Athlete of the Month – April 2011

Name: Emily Benham

Country: Great Britain

Discipline: Mountain bike orienteering

Career highlights: 8th place in the 2009 World Mountain Bike Orienteering Championships Sprint and Middle Distance. 11th in the overall Mountain Bike Orienteering World Cup 2010.

Emily Benham is a young and promising mountain bike orienteer from Great Britain. Already a threefold British Champion, she reached 11th place in the overall World Cup last year. Back in 2009, still a junior at the time, Emily managed to take two 8th places at the World Mountain Bike Orienteering Championships in Israel, after which she became sports personality of her home county of Wiltshire, in the South of England. This season the 21-year-old athlete wants to finish in the top six in both World Cup and World Championships races. A fifth place has so far been her best individual result.

Discovered mountain bike orienteering by chance

Emily started with foot orienteering: she was in the national youth team and competed in the European Youth Championships. During winter 2007 she got over-trained, however, which forced her to look for something new. This is when Emily decided to take advantage of her biking background and tried on mountain bike (MTB) orienteering. “I realised immediately that I was far better suited to MTB orienteering having found orienteering too slow for me. I navigate quickly and make decisions quickly but I struggled to run fast enough. With MTB orienteering I enjoy the challenge of having less time to read the map and the need to make faster route choice decisions”, she says.

Work with sportsmen

After graduating with a degree in physiotherapy last year, Emily decided not to work in the national health service since she would only be entitled to 20 days holiday per year. Now she has her own physiotherapy practice as part of a sponsorship deal with the local Leisure Centre. “I love working with athletes as it challenges me as a physiotherapist to come up with new and exciting ways of treating injuries. I enjoy the sports massage side of the job as well. It always makes me smile when I’m working out the knots in an athlete’s muscle and the men tend to scream and cry more than the women”, says Emily.

Four good disciplines

Olli-Markus Taivainen, Athlete of March, was given the chance to ask Emily something. He decided to pose a question to Emily concerning the stereotypes in orienteering: “Why have you chosen mountain bike orienteering instead of foot orienteering? In Finland people sometimes say that ski orienteering is for not successful foot orienteers, and mountain bike orienteering for not successful ski orienteers…”

Emily has a sharp answer to Olli-Markus’ question: “I would hardly call myself a failed orienteer. I just found a different and more exciting version of orienteering. There is definitely an impression that MTB Orienteering/Ski Orienteering/Trail Orienteering are less worthy than foot orienteering, but most of the comments in the United Kingdom come from people who have never tried the sport. Those that do try mountain bike orienteering often dislike it because they find the navigation too fast and struggle to assess the different route choices quickly. I think all four are different sports and should be equally valued. Ultimately a World Champion in any of the four has had to work just as hard to get there, they are all as dedicated as each other. I think to win in MTBO and SkiO you have to have that little bit of extra luck and get as close to a perfect race as possible, because mistakes in these sports can cost you considerably more time than FootO.”

What makes MTB orienteering such a great sport?

“I love how the sport doesn’t just focus on orienteering skills and making fast decisions. You have to be really good on a mountain bike to have a chance of winning a medal. Being fast is great, but if you make a mistake at fast speeds it costs a lot more time because you can ride so much further before realising. I enjoy the challenge of having to constantly try to read the map, checking off junctions whilst trying to watch where you want to ride! Places with lots of rocks, roots and corners make map reading so difficult. There’s also something about turning up to an international event with brand new shiny carbon fibre bikes/kit and showing it off amongst friends/competitors – ‘check out my bike, it weighs less that 9.5kgs’ or ‘look at my new wheels and see how fast they make me!’”

Questions for athlete of May

Our next athlete of the month is Søren Saxtorph, bronze medallist in the 2010 World Trail Orienteering Championships (WTOC) paralympic class.

We asked Emily what she would like to know about Søren. Emily had, in fact, several questions for him: “I’ve had a look at the maps from the WTOC in Trondheim which gave me an idea of what you had to do during the race and I am really impressed at how good the top athletes are. As I have found you had experience in FootO until 2003 and my questions are: How do you find the challenges of TrailO in comparison with foot orienteering? Do you find it difficult to be accurate and fast with your choice of control? How do you train for TrailO? Is there a lot of mental training and preparation before an event?”

Søren will answer these questions and more when Athlete of May is published on 2 May.

Photos: B.Plowman, T. Bridle, text: Erik Borg

Previous Athletes’ of the Month

February 2011 Olga Novikova (KAZ)
March 2011 Olli-Markus Taivainen (FIN)

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