Shelley Rudman & Kristan Bromley: 'It's beyond extreme. You need survival insticts'

The Brian Viner Interview: Olympic medallist and her partner are both taking on the world's fastest skeleton bob track in Whistler – at 90mph, on a glorified tea tray. A competitive couple? You could say that...
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The Independent Online

It is not often in a sports interview that thoughts arise of Inspector Clouseau's manservant Kato, launching a martial arts attack when it is least expected, to keep his boss alert. But it is the image of Kato that comes to mind when Kristan Bromley says of his partner Shelley Rudman, keen judo enthusiast, that it can be a little disconcerting "when you come home at 1am and the next thing you know you're being decked by Shelley, wanting a bit of practice".

They both laugh merrily, manifestly enjoying the opportunity to explain what makes each of them tick, this driven, adrenalin-fuelled pair who both compete next week in the skeleton bob at the Winter Olympics, with 28-year-old Rudman hoping to improve on the silver medal she won four years ago in Turin. To do so, she must be the quickest to reach the bottom of a mile-long ice track, belly-down on a sled that amounts to a more sophisticated cousin of the teatray. Moreover, the track at Whistler is the quickest in the world. Sometimes the 18 curves on a skeleton run are designed to slow you down. At Whistler they are intended to speed you up. Rudman will move at nigh-on 90mph, head-first, her chin just a few inches above the ice. "At first there's just this incredible silence inside your helmet," she says, "then all you can hear is the chattering as you're going down, and before you know it you're finished." She makes it sound easy. It is, of course, anything but.

The sport is also prosaically known as sliding, yet there is nothing prosaic in the years of aerodynamic research that have been lavished on refining the sled. Much of that work has been undertaken by 37-year-old Bromley. In 1994 he was on a graduate trainee scheme with British Aerospace, working on carbon-fibre production for the Eurofighter, when a note went round inviting trainees to a lecture on the "bob skeleton".

"I honestly thought that Bob Skeleton was a guy," he says. "But here was this extreme sport called skeleton bob, and they were inviting us to help design the sled. That technical side really appealed to me, and within three months I was completely engrossed by it. The thought never entered my head that I might do it as an athlete, but the unwritten rule was that if you built a sled, you had to test it yourself. So I was forced to learn the sport."

It was a sport that had been in existence since the 1880s, the least-known and yet the oldest of the four bobsleigh disciplines. In 1928 and again in 1948 it featured in the Winter Olympics, but was not reintroduced until 2002, when it became a permanent fixture. The term skeleton by all accounts refers to the early sled, which looked like a construct of human bones. These days it is a highly technical combination of steel and plastic, and to race on it yields what Bromley thinks must be the most intense experience that winter sport can offer.

"Steering at 90mph, that's really tricky," he says. "And at Whistler there's a snap 180-degree turn towards the end, which creates 5g that doesn't build gradually but hits you instantly." It sounds, I venture, like a sport less for thrill-seekers than for masochists. He smiles. "It's a super-extreme, adrenalin-pumping sport in which you must have an instinct for survival and contend with massive g-force. But actually it's not one of the most dangerous. The sled is designed to take the impact of a crash, instead of the athlete. And the tracks are designed to keep you in. You have to try quite hard to come out. The worst injury I've ever had was a broken finger in 1997, when I flipped over."

Rudman sustained a broken finger rather more recently, just last month in a World Cup event at Königsee in Germany, and YouTube footage of her crash rather confounds what Bromley says about the limited dangers of the sport: she whooshes past in a blink, careering at top speed into the walls of the track, indeed it seems incredible that all she broke was a finger. But it didn't stop her racing on to finish third, and the following week in St Moritz she proved her remarkable mental as well as physical fortitude by beating her main rival, the Canadian world No 1 Mellisa Hollingsworth.

She first encountered the sport while studying at Bath University, and paid her own way to Lillehammer in Norway to try it out. "I thought I liked the look of it, though in terms of winter sports I'd only been skiing with the school and tobogganing with my dad when I was a child. Hurdling was my thing, the 400 metres hurdles. Anyway, there were military guys there doing it, and some of them actually came out of it crying. I really hated it too at first because I didn't like not being in control. I did hesitate at the top to start with, but then I thought that if my dad had been there he'd probably have given me a push to start me off. So off I went, and I soon got the bug."

