Josefina Salas knows a thing or two about adversity. A former skier on the Chilean national team, she had to give up on her dreams of competing at the Olympic Winter Games after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the same knee twice, in 2011 and 2013, both times as a result of high-speed crashes on the slopes.
Told by her doctors to give up competitive skiing for good, she turned her attention to coaching, only to rupture the same ACL yet again in 2017. Undaunted after undergoing a third operation, she hopes to be back on her skis again in August.
A Young Ambassador for the Chile team at the Lillehammer 2016 Youth Olympic Games (YOG), the 24-year-old Chilean has never shirked a challenge, not even when she was invited to compete in a children’s triathlon at the age of nine despite the fact she “could not really swim”. She came fourth that day and enjoyed the experience so much she took up the sport, combining it with skiing until the age of 15, when she made the decision to devote her energies to the slopes, and the slalom and giant slalom in particular.
Though her hopes of skiing on the Olympic stage have since been dashed, Josefina is determined to stay involved in sport and believes she has found an ingenious way of combining her university studies in Transport Engineering with that very goal.
“I’ve figured out that there’s so much to do in the organisation of major sports events in terms of transport and research operations, which is my major at university,” she explains. “It took me a long time to figure out how I could mix engineering and the sports world, and last year it came to me: I realised that there’s so much engineering to put into organising these events. I can make them better, and I definitely want to get involved in that.”
Being around so many people who are changing the world through sport in their own countries really inspired me to say, ‘You know, I can do it too.Josefina Salas Chile
The Olympic Movement has been central to that ambition, with her stint as a Young Ambassador in Lillehammer proving a transformative experience for her, as she explains: “Being a YA gave me the big push I felt I needed. Being around so many people who are changing the world through sport in their own countries really inspired me to say, ‘You know, I can do it too.’ There is more to the Olympic experience than you might think.
“It was life-changing in many ways. The Olympics are so massive. You have every country coming together, and you have young athletes giving the best of themselves. It’s hard to put it all into words because it’s more a case of something that you feel. It’s overwhelming.
“They tell us that the world is falling apart and there are so many conflicts, but then you come here and there are all these people who might otherwise be fighting because they have different opinions on things. And you go in there and everyone is going for the same goal: to be the best they can be. That whole atmosphere of the Olympic Games is truly amazing.”
Discussing her contribution to the Chile team at Lillehammer 2016, she adds: “I felt I had an impact. There were only seven athletes in our delegation, which allowed me to get really close to them. I still talk to them, and some of them still come to me for advice.
“I just tried to help them manage their expectations, and I drew on my coaching experience to do that. Most of them were used to winning competitions in South America; but they’d never experienced an event as big as this before and they had a fear of failure, because they’d been so successful in what was a protected environment.
“I also did media work. I interviewed the athletes and sent their stories out to newspapers. When they start doing well and the media takes an interest, you have to manage all that. I did a little bit of everything. I did some coaching, and I even made hats for the team because we didn’t have any for the Opening Ceremony.”
Lillehammer 2016 inspired Josefina to seek new challenges on returning to Chile: “I realised how much I liked supporting people, listening to them and advising them. I loved helping people out in difficult situations, and so when I got back home I ran for and got a student representative role. When I was skiing that was all I did, and I’ve since realised that my role in sport is maybe to try and make it more accessible and change people’s lives through sport, because that’s what it did for me.”
Josefina’s story epitomises the power of the Olympic Movement, which she has felt for herself and is anxious to experience again at the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games, where she will be taking part in the Olympism in Action Forum and also volunteering, hopefully as part of the Local Organising Committee’s operations team.
“Olympism is something that unites the world beyond cultural frontiers,” she says, describing its global appeal. “The Olympics are a cultural coming-together of all the countries. On the sporting side of things, I never cease to be amazed at how athletes can exceed their own expectations and how they put all their effort into a goal. It’s so impressive. It makes my heart stop almost.”
Olympism is something that unites the world beyond cultural frontiersJosefina Salas Chile
While her memories of Olympic Games past are patchy as a result of limited coverage on Chilean television, she does have her standout moments: “I do recall Turin 2006 because Noelle Barahona, a skier from the club where I trained, was competing. She was 16 and the youngest at the Games. Watching her on that stage was truly inspiring, and it made me think that I could do it too. We ended up training together in the national team.”
Another highlight was Ester Ledecka’s stunning golden double at PyeongChang 2018, where the Czech athlete became the first woman to claim golds in two sports at the same Olympic Winter Games by winning the skiing super G and snowboarding parallel giant slalom titles. “Coming from Alpine skiing, I know how different it is to snowboarding. I absolutely respect her achievement,” says Josefina. “It’s not that difficult to do them both; but it is difficult to be so good at them because you’re competing with people that only dedicate their time to one discipline. If you dedicate your time to both it gives you half the time of everyone else. That’s what impressed me the most.
“Watching the Chilean gymnast Tomás González and the triathlete Barbara Riveros at London 2012 were big moments too. Though Barbara didn’t win the medal she was expected to, watching her race at the Olympics was so good. I’d seen her whole career and I trained with her when I was young. So seeing her at the Olympics giving all she could was memorable too.”
As for Olympic Day, Josefina has a busy schedule ahead of her: “I’ll be helping the Chilean NOC out with some activities in Santiago. They’re organising lots of sports projects for vulnerable kids and I want to do my bit. I’ve been finishing my university studies off this week so I don’t know exactly what it’ll be doing, but I’ll definitely be involved.”
As 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of Olympic Day, this year the International Olympic Committee is celebrating through United By, which recognises the people who make sport happen every day for themselves, their families, friends and communities.