IT’S HARD TO imagine how qualifying for the Olympics could be bittersweet but for Florence Bell it was.
The email that arrived as they sat waiting for their plane in Tokyo Airport was addressed to her sister Victoria, not her, and it bore bad news.
They knew this was going to happen. With only one place available in the Irish squad, one of them was going to miss out while the other fulfilled the dream of a lifetime.
Victoria’s misfortune was her younger sister’s gain. A few months shy of her 18th birthday, it is Florence who has flown out to Sochi where she will compete later this month in the downhill and giant slalom skiing.
“It was hard,” Florence says, “but we knew the whole time that there was only going to be one person going.
“We’re best friends so she’s happy for me and I’m happy for her whatever.”
It was Victoria who tipped her towards declaring for Ireland in the first place. Born in Birmingham, the sisters both started out their careers racing in Team GB colours but were eligible to switch through their father who hails from Lurgan.
After collecting all manner of indoor titles at regional, national and international level — including the 2008 European Indoor Championship — Florence moved to outdoor training in 2009 and began to work at the British Ski Academy in Les Houches, France.
Then, on the eve of the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, financial difficulties caught up with the British ski federation and it was forced to file for protection from creditors.
Against such an uncertain backdrop Bell felt that Ireland was “a lot better, more secure option” and “the right choice.”
Before long she was racing under the Irish flag at the first World Youth Winter Olympics in January 2012. Her 24th place finish in Innsbruck remains the country’s best result in an Olympic skiing event.
YouTube Credit: Florence Bell
As well as juggling training and competition, she has the added distraction of A Levels though she is spreading the exam workload over three years instead of two.
Her teachers send her notes and assignments while she trains abroad, a necessity for anyone hoping to make it in spite of the relatively snow free-climes of Ireland and Britain. (Only two of Team GB’s 56 athletes — David Ryding and Chemmy Alcott — are Alpine skiers while Ireland’s other representative, Conor Lyne, has strong Kerry roots but has long been based in Utah.)
She heads to Sochi on the back of strong form and a string of top 20s in both of her disciplines in Japan last month.
And while she’s quick to dismiss even an outside chance of a shock medal, she sees no reason why British and Irish athletes can’t compete at the top level — snow or not.
“It’s not only about the skiing. It’s about training in the gym and eating the right things and doing everything else and trying to control the stuff that you can control at home so that when you get out into the mountains and start training, you can utilise your time.
“I don’t think I’m in contention for a medal. I’m only 17 so I’ve got a lot more Olympics to come. I just want to get this experience.”