ELSA Desmond was in the expensive Swiss ski resort of St Moritz last year when she got the news that she was finally a doctor.
That gives the impression of a glamorous lifestyle until she explains the harsh reality of mixing such a demanding career with the sliding sport of luge, especially when you’re from a non-alpine country.
For the past five years she has studied medicine at Kings College London while training and competing abroad.
“I was always revising, sometimes writing essays in the car between tracks. I’d often have my study cards and revision notes with me in the ‘start houses’ before races,” she reveals.
If that wasn’t hard enough then came the global pandemic.
In her bid to become Ireland’s first female Olympian in luge Desmond (24) had arranged to take the past two years out of college to concentrate on qualifying for the 2020 Beijing Olympics (February 4-10) but, with Covid’s disruption of international sport, decided to keep mixing both.
Then Britain went into a complete lockdown and she couldn’t fly home to sit her final exams.
“I had to do them online. My two biggest ones were done in Latvia and Germany during race weeks. I just stuck a big ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on my door,” she says nonchalantly, before conceding “it was a bit stressful.”
No wonder her Instagram account is called ‘Elsa_no_princess’.
It’s a nod to her namesake in ‘Frozen’ but also to her doughty character and ability to “take a hit and get back up again.”
She is actually terrified of heights and flying yet races feet first, at speeds up to 130kph, lying on her back on a small sled, down the equivalent of an icy rollercoaster.
She has been on the international circuit since 2018, competing in the second tier Nations Cup races that directly precede World Cups.
“It’s the exact same tracks and circuit. The top 12 in the world automatically compete in World Cups and the rest of us race, a day earlier, to join them. The top 16 in women’s Nations Cup qualify and I’ve done that just once.”
She’s hoping her first full season on the circuit will help, thanks to the flexibility of her new job at Southend University Hospital.
Medical internships in Britain are usually two years of six rotations but the hospital is allowing her to do them over three years, giving her four months off each winter to pursue her sporting goal.
“They have been brilliant. If I qualify for the Olympics my races will be on the 7th and 8th of February and my first shift back the hospital is on the 11th.”
She first saw luge on television in the 2006 Winter Olympics: “I thought it was so cool and when I found there was no woman from Ireland or GB doing I thought ‘I could do that!”
It took her 10 years to even get to try it, as a 16-year-old, in Innsbruck.
“You don’t start at the top of the run. I was at the little ‘kinder’ kid’s start’, about six or seven corners from the end. Just held on and toddled down to the finish, probably about 50kph.”
Now she reaches almost three times, racing for between 40 to 90 seconds and whizzing through corners with six G-forces.
Ireland’s sole luger is part of a group of athletes from smaller nations who train and travel together. The international luge association (FIL) funds their two coaches, they live out of their suitcases and have already raced in Olympic qualifiers in China (Yanqing) and Russia (Sochi) this season.
Desmond’s dad Brendan grew up in Fulham but her paternal grandmother is from Ballyjamesduff (Cavan) and her grandfather is from Cork.
She represented GB for a year as a junior but then sat out international competition for 12 months to qualify for Ireland and her family has been centrally involved in setting up the Irish Luge Association.
“Being raised by a dad who is Irish in so many ways, I always wanted to represent Ireland and help get more small nations into luge. Now we are growing the sport.”
She has avoided serious injury so far but does she ever get scared?
“Of course! I’m human and you’re going downhill at 170kph in lycra. My way of rationalising it is there’s risks in getting in a car every day so you might as well do what you enjoy.
“I do get scared, especially after I’ve crashed, but I work with a sports psychologist and use a lot of visualisation and meditation techniques.
“Qualifying to represent Ireland on the Olympic stage, whether its Beijing or later, that is the absolute dream,” Desmond says.
“After everything I’ve been through to get here that would mean the world to me and I really hope I can make it. I’m certainly going to try my very best.”
By Cliona Foley