IT ALL HAPPENED so fast — one minute, Jan Rossiter considered cross-country skiing to be little more than a hobby, the next he was representing Ireland at the Winter Olympics.
The impromptu nature of this recent development (“a lot of people are quite surprised,” he admits) is emphasised by the fact that Rossiter only got in touch with the Snowsports Association of Ireland in December to express a desire to represent the country of his birth in Sochi.
“I’m not the first Irish cross country skier,” he tells TheScore.ie. “And I knew if I were to compete internationally, it certainly would be for Ireland.
“The process was quite straightforward. I contacted the Snowsports Association of Ireland and then they registered me with the FIS — the International Skiing Federation. And I then had an international license to accumulate points for Ireland.”
(Rossiter pictured with his coach Petr Jakl)
Although the 26-year-old is one of five people representing Ireland at the Winter Olympics (at the time of the interview, he had yet to even meet his teammates), he bears the distinction of being the only athlete in the squad to have been born there.
“It was just after my second birthday that we moved from Cork to Kingston, Ontario in Canada,” says Rossiter, who was born to an Irish father and a Czech mother. “My grandparents are still living in Clonmel, so we try to visit as often as we can. We’d visit every other year on average.”
And while Rossiter has been competing for eight years in “local and university races,” it only recently dawned on him that the prospect of competing at the Winter Olympics might be a viable one.
“I skied a little bit every year between the ages of three and 18, quite recreationally,” he explains. “When I went off to university in Montreal, I joined the team there and we raced maybe five weekends a year and trained throughout the winter. It’s really just the last three winters that we’ve been competing at a higher level, as well as the last season, when there’s been a huge jump in the amount of training being done.
“It certainly wasn’t a long-term dream [to compete at the Winter Olympics]. So it sort of evolved in the last three or four years as I saw my skiing coming along. But it’s really been the last 18 months that I’ve fully committed to it.”
And it is a dream that he could easily have missed out on, as his qualification for the event was certainly less than straightforward.
“Overall, it went according to plan. The second qualification race did not go well, so things were a little stressful at that point. Then with the third, fourth and fifth qualification races, each one kept getting better and better, so that was incredibly exciting and encouraging.”
And how did he manage to overcome the initial setback?
“I try to relax and not worry about the implications of the race too much. I ski more efficiently if I’m relaxed. I skied the course a few days ahead of time and then just tried to ski as if I were training, except a little faster.”
(Rossiter pictured training ahead of the Games)
Rossiter is speaking to TheScore.ie from his training base in Austria, yet far from taking an opportunity to rest and recuperate following confirmation of his qualification, if anything, the last few days have felt more intense than ever.
“As soon as you miss more than one day on the snow, you really notice it,” he explains.
“There’s a lot more hours of training now. Since I have fewer races, I’m able to train a little more often. It’s an altitude similar to Sochi — we’re around 1,540 metres, which is higher than we would normally experience, so it’s good to be here.
“Luckily, travel went quite smoothly. We were able to get our kits here and get some good rest along the way. We started last Saturday — and we’ve been putting in about four hours a day. It’s been going well.”
And of course, this relentless training is undoubtedly necessary for such a grueling sport.
“The equipment is much lighter than for a downhill ski. About a third of the race course is on flat ground, a third is uphill and a third is downhill, roughly speaking. The athletes have to be incredibly fit to climb the hill and also have some downhill skiing abilities to stay in control on the downhill as well.”
Ireland have never won a medal at the Winter Olympics, though came close in 2002, when Clifton Wrottesley finished fourth in the Men’s Skeleton (an event in which another Irish representative, Sean Greenwood, will compete this year).
Nevertheless, Rossiter admits he won’t be the man to make history by becoming the first Irish athlete to secure silverware at the event.
“The spreads in time between the winner and the last-placed skier are quite large,” he explains. “So my goal would be to be as close as possible to the winner compared with some of my other races this year.”
Rossiter does have some advantages over his opponents, however. In Petr Jakl, he has a seasoned European coach of the highest calibre, while his work as a respiratory therapist provides him with some invaluable information that’s highly relevant to his sport. In addition, it also helped him to accrue some much-needed funds for this arduous trip.
“Logistically, having the job has enabled me to finance this whole endeavour. I stopped working in September and I’ve been able to train full time since then. In terms of having the anatomy and physiology knowledge, I find it makes the training more enjoyable and understandable.”
And so, with that topic in mind, will he continue to pursue his sporting dreams once the 2014 Winter Olympics are over, or is he finally going to devote himself entirely to the day job?
“I haven’t put much thought into it. I think you’ll have to ask me after the Games. But from a practical point of view, I’m going to have to focus on work, at least in the coming year, just to make ends meet again. And then we’ll decide from there.”
You can read more about Jan Rossiter at www.janrossiter.com