Hot prospect

March 5, 2019

She’s swapped sand dunes for snow drifts and now Britain’s best female biathlete is targeting Beijing 2022. Simon Rushworth met South Shields soldier and ice queen Amanda Lightfoot

Lightfoot by name. Light feet by nature. Watch one of the most promising talents on the snowsports scene glide effortlessly across the slopes of continental Europe and it’s easy to understand why Amanda Lightfoot is tipped to bolster her reputation as Britain’s premier biathlete during the next Winter Olympic cycle.

What’s so much more difficult to comprehend is that the accomplished skier and ice cool shot went from complete beginner to elite performer in the space of six remarkable years.

“I remember watching the Winter Olympics back in 2010 and saying to myself ‘okay, four years of hard work, Amanda, and you could be there’,” explains the South Shields native.

“I think that was the first time it had crossed my mind. I am definitely the type of girl who decides she is doing something and, no matter how big it seems or how unlikely, does everything she can to achieve it.”

Last month, Amanda received confirmation that it would be all systems go in her bold bid to compete at a third successive winter games. Beijing 2022 beckons for the 32-year- old following her debut in Sochi and a second successive Olympic appearance in South Korea last year. But first, it’s back to the day job.

“I’m super excited that Beijing is on the cards,” adds Amanda. “I can focus on getting in great shape for 2022 and it’s fantastic to have that target to aim for. But I owe the Army big time for all the support they’ve shown me during the last few years.

“This year is all about concentrating on my career and knuckling down for the next few months. It will be next season before I return to the world stage and start my preparation proper for the Olympics.”

As a full-time soldier in the Adjutant General’s Corps, Sergeant Lightfoot returned to her regimental base in Dishforth last month on the back of a typically dominant display at the 2019 Army Championships. After dropping off four trophies and eight medals in North Yorkshire, she headed straight to Germany – via Newcastle Airport – to support colleagues at the Royal Logistics Corps Championships.

“I was there to help out – not to compete,” she adds. “I’m determined to give everything I can to the Army in the next few weeks and months and going over there was part of that. Since PyeongChang I’ve been focusing on courses, training and general career progression.

“But I’m moving back to the AGC headquarters in Hampshire soon and I’ll start full-time biathlon training in the summer ahead of the new World Cup season.”

For a Tynesider who barely saw a flake of snow growing up, even uttering that sentence still seems wholly improbable.

“I never really experienced anything resembling a real winter in South Shields,” adds the former Westoe Infants and St Gregory’s Primary School pupil. “Maybe there was the odd sprinkle once in a blue moon. I don’t really remember. But it’s safe to say the life of an elite biathlete was never on my radar!

“Even when I got to secondary school – I attended St Wilfred’s – sport wasn’t really something I was into. I suppose that’s what makes my story so unique. I definitely didn’t dream of becoming an Olympian.

“I got some rollerblades for my birthday once and I lived on them for a while. I used to rollerblade into the house, eat my dinner, and then rollerblade straight back out to play. I guess that’s the closest I ever came to skiing!”

Fast forward to the early noughties and Amanda had followed her brother into the British Army. As an impressionable 19-year-old she was dispatched to Lillehammer, in Norway, for adventure training with the AGC Ladies Nordic Team but little did she know that the adventure would last for more than a decade. And it’s not finished yet.

“Norway was when I was first introduced to the sport of biathlon,” recalls Amanda. “From the first day it was just challenge after challenge to stay on my feet and become better. Once I mastered that then skiing became my passion.

“With biathlon, I love the fact that you never know who will win. The biggest challenge is that you have to be a fast, technical skier and then combine that skill with hitting targets the size of golf balls 50m away with a maximum heartrate. It’s what makes biathlon such an amazing sport to watch, as the athletes have to become experts in both disciplines to be in with a chance of winning.

“It’s not easy but I’ve loved all of the ups and downs and the various challenges I’ve had to face along the way. When I look to the future, I’d like to continue with the shooting aspect of the sport – it would be so nice to compete in a shooting competition without my heartrate going through the roof!

“But biathlon is a sport that chose me and I wouldn’t change that for the world. I am living proof that you can achieve absolutely anything if you put your mind to it. That’s the message that I want to get across.”

It’s a positive message and a message Amanda is able to project loud and clear as she competes against the world’s best biathletes year in, year out. Nevertheless, without the backing of the British Army and support from the Newcastle- based Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS) – a Sport England-backed organisation which encourages a dual career approach to elite sport – she would struggle to maintain her competitive edge.

“I don’t believe I would have achieved a fraction of what I have achieved without the military support,” she adds. “Biathlon is such a small sport in the UK – with limited funding – and the team struggles year-to-year to compete against the best athletes in the world. The military have been great from day one and enabled me to strike the perfect balance between my career and my sport.

“I joined the TASS scheme last year and what a boost that has been. After so many years self-funding the extra support I require – paying for a bit of physio here and some strength and conditioning there – it’s incredible. As a TASS athlete, I get full access to a psychologist, nutritionist, S&C coach and physiotherapist.

It’s there when I need it, rather than when I can afford it. I genuinely feel it can be the missing piece in terms of helping me reach my full potential.”

And for Amanda that moment could come in Beijing following frustrating false starts at both of her previous Olympics.

“The experience at Sochi in 2014 was unreal,” she adds. “Officially becoming an Olympian and crossing that line in the sprint race was an unbelievable feeling. But I have to say I got caught up in all of the media attention and that distracted me – I was doing interviews right, left and centre. It would have helped if I’d had my coach out there, and my waxman for the skies, but our limited budget and a difficulty in securing accreditations meant that wasn’t the case.

“Becoming a two-time Olympian in PyeongChang last year was just as exciting. The experience there was very different to Sochi.
I was better prepared and in top shape, with a world-class coach behind me. I was ready. Unfortunately, the shooting discipline did not go my way as windy conditions and intense pressure led to my goals being shattered. Performance-wise it didn’t go to plan but the experience was incredible.

“Beijing will be the chance to put things right. I’m convinced it can be a case of third time lucky.”

Amanda Lightfoot