BEIJING – Elsa Desmond knows she’s not going to medal at the Beijing Olympics. She wasn't even expecting to be in the top half of the field.
The first women’s luge Olympian from Ireland feels like she's already prevailed.
Desmond won’t be in China for long, with good reason. She competed on Monday in the opening night in the women's luge event, returns to finish the race on Tuesday, then flies out Friday and plans to return to work in Ireland on Saturday — as a doctor, who delayed parts of her internship to chase down a spot in the Olympics.
“As the founder of the modern Olympics said, ‘It’s not about who wins, it’s about the fight to get there,’” Desmond said. “And this has been my fight. I’ve given everything to get here. And I think everyone has their own story, everyone has their own journey, everyone makes sacrifices in different ways and has different battles.”
Desmond wasn’t far off in her citing of Pierre de Coubertin. His actual quote, at least according to the Olympic library, was “The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.”
Although she won't triumph in Beijing, she’s already obviously prevailed in some fights. She’s been given myriad reasons why this quest was futile: she’s too short, she didn’t start sliding at a young enough age, her medical career is too daunting.
The biggest challenge simply might have been that Ireland didn’t even have a luge federation. So, she started one herself.
And now, officially, she is a luge Olympian.
She was the 26th sled to cross the line in the first run of the women's race on Monday night. At that point, she was in 26th place — faster than exactly none of the other finishers. Didn't matter; her massive smile could been seen through her Irish green visor, and her little fists punched the cold air in celebration.
By night's end, out of the 34 sliders still in the competition, she was 34th.
“I have another job, I have to self-fund, I have all these really visible challenges,” Desmond said. “But other people have challenges that we can’t see. So, I think mine, yes, is a very obvious challenge. But I think everyone’s worked as hard as they can to be here.”
Her hospital not only gave her the time off, but they’ve become luge fans in a country where sliding sports aren’t exactly overwhelmingly popular. Desmond is a doctor in general surgery at Ireland’s Southend University Hospital.
The hospital’s chief medical officer, David Walker, said her co-workers are “immensely proud of her.”
“It will be exciting to see her compete thousands of miles away in front of millions of people across the world,” Walker said.
Desmond has somehow juggled two very demanding jobs, sliding a few months a year with starting a life in medicine. There was a time last season when she was going through some important final exams, taking one in Latvia and the other in Germany, in hotels where plenty of other sliders were staying.
“I had to stick signs on my door saying ‘Do not disturb, exam in progress’ in about six different languages,” Desmond said.
It was understood. Some sliders have even used Desmond as a medical resource from time to time, asking for advice on their various bumps, bruises or worse.
“I try to say I’m not on duty,” Desmond said.
And not only did she make it to Beijing, she was given the honor of being selected as one of Ireland’s two flagbearers for Friday’s opening ceremony — along with freestyle skier Bubba Newby. They led their country’s six-person Olympic contingent during the parade of athletes.
“I really was not expecting this, especially at my first Olympics,” Desmond said. “I don’t think I can put into words how excited I am to lead out the team. I really hope that I ... make my country proud.”
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