Thursday 14 December 2017

Bell sisters feel the agony and ecstasy

Team Ireland Winter Olympic athlete Florence Bell
Team Ireland Winter Olympic athlete Florence Bell
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

ONE of the Irish skiers competing at the upcoming Winter Olympics (February 7-23) is so young that her school sent her father a text yesterday, wondering why she wasn't in class.

Florence Bell (17) is not even the youngest of Ireland's five-strong team for Sochi – that's US-born snowboarding prodigy Seamus O'Connor (16), who has been a full-time athlete since he was 13 and does all his schooling on-line. But Birmingham native Bell is the only one who is still at school – and she was in the unenviable position of competing with her older sister Victoria (18) for an Olympic spot.

Her father Brian, who is originally from Lurgan, clarified that her school principal has already sanctioned her taking time off for the Olympics and saw the funny side of the query at yesterday's team announcement.

But he admitted that things were a little more tense when his younger daughter beat her older sibling for Ireland's only women's slalom/giant slalom place.

"Obviously she was trying to be happy for me but she was really upset," Florence said. "We've been racing against each other on the international circuit for the last three years. Sometimes she wins and sometimes I do – it can literally be just hundredths of a second between us, it's that close."

Bell started racing when she was 11 and was on British underage squads before declaring for Ireland.

All of Ireland's competitors in Russia are Olympic debutants.

O'Connor, who won some prestigious titles on the junior snowboarding circuit before he went senior, has the best ranking and reputation, but is still regarded as a medal long-shot because he is still so young.

He was born in San Diego and is based in Utah and, while his father Kevin grew up in Britain, his dad's parents are from Dublin and Drogheda, and he said: "I was always known as the Irish-American kid growing up."

O'Connor's mother Elena is Russian – her parents live only 100km away from Sochi – and both his half-siblings were born there and speak fluent Russian.

"When we heard the Olympics were going to be in Russia my dad got the idea that it would be quite poetic if I were to ride for Ireland – the country where his family is from – and compete in Russia, where my mother's family come from," said the teen star.

The team also includes Irish-Canadian Sean Greenwood (26), whose mother Sibeal Foyle emigrated to Canada in the early '80s. He competes in the terrifying discipline of skeleton, at which Clifton Wrottersley almost nicked a medal for Ireland when he was fourth at the 2002 Games.

Also included is cross-country skier Jan Rossiter (26), an Ontario native.

The team member who has spent most time in Ireland is slalom skier Conor Lyne (20). He has put his mechanical engineering studies on hold to train full-time for the last two years and improved his ranking from 98 to 52 at the last World Championships.

His parents – his father is from Brandon in Kerry and his mother from Hospital in Limerick – met in UCC and eventually settled in Utah; Lyne has spent most of his summers and also the last two Christmas holidays with relatives in Ireland. His rugby-playing cousin Michael Mullally plays centre for Munster's U-19s.

"Brandon's very small, there's only about 200 people there in a very tight-knit community and I'd know them all," he explained. "I would not consider anywhere else to be home, Ireland is the only country I could represent because I'm only an Irish citizen, I'm not a US citizen. I've a lot of pride in my country," Lyne said.

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