By Justin Palmer
Jan 14 (Reuters) - With his left foot still partially paralysed more than two years on from a "freak accident" that blew his knee, Australian skeleton racer John Farrow knows he is at a disadvantage every time he prepares to push his sled.
While many athletes dream of Olympic gold, the 31-year-old has lowered his ambitions - for now. Just getting to the start line at the Sanki Sliding Centre in Sochi will represent a triumph in spite of adversity.
Farrow's battle to overcome a career-threatening injury is no ordinary tale - and he still has the physical and mental scars to prove it.
The former downhill mountain biker racer broke both his collar bones while hurtling down slopes on two wheels and has metal screws in his back and shoulder blades as a constant reminder.
But that was nothing compared to the moment his ankle rolled, he buckled and fell awkwardly during sprint training on a running track two days before the start of the World Cup skeleton season in Lake Placid in 2011.
He damaged his left leg so badly that he ruptured his ACL, LCL, hamstring, popliteal tendon, broke his tibia and did peroneal nerve damage.
"We don't know why it happened. I was just unlucky. I felt like my leg had snapped in half. I didn't want to look down," he told Reuters.
"I was in so much pain I instantly thought that was it, career over. While I was lying injured the question I asked myself was 'what are you going to do now?'... and I didn't have an answer.
"And because I didn't, I made a clear decision right there that skeleton was what I wanted to do."
The long road back through rehabilitation to competition has included two operations and organ donations of a hamstring and an Achilles tendon.
The healing process is ongoing with some feeling returning in his foot although the nerve damage may never fully recover.
At one stage numb from his knee down to his big toe, the feeling has recovered to the point where the movement is limited between toe and ankle.
The mental scars will always be there though.
"The memory of that day will never fade," he said.
"I'm still nowhere near fully recovered yet. The physical (scars) are still there but the mental side of it... it's something I don't think I'll ever get out of my mind. Every time I'm doing sprints I remember what happened."
Handicapped at the sprint start when racers try to gain those vital fractions of a second advantage, Farrow has to make up time on the descent to be competitive.
"I do the best I can at the start. I'm not even going to try and compare myself to the other guys because they are going to beat me all the time. I find when I focus on the start I get quite down about it," he said.
"But what I can do is drive the sled - having speed at the top is an advantage but if you make no mistakes on the way down you can make that time back.
"For me to be able to compete and keep up with these guys I've got to be flawless on the track pretty much because I don't have that momentum at the top to lose. If I make a mistake in the first or second corner, I'm done."
He began the season by finishing 20th in Calgary, followed up with 24th in Utah and in the last race of this year, was 22nd in Lake Placid.
Farrow is realistic and knows he is not yet ready to challenge the sport's top dogs - the likes of Latvian Martins Dukurs and Russian Alexander Tretiakov - but is looking to the long term and the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
"Right now I'm focusing on the best I can be. If I do make Sochi, and I think I have a great chance, it will be a huge thing to come back from this injury and to have this paralysed foot for so long.
"I've still got another four years in me. It's always been a race against the clock. I'm trying to get my start as fast as it can but it's a little bit out of my range to be competing (now) at the top level in the start."
Farrow missed out on 2010 Olympics after his re-allocation spot was removed a few days before the start of the Games when governing body FIBT decided to cut the criteria back to 28 athletes.
"It was really gutting. I was close to qualifying and didn't, then a couple of days later I was given a re-allocation spot. Then they decided to just have 28... it was a bit of a rollercoaster. Having that experience gave me a desire to keep going."
His prospects are brighter this time and Farrow is determined to seize his chance.
"The way I'm able to compete and believe in myself is that my driving skill is up there with the best in the world," he added.
"Just having faith that eventually, as the healing process continues, I can get my speed and my start back, then I can start pushing for top results." (Editing by John O'Brien)