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

Living France - - Contents - PHOTOGPRAPHY: © EMILY SARSFIELD

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

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