Sister’s support still strong as Florence flies the flag in Sochi

It’s unlikely there is an Olympian alive who can’t recall where they were when news filtered through that they had been selected to represent their country, but few can tell as unique a tale as Florence Bell.

Florence and her sister Victoria had spent three years flying down the slopes of Europe and beyond in a race to claim the one spot on offer to Ireland in the women’s downhill and giant slalom events at Sochi.

The sisters did much of the travelling together in the bid to make next month’s Winter Games and so it was that one sibling found out the good news as the other came to terms with the realisation her dream was over.

“We were in Tokyo airport on our way home and my sister got an email saying that she hadn’t made the team and that the place had gone to me,” Bell said. “I mean, obviously, she was trying to be happy for me but she was really upset about it.

“We’ve been racing against each other for the past three years. We’re really similar and really close in ability. It would literally be hundredths of a second between us when we compete. We’re really close in times.”

Victoria Bell will still be in Sochi, but only to support her almost 18-year-old sister. So will her mother and her father, who doubles up as her coach and whose Lurgan birthplace allowed the sisters declare for Ireland.

Talk about family ties.

“We knew the whole time that there was only going to be one person who could go so we knew we would be competing against each other. But we’re best friends so it’s cool. She’s happy for me, I’m happy for her.

“We’ve travelled everywhere together. This summer we were in New Zealand, Australia, we just got back from Japan last month. That’s one good thing about it – without skiing I don’t think I would have got to travel to all those places.”

Bell’s story is typical of the five competitors who will represent Ireland in Russia in that all hail from, or have lived most of their lives, in corners of the world far removed from Ireland.

Bell is Birmingham-born, Conor Lyne (men’s downhill and slalom) and Jan Rossiter (cross country ski) both live in the USA. Seán Greenwood (skeleton) hails from Vancouver while snowboarder Seamus O’Connor is a San Diego boy.

They are anything but Plastic Paddies with strong ties to Ireland and they continue a tradition of Irish involvement in the Winter Olympics that stretches back to the first expedition sent to Albertville in 1992.

Olympic Council of Ireland president Pat Hickey spoke yesterday about the ridicule that was heaped on the body and the athletes who travelled to France 22 years ago and about how attitudes and perceptions had changed.

Ireland’s place at the winter gig has always leaned heavily on the diaspora but, if Hickey is to be believed, 30% of our athletes competing in Rio in 2016 could be Irish-born but to parents who are themselves non-Irish.

It is an astonishing stat.

“There’s a chance it could be,” said Hickey. “It depends on a lot of things but it will be hovering around 20%. Sports like judo and wrestling and weight-lifting were collapsing here.

“These are now dynamic sports because of the influx of Bulgarians, Romanians, Latvians and Lithuanians. They have a great mentality because they are proud of their new country.”

It’s a pride shared by the quintet departing for the Black Sea resort of Sochi even if the prospects of a first ever medal are about as unlikely as the name of Lord Clifton Wrottesley who finished an agonising fourth in the skeleton in Salt Lake City in 2002.

“Well, it’s hard,” said Bell. “I don’t think that we’ll be at the top in terms of medals but it’s not only about the skiing. It’s about training and the gym and eating the right things. Trying to control the stuff that you can so when you get out on the mountains you can use your time best when you’re there.”


Don't miss the Irish Examiner's free glossy Home mag

Rebel insiders share Cork city's hidden treasures

The dos and don’ts of BBQing

Sony Photography Awards: As the winners are announced, here’s 10 top travel shots

More From The Irish Examiner