Vanessa Mae trades concert ovation for downhill elation

Just completing the course was a victory for the violin prodigy turned Olympic skier

Wed, Feb 19, 2014, 01:00

Well, she got down it. Twice. On a day you wouldn’t put the cat out in, 89 women lined up for the giant slalom and only 67 made it to the end of the second run. Gold went to Tina Maze of Slovenia, first out of the gate and never bettered.

Yet it wasn’t the four-time Olympic medallist that had a small, drenched knot of us standing in the rain at the end. Instead it was the slight, stilted frame of Thailand’s Vanessa Vanakorn, slowest down the hill, a full 50 seconds down on Maze. And as she crossed the line she threw her arms in the air, delighted with herself.


Child prodigy
You don’t know her as Vanessa Vanakorn. You know her as Vanessa Mae, the child prodigy violinist who grew up to sell 20 million records. Now 35, she’s here because she took up skiing as a hobby and with the time and money afforded by a fortune long made, she decided to have a go at making it to the Olympics. She came, she saw, she stayed upright. Job done.

“It’s so cool,” she gushed when she made it to the bottom. “You’ve got the elite skiers of the world and then you’ve got some mad old woman like me trying to make it down. I’ve had the chance here to try something new later in life.

“If you do everything when you’re young, you leave no fun until the end. I expected to be last but at the end of the day the Olympics is a great opportunity.”

Though born in Singapore and brought up in England, she was competing for Thailand through her Thai father. An unashamed flag of convenience – she is long estranged from her father – she was only using it because Thai qualification standards for the Olympics are lower than British ones.

The FIS allow non-skiing nations such as Thailand (and Ireland) to send one athlete in the slalom events as long as they race in a set number of events beforehand and achieve a certain points total. The British Olympic Association only allow you to compete if you’ve achieved a top-30 place in the World Cup standings, so there was never going to be a route for her to Sochi through her home country. But qualify she did, by the skin of her teeth but legitimately so all the same.

“I’m a last-minute kind of girl,” she said here yesterday. “I mean training for the Olympics with six months to go was a last-minute thing. My main purpose of being here was to really have a good time, to improve my skiing in a very short amount of time.

“You have to take risks in life at the end of the day. You can insure yourself up to your eyeballs but you won’t enjoy life. With my limited experience at my age I’m just glad I made it down. I grew up in London so I’m afraid I brought the weather with me.”

That she did. After 10 days of clear blue skies, the weather has turned foul in Sochi since the weekend. Fog nixed two events on Monday and the driving rain that greeted skiers and supporters alike up the mountain at Rosa Khutor yesterday wouldn’t have been out of place in a league game in the west of Ireland somewhere.

It made for horrendous conditions to be skiing in and did for a quarter of the field, including Irish entrant Florence Bell.


Risking nothing
Vanakorn made getting to the bottom a priority, risking nothing and inching her way down her first run in 1:44.86. It left her in dead last at the end of the first run, over seven seconds slower than the second-last skier. She didn’t care a whit.

“I was just happy I didn’t get lost!” she laughed. “Because at my first two gates I thought I was going to go the wrong side. But I made it down. It was rock and roll at times – I nearly crashed out three times – but I’m happy. Just the experience of being here is amazing.”

She let go a little on the second run and improved her time by over two seconds. It was still the slowest run down the mountain but she closed the gap to second-last to just four seconds. Everybody wins their own race.

“That was marginally better,” she said when she got to us. “The first run, I was just so unprepared for the feeling of speed. I just do not have that need for speed in my body, but with my limited experience I was happy with what I did.

“’It was so sweet, the crowd, the atmosphere, the people shouting ‘Go Vanessa’. I just wanted to turn around and say, ‘Thank you, guys.’ This is the Olympic spirit and to be just a small part of it for a few days is special.”