From stage fright to shining bright: Ellia Smeding's Olympic journey

It's a year since Ellia Smeding chipped her way to the Olympics.

She never felt like a record-breaker or the prodigy singled out for success - in fact, racing in her early years sounds like an ordeal.

Smeding was recently reminded of the feeling while watching kids compete in a club race at her local track in the Netherlands.

“I just remember how intense it felt,” she said.

“I used to get so nervous and stressing out for those kind of races. Looking back, they seem like nothing.”

It seems the spotlight has never been her friend.

“It’s my personality, I’ve always been quite shy and never needed to be the centre of attention growing up,” she said.

“I used to get stage fright actually. I wasn’t someone who liked the spotlight, I’ve had to learn to love it.”

Born in Hertfordshire and moved to the Netherlands aged eight, Ellia joined a local skating club at the age of nine.

She was overlooked for selection to talent or development teams, missing out on many opportunities that would help take her skating to the next level.

“I wasn’t the most naturally talented skater out there,” she admitted.

“But I always had a belief in myself that I would make it, it would just take me a bit longer and a little bit more work.

“I always believed I had to chip away, bit by bit and keep growing and progressing and one day I’d get to the level I wanted to be.

"I’m still chipping away and hoping really high.

“It’s proven something to myself and to people around me, people who said I wouldn’tmake it and that I wasn’t good enough.”

After a breakout in 2019, she self-funded her way to the Games partly by running a coffee business alongside boyfriend and fellow speed skater Cornelius Kersten.

The pair were Team GB’s first long track speed skaters in 30 years, and Smeding Britain’s first female athlete in the sport in 42.

“Over the years, we’ve really tried to get long track on the map a bit more and competing at the Olympics is the best way to do it,” she said.

“I didn’t go to the Olympics with a chance of winning a medal but I wanted to put in a really strong performance and that was the pressure that came with it.

“You can’t really compare it to anything else. It was an experience in itself, a whole different way of competing, a whole different way of racing, with the press, the pressure and the excitement around it. It was really special.”

Owning that Olympian tag seems to have freed Smeding still further, peeling back another layer of performance anxiety and proving to herself and the world that she belongs.

“Coming in to races as an Olympian, of course there’s that pressure to perform but it’s a very different kind of pressure,” she said.

“It feels a bit liberating. The Olympics always felt like a big dream and it’s a weight on your shoulders. I’ve made it, and now I can think about Milan in a different kind of way.”

Smeding made another slice of history by placing sixth overall and third in the 1,000m at January’s European Championships in Norway.

No British athlete has ever performed better in those events.

At this rate Smeding won't be able to avoid the spotlight for much longer - and she's no longer trying.

“Coming out of Beijing, it was quite daunting to think about a new Olympics because it was such a rollercoaster to get there,” she said.

“Slowly going through the season, I can feel how much progress I still have left and how much I can still improve.

“Now I’m excited to talk about Milan and think about the steps we can take in the next three years to get there in the best possible shape.”

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