to just “be better than he was before.” Despite skeleton being one of the more intimidating sports on the Winter Olympic schedule, Farrow could not be happier with his welcome return to form. An Olympic experience would only further cement that feeling, especially after the journey he’s been on. “I’m pumped to get back to racing. I love racing, the nerves, the challenge, and the whole atmosphere.”

Read more

Full circle

Posted on January 8, 2014 by

“I remember how focused I was in the start gate and how overwhelmed I was when I crossed the finish. Just five weeks before I had no idea I would actually be competing.” Nearly four years on that is how mogul skier Britteny Cox remembers her experience at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Cox was just 15 when she made her Olympic debut in Vancouver, the youngest athlete of any nation competing at the Games, qualifying only weeks before the competition started. Now with the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia just over the horizon, Cox has come full circle and cemented herself as Australia’s foremost female mogul skier, taking what she learnt in Vancouver, her first major international competition, to propel her into the top echelon of the world’s snow sport athletes. “After Vancouver I was really inspired and fuelled by the Olympic fever. I became hungrier to ski better and in order to do that it was important for me to become stronger,” Cox said. “I saw how other athletes conducted themselves both in moguls and other sports and I think that really opened my eyes to elite sports at the highest level.” Shortly after her Olympic debut Cox recorded a then-personal best finish of 14th on the world cup circuit in late 2011, before following this by creating history to become Australia’s first female moguls world cup medallist, winning a bronze medal in early 2012. The success on the snow came in the midst of a coaching change after Cox moved from NSWIS moguls head coach Peter Topalovic, to the national head coach Steve ‘Des’ Desovich and jumps coach Jerry Grossi, who comes from an aerial skiing background. With direction from some of the best coaches and support staff the sport has to offer, Cox has upped her game and applied her expanding knowledge to improve her skills. “There are some areas of coaching where the jumping and skiing overlap, and Des and Jerry work closely together on these aspects to achieve the best possible outcome. While we are training Jerry will usually be posted at the side of one of the jumps and Des at the bottom of the course,” Cox explained. “It’s fantastic having two coaches who are both excellent in their areas of expertise.” Like many sports, moguls benefits heavily from the use of sport science to gain a competitive edge. The increased use of biomechanics and video analysis has allowed Cox to iron out the creases in her technique to make the transition from one of Australia’s brightest prospects to Australia’s best.  In a sport that requires precision turns and flawless timing at every moment, Cox takes an extremely proactive approach to rectifying problems as quickly as possible. In years gone by the video analysis process may have begun after a training session, but now Cox examines where she needs to improve almost instantaneously. “Instant-review monitors and iPads are now being used by many teams, including ours, so we can review whilst on the chairlift back to the top in order to know what worked well on that run and what can be improved on the next one. “Slow motion footage allows me to see minor details such as foot placement and ski-tip direction through the moguls that may be difficult to pick up in normal time. This allows me to see how I can do things to more efficiently to enhance my technique and speed down the course,” Cox revealed. “If I have a good jump or run and I am able to see it externally, I can remember what it felt like and try to replicate it on the next one.” It is Cox’s continued improvement that saw her enjoy another strong northern hemisphere season in 2012/13. Although she could have been forgiven for having one eye on Sochi, the Jindabyne resident made sure she was centred on capitalising on a good offseason in Australia by taking each race one turn at a time. The season was highlighted by another medal winning performance, bronze in Lake Placid, as well as a fourth place finish in Austria and a top-10 placing at the world championships. On the whole Cox said she was pleased with what she achieved. “In terms of my results I knew that I was capable of achieving a podium finish as I did that at the very end of the previous season. And, with my improvements over the year I wanted to show myself that it was not just a once-off, so I was very pleased when I achieved another podium result in Lake Placid, USA and fourth place in the duals (moguls) in Austria,” Cox reflected. “By the time world championships came around at the end of the season I felt like the technique of my skiing was up to the capacities of my physical strength.” Cox is determined to continue her impressive progression that started four years ago in Vancouver. The Australian offseason in 2013 is shaping up to be one of the most important in Cox’s career so far. Another opportunity at Games success looms and the rising star wants to make the preparation as unspoiled as possible. “I am aiming to get as strong and fit as possible to be able to make some improvements to both my jumping and skiing on snow,” Cox said. “I know I ski my best when I am focused on how I want my skiing to look and feel, so for these next few months I will be training hard to improve that. “Although the main focus will be training, we will also be competing. Being one of the few places in the world with a world-class mogul course, many strong international teams come to Australia to train at this time, so these events traditionally provide some great competition and a good tracking point to see how we are going at the mid-year mark. Cox will balance her training and competition in Australia with the Higher School Certificate. Following the domestic winter she will head back overseas before making the final tilt at qualifying for the Games with camps and competitions in the USA and Europe. Competing at the highest level was just a pipedream scheduled to become reality in 2014, but now with one Olympiad already under her belt, she is determined not to be overawed by the Games once they roll around in Sochi.  And given the setting of the Olympic stage, where it is not uncommon to see a dark horse rise to match it with the sport’s elite, Cox can afford to be quietly confident of a successful campaign in Russia. After four years of learning from the best coaches and athletes around the world, Cox said she has accepted that anything can happen at the Olympic Games. So while there is no doubt that Cox will give her best to achieve yet another personal best, ultimately she will be doing herself and country proud by competing in Russia.

Read more