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Just how did Team GB get so good at skeleton?

February 16th, 2018

Amy Williams remembers the first time she went from the top of the skeleton track. “I bit the top bit of my tongue off … it’s like every emotion you’ve ever felt, all in one go,” Williams tells ESPN. “You’re scared, you’re excited, you’ve got adrenaline, you’ve got the speed, you’ve got the rush, you’re emotional, you’re in pain as you’ve hit the wall. Then you kind of want to do it again and not hit 10 walls and only hit nine.” In Vancouver in 2010, seven or so years later, she won Winter Olympic gold for Great Britain.

The triumph in 2010 capped eight years of steady improvement for British female skeleton riders — first Alex Coomber took bronze in Salt Lake City in 2002, then Shelley Rudman slid to silver in Turin four years later. Williams’ benchmark was then matched by Lizzy Yarnold who won gold at Sochi 2014 to continue a dominant spell for a nation where usually the faintest drop of snow or hint of ice brings the entire United Kingdom to a standstill.

“We expect one medal, that’s our mandate. We’ve delivered four in a row and we don’t want to break that [streak] this time,” Holdcroft says. Skeleton has received over £6m worth of funding from UK Sport in the last quarter, the most of all the winter sports.

When Simon Timson, now performance director at the Lawn Tennis Association, was put in charge of the skeleton programme back in 2001, he had an annual budget of £10,000. He put the money into training. As Owen Slot’s book ‘Talent Lab’ explains, these were the foundations of British Skeleton’s current mantra of excelling at factors in their control.

The sport caught Williams’ eye in 2002 at Salt Lake City. She was at that point a 400 metres runner, but had shin splints and the muscular condition Compartment Syndrome, so was looking for a new athletic outlet. A chance conversation in the gym at the University of Bath saw her journey to the push track there — it was and still is the base for British Skeleton. She impressed, and was taken into the programme.

Maximising what you can maximise

It was a relentless culture of excellence. If you didn’t meet certain targets, you were off the team, as medals mean funding.

“If you have the best equipment, best coaches and the most amount of ice time, then that formula should give you the best athlete,” Williams says. “But we didn’t have our ice track, so we needed physically the best athletes.

“You’re never going to be a world-class slider if you’re never going to be the best in the world at sprinting at the top, pushing our sleds. Our programme has been about getting the best power-speed athlete so we then teach people how to be the best pushers, then we take you on to ice, teach you how to slide and then you either make the cut or not. But then at least you’re a good pusher to begin with. And that cut-throat culture is there from the day you first trot along to a talent ID day.”

Williams feels Britain’s skeleton success is down to a “mixture of system and athletes”, while Holdcroft talks about vision, efficient structure, transparency — “once you are part of the skeleton family, you’re always part of it” – innovation and excellence while equally remembering they are dealing with people. “If you’re not a people-orientated person, then there’s a limit to the impact you can have,” he says. “If we come to the start line in a great place, that’s powerful.” Added to this are the exceptional athletes hurling themselves head first down the track.

One challenge is making up the shortfall of ice time. Deas, one of two medal hopes in the women’s skeleton, is sat in a Bath café, playing out the 1,376m Pyeongchang track in her mind, as her right hand moves with memory. “It goes…right, left, right, right, left, right, left, right, left, left, right, right, left, right.” Then a smile. “With Pyeongchang there isn’t anywhere you can really switch off, it just comes at you. It’s technical question after technical question.”

Whenever British skeleton athletes go on a track, they have to remember every aspect of it, glean every little bit of knowledge. It’s a rarity, rather than an everyday occurrence.

“In an average race week … the competition venue only has to offer six training runs, they are about a minute long,” Deas says. “You have six minutes to figure it out before you race. You have a couple of weeks on ice in pre-season where you might get 20 runs in — we go to Lillehammer [in Norway], it’s colder up there.

“Ice time is very, very limited. I think that’s something that isn’t emphasised enough. We get 20 or 30 runs versus the Germans on 1000.

“We have turned that into our advantage. We do punch above our weight. We don’t just slide, we are always focused on what we can get out of it. We don’t have the luxury of going to do a couple of runs in a weekend. There are disadvantages – less exposure means less time to learn. But when we do slide, when you have a limited time to figure things out, we’ve learnt to learn quickly.”