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Winter Olympics: Buchan's pipe dream

WHEN it comes to a warm welcome, the one which Murray Buchan received on arriving back in the UK a little over a week ago will take some beating.

Murray Buchan believes halfpipe skiing is going to be one of the most exciting events in Sochi             Photograph: Nick Atkins
Murray Buchan believes halfpipe skiing is going to be one of the most exciting events in Sochi Photograph: Nick Atkins

As he stood bleary-eyed in London Heathrow Airport awaiting a connection home to Edinburgh, his mobile phone flickered into life. And then didn't stop ringing for several days.

"I got off a flight from Colorado to loads of text messages, calls and voicemails from friends and family saying: 'Congratulations. It's official. You're going to the Winter Olympics'," he says. "My overwhelming feeling was relief after the wait to find out. I was in shock and it hadn't really sunk in at that point - actually I'm not sure it has yet."

When the 2014 Winter Olympics get under way in Sochi on Thursday, the Edinburgh-born freestyle skier will represent Team GB in halfpipe - one of 12 events making their debut, alongside snowboard slopestyle, ski slopestyle and women's ski jumping.

For Buchan, 22, it marks the culmination of a dream first forged more than a decade ago on the dry slopes of Midlothian Snow- sports Centre, formerly the Hillend Ski Centre, in the Pentland Hills. He took up the sport as an eight-year-old, determined to follow in the footsteps of his father, Michael, who was a member of the mountain rescue ski team at Glenshee.

While already a keen athlete and promising talent on the rugby field, Buchan would be the first to admit that his skiing career didn't get off to the most auspicious of starts.

"At first I hated it, I didn't enjoy it at all," he says. "But once I became more capable and started being able to do what I wanted to on skis that's when I fell in love with it."

At his first British Championships in France, a 14-year-old Buchan won all four events in the under 16 category: Slopestyle, Ski Cross, Big Air and Halfpipe. In 2008, by then 16, he won his first British national halfpipe title in Lax, Switzerland, but the following year he suffered a debilitating injury when he dislocated his elbow while playing rugby.

"I got the bottom part of my arm trapped during a ruck and someone hit the top part," he says. "My elbow dislocated and it set me back for a long time as I didn't manage to win another British Championships until last year.

"I'm still waiting on an operation to fix it properly, but I didn't want to risk anything ahead of the Winter Olympics so I will leave it until later in the year. It doesn't affect me when I'm skiing, it would only be if I had a bad crash that it would flare up."

The 2012/13 season saw Buchan gain the Olympic selection criteria, with top 20 placings in FIS Freestyle World Cup events in Sochi and Sierra Nevada as well as the World Championships in Oslo. A 13th place finish in the Calgary World Cup in January - the highest ever position by a British male halfpipe skier - further bolstered his campaign.

The reigning British halfpipe champ-ion, Murray is ranked 28th in the world going into the Winter Olympics. Athletes compete on a halfpipe slope - a snow-covered U-shaped channel - performing tricks including somersaults, flips, grabs and twists.

It is Buchan's hope that Sochi will provide a rare window to showcase his chosen sport in front of a global audience of billions. "Halfpipe skiing is going to be one of the most exciting events at the Olympics," he says. "Hopefully the public will watch and see we have some potentially really good athletes competing.

"People don't know about halfpipe skiing in the same way they do about football, rugby and athletics. I think there is this perception of us as a bunch of misfits with no aspirations in life who simply go abroad and do ski seasons. That couldn't be further from the truth: we have huge goals, focus and drive."

It is a path, Buchan admits, that has involved much scrimping and saving over the years. Until last summer, he worked during the off-season to fund his skiing aspirations, but made the decision to go full-time in the lead-up to the Winter Olympics. He received a grant from sport-scotland upon meeting the Sochi qualification criteria, with the national agency also providing additional support services such as physiotherapy, nutrition and strength and conditioning coaching.

There have also been other sacrifices along the way. "One of the hardest things is being away from home, your friends and family, and always living out of a suitcase," he says. "It's tough trying to pack everything you need for four to six months into two bags. It will be different for the Olympics, but the majority of the time that's what it is like."

When asked what he is most looking forward to about Sochi, Buchan says: "Getting out there and competing. It's been a long time coming, so I can't wait. It's all starting to feel real now: I've got my kit, the flights are booked and it feels really exciting.

"There is such a good buzz among the team. Everyone has worked so hard. I fly out on Wednesday and then have two weeks before I compete. There is no guarantee you will get to go a second time, so I intend to make the most of every minute."

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