Rudman, an only child, talks a lot about Jack, her father, and cites him as the main influence on her sporting career. "He brought me up as a tomboy and got me to try everything. Saturdays were like, swim club, then gym club, then judo club, then running club." She laughs. "I did kung fu club as well but I needed a partner because there were odd numbers. So my dad did it with me. He was in his late forties at the time, and he said, 'I can't start doing kung fu', but he did." She turns to Bromley. "I don't think I've ever told you that," she says.

He does not seem surprised. Besides, he too was a relentlessly active and competitive child, growing up in Rossendale, Lancashire, in constant search of challenges. "I was always doing crazy things," he says. "My mum remembers watching me jump off a wall in my first home-made hang glider, and I used to nail wellies to bits of wood so I could ski downhill. I ended up doing motocross racing for eight years."

Do either of them, apart from the occasional spontaneous judo attack at 1am, still seek adrenalin rushes outside their sport? "At the moment, no," Bromley says. "We've had to sign a contract saying we won't."

Also, they are parents now. Their daughter, Ella, is almost two and a half, and, I suggest, practically genetically engineered to be fast on the ice herself in some capacity. "Yeah," says Bromley. "I'm hyperactive, Shel's hyperactive, so you can imagine what Ella's like. And really determined. She went ice skating for the first time the other day, with some help, but when she saw an older girl doing twirls she said 'I'd like to do it on my own now, please'."

Has parenthood changed their approach to their own sport? "Yes, in a positive way," Rudman says. "We both switch off a lot more, and I don't think it's any coincidence that we've had our best seasons ever since Ella was born." "You can become immersed in this sport, especially me, because I'm still so involved in the technical side of it. It bordered on obsession, really, but because of Ella we've both had to back off. We've got the needs of someone else to think about now, and that's a blessing."

Ella will be in Vancouver, chaperoned by both sets of grandparents, who have rented a house. Rudman and Bromley will live in the Olympic Village. "But she'll be there at the track," says Bromley. "She has this little cowbell, and she goes, 'Go, go, go, go, mummy,', 'Go, go, go, go, daddy'." Rudman laughs, her face glowing with the pride of motherhood. "At the start there's always a lot of noise, then it goes completely quiet, and they start cheering as soon as you start pushing. And during that silence she usually takes the opportunity to shout 'I love you, mummy'. Just as I'm about to go. But it never puts me off."

She is making no predictions for Vancouver, not wanting to add to the pressure she already feels as one of Britain's brightest medal hopes. In the men's event, Bromley is less fancied. But anything can happen, and four years ago, plenty did. Rudman, who only got to Turin thanks to the support of customers at her local pub in Pewsey, Wiltshire – who raised £4,000 – exceeded all expectations, even her own, by finishing with a silver medal. Bromley, by contrast, with whom she was already romantically involved, felt that he underachieved. How, I wonder, did that affect the dynamics of their relationship? And are they prepared for the same thing to happen again?

"You never know," says Bromley. "At least we've experienced the scenario before. Shelley got silver, while I went from bronze after my first run to fifth overall. She was on cloud nine, and I was rock bottom, we were in completely different emotional places, so we had to find a kind of middle ground and meet there."

In addition, the hard reality of the skeleton is that they are not just racing for themselves, or even for the British Olympic effort, but for the very well-being of the sport. Rudman received four years' worth of Lottery funding on the back of her success in Turin, and much depends for the next four years on what happens next Thursday and Friday.

"We can't survive without Lottery funding," says Bromley, "but we also need a lot of extra funding, for sled technology, biomechanics, nutrition, all sorts of things. So we don't sit back. We're masters at making money go as far as it can, and we have to be as creative and innovative as we can, because we're aware that winter sports are not very big commercially in the UK. One week of a footballer's salary would give us two years of funding, but that's just how it is. And we do get some fantastic help. Other countries invest in sports pyschologists, but we get their support for free."

This psychology, they are both quick to explain, is not about counselling or motivation. "It's more like sports science, how we can make the brain and body work better together," Bromley says. "When you're driving a track at 90mph, how can we train the brain to be sharper at what it does?"

"There are some people," adds Rudman, "who say it's an admission of weakness using sports psychologists. That's just old-school thinking."

Bromley sniffs. "I'd call it stupidity," he says.