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54OLYMPIC REVIEW OLYMPIC SOLIDARITY FROMSURFTOSKELETON Former beach lifesaver Michelle Steele hails from Bundaberg in sunny Queensland, Australia. She recently received an Olympic Solidarity Scholarship, which is helping her attempts to qualify for her second Olympic Winter Games in the skeleton, as Glenn Cullen discovered: The 23- year- old won her country's first World Cup skeleton medal when she finished second in the FIBT World Cup event in Nagano in 2007. She uses the Olympic Solidarity scholarship towards the costs of training in North America where the skeleton facilities are, unsurprisingly, more advanced than those in Australia. She was previously a lifesaving athlete, coming fourth in the Australian Surf Lifesaving Championships in 2004. Tell us about the Olympic Solidarity Scholarship and how it has affected your career? For me it means a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. Because of full- time training and the amount of time we spend overseas it is very hard to hold down a job. While I still have to work, this takes off a lot of the pressure which means I can focus on my training in the off- season as well as when I compete. Getting the scholarship a year before your second Winter Games is good timing? It wasn't easy studying full- time ( occupational therapy) as well as trying to be a full- time athlete... this will enable me to finish my studies before Vancouver, which means a lot to me. Australia has done well in freestyle skiing, snowboarding and skating on the world's sporting stage but most people wouldn't associate the country with the sport of skeleton. How did you get into the sport given you are from sunny Queensland? I was involved in surf lifesaving and learned from my surf coach that the AIS ( Australian Institute of Sport) was interested in the having a woman participate in the Olympic Winter Games in the sport of skeleton. They were looking for women who were fast and explosive over 30 metres as that skill is useful for skeleton starts. I tried out and it just went on from there. Take us through a typical few weeks on the skeleton World Cup tour. We have three days of official training leading up to the race. Our days are made up of sliding, gym, sprint training and video review. The days are very full. We generally race on Friday or Saturday and then leave the following day for the next location and do it all over again. As a winter athlete from the southern hemisphere what other challenges do you face? Do you find that you are taken seriously on the circuit? When the programme first started we were very much seen as a novelty at the competitions. However, our programme is being run in such a professional manner and as we started obtaining results quickly we were taken seriously in a quite a short time. What was your first experience on the skeleton track like? It's something that you never ever forget; it was the scariest and most exhilarating thing I'd done. I saw the sport for the first time the day before I went down the track. Once I got on I had no idea where I was, it was pretty terrifying. And how about your experience at the Games in Turin where you finished 13th? It was certainly a hairy track at Cesana. I was nervous. I was 19 in Torino and at the time it was one of the scariest tracks on the circuit. Leading into the Games we had only been on the track 12 times but by the time the race came around I wasn't scared any more. You won Australia's first World Cup skeleton medal in Nagano, Japan when you finished 2nd in 2007. Just how special a moment was that for you? It was a really special moment for me. I had been close to podiums before that but to get a silver medal at such an event was just amazing. We had worked really hard to get to that and it was just great to be an Australian winning a skeleton medal. What are your aims and ambitions for the sport from here? To keep doing that! To win some more World Cup medals and place highly in the overall World Cup rankings. And, of course, my main ambition at the moment is the Vancouver Games. Would it be a stretch for you to get a medal in Vancouver? I think it's possible. It's been a very hyped- up track. I think people were anxious that it would be a monster and take a lot of effort to learn but it is already one of my favourite tracks. MICHELLE STEELE