It was Jan Rossiter’s first race of the season, at the picturesque Sovereign Lake in British Columbia, Canada. But conditions were poor.
Temperatures dropped to -20C. Many skiers decided to drop out. Rossiter couldn’t afford to. He needed as many qualification races as possible. Inevitably, he struggled. Inevitably, the inquest followed.
“I had a really tough experience. At that temperature the snow is very sharp and the skis run very slowly. It was a bad race. It gave me a scare.
“Were we on the right track? We had put in all of this summer training — what was going on?”
This wasn’t part of Rossiter’s ‘plan’. Born in Cork to a father from Clonmel and a mother from Plzen in the Czech Republic, the family moved to Kingston, Ontario when he was just two. It was here that he first learned to ski but it wasn’t until he started a physiology degree at Montreal’s McGill University in 2006 he took up cross-country racing. It quickly became an addiction. In 2010, he moved to Ottawa and joined a ski club.
Two years later, the Olympic dream started to take shape. He contacted the Snowsports Association of Ireland and soon had a race licence. By early 2013, he was competing. But he was faced with a dilemma.
“I had just finished university and I was quite concerned about taking the time off to ski. But I don’t have any huge financial obligations, I’m able to travel, there’s no family I have to support. I just couldn’t accept not having tried. I had this option, to aim for the Olympics, and I didn’t want to wake up one day and wonder ‘what if?’”
The race at Sovereign Lake was a minor blip. Rossiter refocused and rebounded successfully. He headed to Soldier Hollow, Utah in early January in determined mood. He forked out almost $2,000 (€1,500) to be there.
His coach couldn’t make it. His skis tried their hardest not to either — turning up a day late. But, there was extra motivation. Flags flying high, representing each competing nation.
There was the tricolour. Rossiter’s best result followed. Despite the pain. And there’s always lots of pain.
“The toughest thing to comprehend is the pain is self-inflicted. It’s not so much having to endure the pain as having it continue. It’s easy just to slow down and let your technique slip because the pain might subside. The challenge is to keep pushing hard.”
There’s an interesting juxtaposition. The relentless, gruelling physicality of the sport and the calm, stillness of the arena. The ugliness of exertion, the beauty of the landscape.
For 15 kilometres, Rossiter must deal with the fine lines and the huge contrast between training and race conditions.
“Every season we aim to ski 500 kilometres, just slowly and calmly, before we move into any other work. It’s very peaceful, almost meditative, the repetition of the movements.
“But there’s a big difference between slow-skiing and the racing — which is incredibly painful and arduous.”
Rossiter’s degree and subsequent work as a respiratory therapist gives him added insight into life as an athlete. His coach, Petr Jakl, has also done academic work in kinesiology — study of human movement — and the pair’s respective medical and scientific backgrounds have provided, at times, a unique dimension to training.
“I’m quite interested in exercise, physiology, breathing and mechanics while my coach’s background means he’s able to explain things to me in a little more detail. I find it easier to train and learn when I have a deeper understanding of what’s going on.”
It’s been four and a half months since Rossiter said his goodbyes to work colleagues at an Ottawa hospital and focused full-time on qualifying for the Olympics. Most athletes spend two years preparing at least. Unsurprisingly, the schedule has been hectic and unforgiving. There was a trip to Oberhof in Germany, followed by more training in the Šumava mountains in the Czech Republic where Rossiter stayed with relatives to keep costs low.
“I had to train on my own and that was difficult. From my experience, there’s no substitute for having a team around you so my coach wears many hats. But there’s an almost-monastic aspect to just focusing on this.
“When I was making the decision to aim for Sochi, I told myself I’d have to be happy even if it didn’t work out.”
He’s even happier now that it has.