Jan 16 (Reuters) - Denmark's hopes of a first-ever medal in an individual event at the Winter Olympics rest on the shoulders of Elena Rigas, an inline skater who made the transition to ice skating and has qualified for the mass start in South Korea.
The Danes do not have a strong winter sports tradition but Rigas's involvement in the Olympic Games is the culmination of a project the country has been running since 2010 that has seen three of its skaters qualify for Pyeongchang 2018.
Rigas, who will be satisfied with a top five finish in South Korea, won Denmark's first-ever speed skating medal in an international competition when she took silver in the mass start at an ISU World Cup event in Calgary in December.
"I started inlining when I was about five, and that was mainly because of my grandparents, because they started roller-skating," she told Reuters from her home.
"Then my mom started, my cousins and then, well, me. So it's kind of been a family thing for a long time."
Denmark's speed skating coach, Jesper Carlson, is Rigas's first cousin and a former inline skater himself, the family playing a big role in her transition to ice.
"I think I found it difficult in the beginning," she said. "I was quite young too, and I'm quite stubborn, so I found that, well I wasn't good at it, so why should I try? I kind of gave up there.
"But then everyone was out travelling in the winter and really having fun so I thought in the end I should give it a try and not completely write it off.
"(Carlson) led the way. He proposed the opportunity to me without pressuring me. When I decided I wanted to give it a try, he was there always to help me and make the switch easier."
Unlike inliners, speed skaters do not usually race each other on the long track but against the clock, with the exception being the mass start, which is making its Olympic debut in Korea.
Being able to hold one's own in a peloton is key to success in the mass start, and it is here that Rigas's inline background gives her a slight edge over pure long track ice skaters and helps explain her results at international level.
"The biggest advantage from inline is that I've learnt how to position myself and fight for my place in the peloton," she said. "You don't get that on ice because you constantly race against the time."
Still, someone who has been brought up skating on ice has a big advantage, because even though the basic technique between inline and ice skating is similar, the finer differences add up to a lot at the elite level.
"Someone who has grown up on ice has that technique imprinted on their brain," Rigas said. "When I get tired on ice, I start skating like an inliner and people who have grown up on ice don't do that.
"They keep their technique and are able to still get a lot of push out of each stroke. That's something I worked on a lot this year."
Since Denmark does not have high-performance facilities for speed skating, Rigas and her fellow skaters, Viktor Thorup and Stefan Due Schmidt, spend about 200 to 250 days a year away from home.
"I'm used to it now but it's been difficult being away," she said. "That feeling of always living in your suitcase has really gotten to me at times."
Rigas became fully funded by the Danish sports federation in August last year, but before that the costs to keep her on the ice were another challenge that had to be faced.
"Most of the travelling, at least in the beginning, has been from me and my parents' own pocket," she said.
"After the project got bigger, we've gotten funding from the ISU (International Skating Union) and also the Danish national skating federation. So it's been a mix."
Even the aerodynamic skin suits the Danes will use in South Korea will not be custom sewn, because of the tight budget the team is working within.
"What I think can be better, but it depends on your budget and how much money you have to spend, would be to have the suits custom sewed so they fit your body like a glove," Rigas said.
"Right now you measure your body and from that they calculate the size you need. It's not always that they are completely spot on. I've had some suits that were way too big for me, and very loose in the arms.
"As a speed skater you have very, very small arms and very big legs. So taking into account all these different things, I think that could be better." (Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)