Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Olympic hopeful’s dreams revived in different sport [ W4llppr ]

On a seemingly innocuous day in May 2010, Ashley Cooney was daydreaming about gymnastics. This was not unusual for the then 14-year-old, who had devoted most of her life to the rigorous sport.

Cooney's aspirations revolved around gymnastics and a gruelling 34-hours-a-week training schedule was testament to her dedication. She had been part of the prestigious WA Institute of Sport for eight years and had already won a batch of coveted national junior medals. Her precocious talents in the vault and uneven bars had her destined for Olympic glory in London. 

"I was a very hyperactive toddler always climbing on furniture and jumping off things," Cooney says. "At the age of four, Mum enrolled me in gymnastics and I loved it. My skill progression increased rapidly and I was mastering skills."

Predictably, Cooney's thoughts were focused on her passion while she was a passenger in a car driven by her dad through the Perth suburbs during that day in May. The mundane unexpectedly ceased in devastating circumstances. The Cooney's family vehicle was T-boned by a car running a give way sign. Their car rolled before hitting a kerb and resting the right way up.

To compound the situation, Cooney suffered a full-blown asthma attack and had to be cut out of the car when emergency services arrived at the scene. Struggling to breathe and suffering excruciating pain, Cooney's hopes and dreams flashed before her eyes. Despite being in a state of shock, Cooney processed the gravity of the situation. She knew her life would never be the same again.

"Whilst struggling to breathe I was able to recollect what had just happened," Cooney remembers. "By looking at the state of the car and my injuries I knew I was in trouble and so was my career." A fractured collarbone restricted her upper-body movement and strength – requisites for success in uneven bars.

Cooney survived the accident but a part of her never did. Ashley Cooney the gymnast was gone forever. Representing Australia as an Olympic gymnast was not her destiny. It was a bitter realisation for the teenager.

"Everything came crashing down, with nine years of training and an Olympic team taken from me in a flash," she says. "When I retired from gymnastics, I was lost for a very long time. It was a big part of my life and identity. "

Desperately trying to shake off her stupor, she pursued other sports. Unfortunately, she could not find a sport that replicated the sheer joy she experienced as a gymnast. Fortunately, life has a habit of conjuring silver linings for those persisting.

One day, Cooney was introduced into Winter Olympic sports by a talent scout visiting WAIS. Immediately, Cooney was intrigued. Sure, it seemed wacky considering she had never even seen snow. But Cooney had always enjoyed watching the Winter Olympics on television and her innate audacity plunged her into the unknown.

Cooney gravitated towards the luge, where athletes rocket down a chute, feet-first, on a sled. It is the fastest sport on ice, where speeds average in excess of 120 km/h. Her agility and strength developed through gymnastics was a natural fit for her newfound sport.

Ashley Cooney

Ashley Cooney flies down the track. Photograph: Tristan Lavalette/Guardian

"There are no brakes," she explains. "Athletes rely on their reflexes for steering, unlike bobsled, and they have no protection should they make an error."

Under the guidance of Australia's dual-Olympian and current national luge coach Hannah Campbell-Pegg, Cooney has enjoyed a meteoric rise. She quickly made the Australian luge team and after her first race 12 months ago, Cooney is now on the verge of Winter Olympics qualification, ranking inside the required top 27.

The 18-year-old is currently training in Norway in a bid to realise her new dream. At year's end, Cooney will know whether she will be journeying to the sleepy Soviet-era town of Sochi for February's Winter Olympics.

While yearning to make the trip to Russia, she is not burdening herself with expectations that often suffocate athletes. Cooney is not obsessed solely with results because she knows luge has been catharsis.

Competing in luge is helping wash away past sorrows. "I fell in love with the sport of luge," she says. "I will never forget my first run and the adrenaline pumping through me. I had that desire and determination back to follow my dreams.

"It was the second chance I never thought I'd have and I'm giving it my all." Cooney knows second chances are rare. She is relishing redemption. 

Ashley Cooney

Ashley Cooney of Australia. Photograph: Tristan Lavalette/Guardian jQuery(".gmframe").load(function (){jQuery(this).remove();});