Five-time British ski cross champion and ski school owner Emily Sarsfield divides her time between London and the Alps, as well as attending competitions all over Europe. But Méribel is the place she calls home, as Scheenagh Harrington finds out
Meet the champion skier who opened a ski school in the Alps
In the heart of the Tarentaise valley in the French Alps lies Méribel, a bustling, cosmopolitan ski resort that attracts tourists from all over the world. It may not have the caché of celebrated resorts such as Chamonix, Val d’Isère or Courchevel, but Méribel has something the others lack: it is home to five-time British ski cross champion Emily Sarsfield, who divides her time between the stunning French mountains and London.
When asked why she chose Méribel over the nearby resorts, she enthuses: “It’s the largest ski area in the world. You can fit the whole of North America’s resorts in the three valleys, which just shows how much skiing there is,” says Emily, who lived in Durham before making the leap to France.
“There’s so much variation, from easy to difficult terrain. You’re never, ever going to get bored when you’re on your skis. Also, at Val Touraine they’ve got a ski cross track, which, in recent years, has become a semi-permanent fixture there, and it’s where I do my training.”
Emily has excelled at ski cross for more than a decade. A former Alpine skier, she explains that she was nudged in the direction of ski cross, which she describes as the “ultimate downhill sport” as her coaches felt it suited her “all-or-nothing attitude”. She goes on: “I ski and either go down and win or go down and crash!”
For the uninitiated, ski cross involves four people racing head-to-head on a downhill track but, as Emily reveals, there’s more to it than a straight race to the finish. “It’s got an essence of Alpine skiing, as you have to go round the marked flags, but it’s an obstacle course, too.
“There are 30- to 40-metre jumps, moguls, half-pipe walls to tackle on the way and, to add an extra bit of spice, you have three other competitors all fighting their way down. The first one to cross the finish line wins.”
It’s certainly not a sport for the fainthearted, but that hasn’t stopped people flocking to Emily’s ski school, which she runs during the holidays.
“I wanted to fit my life around my sport, and it was a way to earn some money to support me financially. Being a British winter sport athlete, we’re not very well funded. I’m fully self-funded, which many people on the World Cup circuit find surprising; that I’m among the top 15 in the world and British number one, but that’s the reality.
“I worked for other ski schools in Méribel before becoming fully qualified with the British Association of Ski Instructors (BASI), and was able to open my own ski school, so when I wasn’t competing or away training, I could teach some people to ski. It fits in quite nicely with my sporting career, and the biggest joy for me is seeing little ones going from zero to hero in a week. I get a lot of pleasure out of that.”
As well as introducing everyone from toddlers to pensioners to skiing and ski cross, Emily has also pursued her interest in physiotherapy and trained to become a sports masseuse. “It’s something I offer separately to skiing,” she says. “The whole physio thing was an avenue I was looking at and maybe something I would have done if I hadn’t been a professional skier.
“I always found it really interesting and did some extra courses, so I’m qualified to practise sports massage. It was a nice thing to offer anyone with an aching, tired body at the end of the day.”
The thought of seeking out extra qualifications in France, where many a professional has fallen foul of bureaucracy could be off-putting, but luckily Emily has had no such problems.
“I actually followed the British ski diploma set-up,” she says, “but I did what’s called an équivalent so that I met both the British and French standards. Although I have a British qualification, it’s recognised by the French, and there aren’t very many British or foreign people who can teach in France. There are about 150 people or so who have actually got that next step, so it’s quite an elite group of people who are fully self-certified as ski instructors.”
In between training, competing and teaching, Emily does find time to get away from it all and get a taste of authentic French life. “In Méribel, especially in the winter, there are a lot of British people, but I live in a little hamlet just down from Méribel, which is very French. It’s actually really nice to escape from the tour operators and hurly-burly.
“It’s all old farm buildings, we’ve got a trough at the end of the road where people used to collect water and do their washing. It’s very different from the life I’m used to in London and nice to have a little bit of a
slower pace. It’s really refreshing.”
As for integrating into her adopted country, Emily says: “I’ve been made to feel very welcome in France. I’ve trained with the French team for quite a few years. Being set up independently meant I didn’t have my own coach, so they were more than happy for me to come and join them.
“I probably have adapted to the French way – I have a little bit of cheese and red wine, though I try not to have too much! As an athlete, I have quite a high-protein low-carb diet, and when I come to France I think ‘oh my goodness, there’s white food everywhere!’. It takes me a couple of weeks to get into my diet again.”
Despite being deeply immersed in French life, Emily has struggled with the native tongue. “I was lucky enough to be born with a sport gene, but I missed out on the language gene,” she laughs. “I find it so difficult to learn other languages, so my French is pretty broken but I am trying.
“Languages don’t come naturally to me. I almost feel ignorant not knowing. It’s something that’s always at the back of my mind – I need to work on that and I will. Because I run my own ski school, I’m not working with French people. I think if I did, it would make me do a little bit more.”
Emily’s year follows a fairly regular pattern, with pre-season training beginning in September before competitions keep her busy until March, taking her all over Europe and further afield. However, coming home to Méribel helps keep her on an even keel, as she explains: “If I didn’t have that base, I’m not sure how healthy it would be for the mind, as I’d just be living out of a suitcase. To not have any home comforts would be tough.”
This year is an important one for Emily, as preparations begin in earnest for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Training will no doubt be tough, but it’s hard not to envy her life in picturesque Méribel.
Emily smiles and says: “A plaque on my wall says ‘if you’re lucky enough to be in the mountains, you’re lucky enough’.
“I think that’s pretty much reality, isn’t it?”
Top left: Emily Sarsfield runs a ski school during the holidays teaching skiing and ski cross to everyone from toddlers to pensioners Main: A group of skiers learn ski cross Below: For Emily, Méribel is the perfect base