hAD his parents dropped anchor in Anchorage, settled for a life on the Nile, moored their vessel permanently off Lerwick or plumped for Poole, Andrew Musgrave might have ended up doing something else. But it is safe to assume that it would have involved sport, and it would have involved punishment.
Endurance, exhaustion and an exploration of one’s own limits are the nuts and bolts of a cross-country skier’s day. These are members of that strange breed of human who rationalise masochism as a sort of self-assessment ritual. Unlike the Alpine skiers who flounce down the slopes with gravity on their side, there is no buzz at the immediate end of a cross-country race because there is no breath in the lungs.
The four representatives from Huntly Nordic Skiing Club who will represent Great Britain at the Winter Olympics in Sochi next week, seem to thrive on the exacting nature of their discipline. When asked to describe the sensation of dragging oneself and one’s skies across rough terrain with arm power, Musgrave tackles the task with a nervous energy that resonates down the phone line.
“Doing a 15-kilometre time trial is like going on the treadmill, setting it as fast as you can, and maintaining that speed for half an hour whilst trying to do bench press at the same time – in freezing conditions,” says the 23-year-old from a pre-Olympics training camp in the Dolomites.
“Maybe I’m just a bit weird but I always liked to do a lot of different sports, and I played a lot of rugby at school, but I was useless at it. But when I entered individual sports I liked the fact that it’s just you that affects the outcome, you don’t rely on anyone else and it’s all about how hard you push yourself. I always liked being able to go out and see how much you can make yourself hurt.
“I like racing, and I like the fact that our sport demands a lot of long hours when you are out training, and you can forget about everything else and just lose yourself in the fact you are training. You’re not stressing about other things, like what you’ve got to do for school.”
Musgrave is not just another British Winter Olympian, sent off more in hope than expectation. While not quite a medal favourite in Sochi, like Alain Baxter he is in the “you never know what might happen on the day” category. He has won the respect of his peers, having followed up on last year’s second place by winning the Norwegian Championships the week before last.
This achievement is not dissimilar to a Norwegian winning the caber toss at a Highland Games, and the press reacted to the invasion by bemoaning the state of Nordic skiing in Norway. But Musgrave is not an overnight sensation in the land of the fjords: he has been a full-time athlete there since the age of 19.
Herein lies the advantage of coming from a globetrotting family. When he told his parents he needed to move to Norway to realise his dreams, they were bound to summon the mantra that if you give your children wings, they will fly back to you. Musgrave’s father worked in oil and moved his family from Egypt to Norway to Alaska, to Dorset, to Shetland and then finally to Oyne in Aberdeenshire, where their kids were old enough to turn skiing from a hobby into an obsession.
“I targeted Norway because it’s known as the best skiing nation in the world, so when I decided I wanted to commit to cross-country skiing fully, Norway was the place to go. I’ve been in Norway for four years now so doing well at their national championships does mean a lot,” says Musgrave.
“The funny thing about it is that I can win the race, but I don’t actually get a medal because I’m not Norwegian. Everyone seems to think it’s good craic when some British guy comes along and beats them, because they think ‘oh, Brits can’t ski, they are the ones that everyone makes fun of when they are out on the tracks trying to ski and spend half the time lying on their backs’. But no, I’ve actually had a lot of support when I’ve done well, it’s all positive.
“I think at the start the other skiers got a shock when they found themselves being beaten by somebody who is British, but I’ve been in Norway so long now that they know who I am, and they know it’s not the end of the world if they get beaten by me, because I can ski fast occasionally.”
When he is at home, when the skiing circuit and his studies in Trondheim allow, Musgrave analyses himself. Not in an existential way but in the science of physiology, in terms of input and output. As seen in our picture the Sportscotland Institute of Support provides access to the kind of gym equipment where Musgrave can simulate the “double poling” technique that is unique to Nordic skiing. And he insists that by being Scottish, he has access to better sports science than Norwegian skiers do.
“We’ve had a lot of support from the Institute for a number of years now, and I’ve learned a lot about physiology and about how to train more effectively,” he says. “We’ve done a lot more about monitoring heart-rate and training so that we know if our training is working effectively, and it has definitely helped me to improve.”
Musgrave, who will embark on his second Olympic campaign in the sprint on Tuesday, is not some lone flag-bearer in his unlikely crusade. He is not even the only member of his family competing in Sochi. His elder sister Posy, whose real name is Rosamund, is also in the team as are Callum Smith and Andrew Young. The latter’s father, Roy Young, is the British high-performance chief for Nordic skiing. He leaves us in no doubt that these are unprecedented times for Britain’s (in other words, Scotland’s) involvement in this gruelling sport.
“The BOA came up with a selection policy that would mean that people would finish in the top two-thirds of their fields. That’s quite a strong statement so we have worked hard on putting a team together for the Olympics. Going back to Vancouver four years ago, it was a pretty strong performance from some very young skiers, and they’ve all developed,” says Young.
“I think on our all-time list this team will come out as the best we’ve ever sent. We’ve never had a stronger team.
“It has been extremely difficult to break into the elite because it’s a very tough sport, and the Scandinavians in particular but the Russians and other Eastern European nations have been traditionally strong. The Americans, particularly on the women’s side, have had a phenomenal couple of years, so it is pretty difficult, and to get the sort of support services in both their training and particularly on snow, getting the skis right, and all of this on minimal staffing, has been a long road.
“After Lillehammer in 1994, there was no cross-country skiing in the Olympics until 2010, so it almost vanished, and to push it back onto the programme in Olympic terms is a great achievement. Snowsports lost impetus when the lottery started and they didn’t use the money well. Since Vancouver there has been a change in how snowsports are taking themselves forward.”