In Beijing, Britain’s Skeleton Team Resets, With Confidence
In the early days, before Britain became an international force in the sport of skeleton, Simon Timson would park himself near the finish lines of track and field events holding a sign that read: “Do you want to go to the 2006 Winter Olympics? Wanted: Sprinters to the British bobsleigh and skeleton team.”
Timson, who had taken over leadership of British Bobsleigh and Skeleton in 1999, largely so he could lecture at its home at the University of Bath, already had some elements essential to building the program into an Olympic force.
He had a modest budget from U.K. Sport to identify and recruit athletes. He had ingenuity and excellent timing after the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. He had skeleton athletes in Alex Coomber, a 2002 bronze medalist, and Kristan Bromley, a doctoral engineering student who got into the sport because no one else was brave or batty enough to test Timson’s innovative, self-designed sled, and who had designed runners specifically for the Utah track.
And he had containers of water from the Utah Olympic Park Track that he and Bromley used to replicate the ice and conditions in Salt Lake City at the university’s push-start track.
But Timson needed more, especially in the way of fearless competitors who liked to go really, really fast.
“We had a sport where we could sell a dream,” Timson said.
Britain, particularly its women, has not stepped down from the podium since.
The nation, with its moderate climate, seems an unlikely powerhouse for any winter sport. Yet the British, who invented skeleton at the Swiss ski getaway of St. Moritz in the late 19th century, have won a medal in every Olympics that has featured it, peaking at the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, when Elizabeth Yarnold defended her gold and Laura Deas earned bronze in women’s skeleton, and Dominic Parsons won bronze in the men’s event.
Britain does not have a home track for sliding sports like what the United States has in Salt Lake City or what South Korea has. Nor does it have a club system where athletes start young like in Austria or Germany.
Timson hired experienced personnel like Mark Wood from Canada, Andi Schmid from Austria and Danny Holdcroft from the Lawn Tennis Association, who not only looked for the fastest athletes, but those who could acclimate themselves to hurtling face down on ice tracks faster than most cars on an expressway, while using only their bodies to control the sled.
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They found one in Amy Williams, a track athlete, who joined after watching athletes perform on the push-start track got the better of her.
“I lived in the same city it was built,” Williams said. “I kind of discovered the sport and found it, and I sort of got nosy.”
Without a home track, Britain’s athletes trained on the world’s most intimidating ones in places like Altenburg, Germany, and Lake Placid, N.Y. Not having a home-track advantage, over time, became an advantage.
“Although it would be incredible to have our own home track, which would allow for home advantage and testing, by not having one means we all have to learn fast and adapt quickly,” said Shelley Rudman, who won silver for Britain in skeleton at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.
By 2010, Williams felt like Britain had to achieve a gold medal in order for the sport to sustain its funding.
Williams reached down to put her socks on a couple of days before competing at the Vancouver Games and felt her back give. She loaded up on as many painkillers as possible but could barely push her sled. Williams dreaded the faster tracks like the one in Whistler, British Columbia, yet always performed better on them. She pushed from her mind the death of a luge athlete during practice for the Games.
Williams broke the track record twice in her runs in becoming Britain’s first individual gold medalist in 30 years.
U.K. Sport launched Girls 4 Gold to identify women for sports like rowing, skeleton and pentathlon. More funding had arrived after Williams’s gold medal and Yarnold and Deas entered the sport.
“The brilliant thing about skeleton is that none of those girls, Laura, Lizzy, Amy, had pretty much ever heard of skeleton before they were given a tap on the shoulder and said, ‘Actually, you could be really good at this,’” said Natalie Dunman, British Skeleton’s performance director.
The athletes spend months with one another, sharing vans, lodging and meals across the United States and Europe. “You’re sort of a bit of a traveling circus, really,” Dunman said.
The few opportunities for runs down tracks make communication among the athletes paramount. They rely on one another to learn the intricacies.
“It’s not as if we could just have a conversation and agree and hope the other one sort of understood,” Arnold said. “You really have to get to know each other and be really honest with what you are talking about and be accountable.”
Not everyone lasts.
“We’re quite brutal and quite cutthroat,” Williams said. “You have to get results. Otherwise, you’ll be kicked off. There’s not enough funding just to keep you on if you’re just not performing and maybe that mentality really drives the athlete continuously.”
Pairing mettlesome athletes with cutting-edge technology is “the nucleus of what’s driven the program over the last 20 years,” Holdcroft said.
McLaren Applied Technologies, the sister company to the Formula 1 team, helps design Britain’s sleds. Liam Kilduff, who heads the Elite and Professional Sport research group at Swansea University, designed protocols for keeping the athlete’s muscles as warm as possible. Another project is studying how quickly athletes process the onslaught of information during races using NeuroTracker.
U.S. skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender questioned the legality of Britain’s TotalSim designed skin suits that featured drag-resistant ridges at the 2018 Olympic Games. The International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation ruled that the suits did not violate any rules.
Britain then won half of the skeleton medals, with Yarnold’s gold repeat giving the women three in a row.
Beijing catches British skeleton in a rebuilding cycle. Injuries forced Williams to give up the sport. Yarnold and Parsons both retired after the 2018 Games. Deas has not performed to her past levels. Most of the coaches are in their first Olympic cycle with the program.
But it would be unwise to dismiss the country with little snow, no home track and plenty of medals, going back to the 1924 and 1948 Olympics. After all, Britain invented the sport.
“It’s fairly simple,” said Timson, who is now Manchester City’s performance director. “You have the world’s fastest starters on cutting edge equipment, coached by excellent coaches in a highly supportive environment and away you go. You can’t go too deep.”