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England flanker Heather Fisher swaps sleds for scrums

Heather Fisher

By Aimee Lewis

When Heather Fisher hears mention of next week's Winter Olympics, the England flanker feels a tinge of nostalgia.

The 25-year-old goes on to imagine the picture-perfect snow, the camaraderie and the razzamatazz in Vancouver and wonders what might have been.

But then, with a shake of the head, the Worcester player returns to reality and remembers why she left the world of British bobsleighing to follow her dream of playing international rugby.

Fisher, a part-time sports lecturer, recalls last autumn's historic victory over New Zealand, then looks ahead excitedly to the Six Nations and this summer's Women's World Cup being held in London, and admits nothing can compare to wearing the red rose of England.

"My heart wasn't in bobsleigh as much as rugby," admits Fisher, who made her England Test debut in last summer's Nations Cup in Canada, a tournament which England successfully defended.

It sounds fantastic - waking up to snow every morning, living in a hotel room where everything is made for you but, at the time, all you want to do is have a normal life, have your family and friends around you

Heather Fisher

"It's hard hearing how the girls are doing now, it brings it all home because I was with them, but you've got to go with how you feel and when you put your body on the line you have to love what you do."

It takes a special kind of athlete to hurtle down ice at 60mph one year and then the next conquer the behemoths of women's rugby, New Zealand.

Fisher was asked to trial for Britain's women's bobsleigh team back in 2006 during a time when she was "fed up" with rugby, a game she had been playing since she was 16.

The British Bobsleigh Association describes its sport as having "the power and co-ordination of an international rugby pack negotiating the high hurdles - in scrum formation - on ice" so maybe Fisher's choice was not so surprising after all.

Nevertheless, Fisher took to it like a fish to water, finishing second in the British Bobsleigh Championship in 2008 and in the top six of the Junior World Championships.

But getting up at "stupid o'clock" and living away from home for eight months of the year, albeit in the picturesque surroundings of Lake Placid in New York and the British team's winter sports centre of excellence in Austria, took its toll.

"Once you're away, you just live a daily life in a bubble," says Fisher, who had to rely on funding and sponsorship for income during her 18-month winter sport sabbatical.

Teams gear up for Women's Six Nations

"There's always peer pressure to train hard, to push yourself and I got to the burnout stage because of the pressure to train even though you're not right.

"I didn't want to get injured, or have something happen where I couldn't go and work, as I'd just finished university and didn't have anything as a back-up.

"It sounds fantastic, waking up to snow every morning, living in a hotel room where everything is made for you but, at the time, all you want to do is have a normal life, have your family and friends around you.

"Yes, you go travelling with rugby, but you have the chance to have a life around it, and that's why I gave up bobsleigh.

"Rugby allows me to have a life, see my family and work at the same time so I'm not worrying about my financial situation. I wanted to get involved in teaching, and I thought working part-time and playing for my country would be fantastic."

The decision to return to the oval ball seems to have already paid dividends.

After less than a year back, the former Wasps player won the Rugby World Cup Plate with the England Sevens squad last March and a few months later went on to make her Test debut.

Fisher, however, does not regard her 18 months as a bobsleigher a waste, believing the sport has helped her on the pitch.

"It was very hard coming back," admits the 5ft 4in flanker. "I came back and all I'd done for a year-and-a-half was sprints and heavy weights, rarely running beyond 50-60m.

Heather Fisher
Fisher takes on the New Zealand defence in November

"It was very hard trying to last seven let alone 14 minutes in Sevens, but now I'm a power athlete and I've learnt to trust my pace, so I think it has helped me."

Her 30m burst against New Zealand last November, which so nearly ended in a try and had the Twickenham crowd on the edge of their seats, illustrated the explosiveness Fisher talks of.

Indeed, it was moments like that, playing in front of 12,500 fans and helping England beat the Black Ferns for the first time since 2001, which reaffirmed Fisher's belief that she has made the right decision.

On the back of that "unbelievable" victory over New Zealand, and rather ominously for England's rivals, Fisher says the squad has extra belief that they can win their fifth successive Six Nations title and cap it by lifting the World Cup later this year.

"Since the New Zealand game, people have come up to me and commented that they were surprised at the skill level of the women's game," says Fisher.

You can never be too confident, but we've got a fantastic squad. If ever there's a time to win the Six Nations, it's before the World Cup

Heather Fisher

"It wasn't until they watched it that they realised it was exactly the same as the men's game, but because it's not shown on TV all that much there's a false impression of what women's rugby is.

"I've been playing for six years and the level has gone up every year and this year it is at its highest.

"We've struggled with injuries this season, and against New Zealand we were probably missing five or six key players.

"However, we are lucky that we have enough players in the England set-up who are fantastic. We have that depth which other teams may not have.

"It's given us the confidence to go out there and play. We've got a strong squad, we've got a strong bench and any player we bring in is up for the challenge."

One thing Fisher and the squad will be wary of, however, is the ability of other teams to raise their game against the defending champions, as evidenced by Wales' 16-15 win in last year's Six Nations.

"They all give us a run for our money," adds Fisher. "Everyone wants to beat England. Everyone seems to up their game against us.

"In the Nations Cup we played against South Africa, who had played some good rugby but never come close to winning a game, but against us they came alive.

"It puts pressure on us to perform. You can never be too confident, but we've got a fantastic squad, and if ever there's a time to win the Six Nations, it's before the World Cup."

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see also
England's women delight rugby HQ
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Wales rally after World Cup shock
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England Women beat world champs
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England Women win to retain title
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England Women 52 -7 France Women
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England women back in title chase
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Wales Women 16-15 England Women
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