Our People: Sports passion is going downhill fast

By Jill Nicholas

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Winter Olympian flat out representing his country on international sporting bodies.
Ben Sandford is one of our top achievers of whom his hometown hears too little.  Photo/Ben Fraser
Ben Sandford is one of our top achievers of whom his hometown hears too little. Photo/Ben Fraser

ONLY a handful of Olympians go for gold lying prone-Ben Sandford's one of the select few.

Our hometowner has represented New Zealand at three Winter Olympics-skeleton racing, a hair-raising discipline which involves hurtling down frozen mountain tracks face-down on a toboggan, centimetres from the ground.

At Turin in 2006 he came 10th, 11th in Vancouver four years later and 20th at the 2014 Sochi event. Olympics apart, he's been a regular competitor in his sport's world championships, bagging a bronze at Lake Placid (New York State) in 2012, only the second from the Southern Hemisphere to stand on the medal podium.

The first was his uncle, Bruce Sandford, who brought home gold from the same event 20
years earlier.

"I was 12 and thought that was pretty impressive."

What exactly is this skeleton racing business? In a nutshell, exponents experience extreme G forces and can reach speeds of over 130km/h. Wow and wow again. It's a lifestyle that's occupied the past 12 of Ben's 36 years and, unsurprisingly, worn out a few body parts in the process. Injury shelved his Olympic days post the Sochi games-he broke an ankle.

He continues to coach the sport across Europe, Canada and the United States. At last month's Lillihammer Youth Olympics, 14 competitors from seven countries were his proteges. When he's not coaching, his time's divided between the executive board of International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (ISBF), the athlete committee of the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) and for the past seven years he's been an athlete representative on this country's Olympic committee.

It's highly possible that as vicepresident of the ISBF's legal affairs division, he's the youngest in an international sports federation to hold such a highranking role. Whether he is or isn't is immaterial, the crux of the matter is that Ben Sandford is one of our top achievers of whom his hometown hears too little.

Ben likes it that way: he's a lowkey kind of guy, the type who simply sees himself as a kid from the Rotorua "hood" who, when he's home, wants nothing more than a game of cricket with his mates.

Cricket and squash are other sports at which he's excelled. He became involved in cricket administration while studying for a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) at Victoria University.

"I'd always been a mad-keen player, really wanted to play in the National Universities cricket competitions but they were canned.

"One day I was passing this building, looked up and saw it was the university's sport's office, went in, said I really wanted to play in the cricket comps. They said they were too busy to organise it."

Ben put up his hand, and revived the tournament, playing for Victoria. "I'd always wanted to play cricket for New Zealand but it didn't pan out."

 Ben Sandford trains at Smallbone Park in 2012.   Photo/Ben Fraser
Ben Sandford trains at Smallbone Park in 2012. Photo/Ben Fraser


At the sports office a pamphlet crossed his desk. "It listed the World Universities' sports tournaments in all these wonderful places, I thought, 'how amazing to be in one.'" An avid squash player, he took a team to Linz, Austria. The year was 2002, capitalising on the nearby mountains, he moved on to sledding. He wasn't exactly a novice but far from being an Olympic contender. His first taste of bobsledding was when his uncle operated a track on Ruapehu.

"It didn't take off but I learnt a bit about skeleton, it was only a 200m slide but for a boy from Rotorua it was pretty amazing, I'd always had it in the back of my mind I'd like to get into it as a serious sport."

As an aside, Bruce Sandford is Ben's mother's brother-not his father's-his parents shared a similar surname when they married.

Naturally it was his uncle's expertise he called on when he decided to make skeleton his chosen sport.

"He wrote this top-secret manual for me that included everything technical, like how to analyse a track."

After a summer backpacking around Europe, Ben enrolled in a week-long Austrian skeleton racing course.

"Straight away I was absolutely hooked. Cricket and squash really helped me with spatial awareness, quick reactions."

A lot of time was spent in Canada. When his visa expired he came home, basing himself in Hamilton where his uncle trained him. No mountains? No problem:

"You only need a gym and running track."

Broke, he got himself a job at Studylink, regularly returning to it in the Northern Hemisphere's winter. Money's never been easy to come by-while other top sportsmen travelled in style to Olympic and international events, Ben always did it budget wise.

"I'd have to hitch, catch a train -I couldn't afford to fly or hire a car."

Broken bones, torn tendons and overworked muscles haven't been his only health issues. Last year while in Los Angeles seeing his Canadian architect girlfriend, he felt continuously fatigued.

"I developed this thirst, lost 10kg, went online and realised the symptoms lined up with diabetes -you could say I was internet diagnosed."

An emergency hospital confirmed Type 1 diabetes, admitting him to the intensive care unit. If that was a shock, so was the bill-US$15,000 for 25 hours. Travel insurance covered it, but he's home regularly to replenish his diabetic pen supply.

"Here one's $5-in the US the equivalent's $95."

With his health now restored, his involvement with international sporting organisations continues.

"My law degree's been very helpful when it comes to rules and regulations, but skeleton remains my passion. I describe my involvement with it as a love affair that's turned into a relationship . . . you have to work on it but you still love it."

BEN SANDFORD:
Born: Rotorua, 1979.
Education: Otonga and Kawaha Point primaries, Kaitao Intermediate, Boys' High, Victoria University, newly enrolled at Madrid University for Masters in sports law.
Family: Mother Sylvia (Auckland), father Paul, sisters Samantha and Fiona (all Rotorua).
Interests: Sport, reading: non-fiction, currently favours science books and economic theory; movies "the documentary type"; politics: "Travelling so much it's hard not to be interested in how the world works."
On Trump and the US presidency: "An absolute disaster if he wins." On Rotorua: "I'm really proud to call it home, when I say I'm a New Zealander people all over the world know it."
Personal philosophy: "Treat people well and they'll treat you well."

- Rotorua Daily Post

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