bob skeleton: To hell and back, flat out on a tea tray

It's fast, furious and wildly dangerous - no wonder it's been absent from the Winter Olympics for more than 50 years. But the newly reinstated sport of bob skeleton also provides Britain's best hope of a gold medal next month. What's it like? Julia Stuart dons her Lycra to find out
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I am standing at the top of an outdoor track, which, after 20 metres, descends into such a steep decline that it disappears from view. It then rises gently again, finishing at a wall that looks suspiciously as though it's made of concrete. At my feet is a large tea tray on wheels. I am to push said tea tray along the track while striding athletically with my posterior high in the air. I shall then attempt to leap aboard and sink down on to my belly.

I will career down the precipice head first at a dizzying speed until I arrive at a thick band of elastic stretched across the track. The tea tray will then be catapulted back up the track: I can only hope that I will still be attached. Should we become separated at this juncture, I shall carry on through the air and eventually make a rather delicious "splat" sound. It gets worse. I'm dressed in a hideously tight Lycra body suit. It's not a good look, frankly.

I am at Bath University about to become the first woman to try its new push track, which, when it opens next week, will be used by bob skeleton athletes to improve their starts. The sport, which will feature in next month's Winter Olympics (being held in Salt Lake City, Utah) for the first time since 1948, involves sliding down a bobsleigh run on a sled called a skeleton, which is steered by the legs and shoulders at an average speed of 70mph. It lies just inches from the ground, travels on two runners and has no brakes. Our very own Flight Lieutenant Alex Coomber, 28, who last week became the women's bob skeleton World Cup champion for the third year running, is being widely tipped as the nation's best hope of an Olympic gold medal.

If the idea of whooshing through an ice tunnel head first at speeds of up to 80mph and five times the force of gravity sounds barking, we have only ourselves to blame: a Briton inspired the sport. In 1884, in the Swiss spa resort of St Moritz, where the dry alpine air attracted British TB sufferers, a toboggan run was built, which led to the village of Cresta below. Competitions were held with the rivalling sanatorium resort of Davos.

Nothing quite matched the high drama of the 1887 race when a Mr Cornish descended the track headfirst. The local newspaper, the Alpine Post, spluttered: "To see him coming head first down the leap is what the Scotch call uncanny." While Mr Cornish "came to grief more than once" and promptly lost, the following season an American assumed the position and easily won the annual race at Davos. The technique caught on (even women, who took to the slopes in their long skirts, were enthusiasts) and, in 1892, a purpose-built sled made mostly of metal was introduced, which looked like a skeleton.

The sport was contested at the 1928 and 1948 Winter Olympics, both held in St Moritz, with a Briton winning the bronze on both occasions. Its slow growing popularity eventually persuaded the International Olympic Committee to reinstate it at this year's Games, which will also see the first women's event.

Quite how a British woman has come to be one of the sport's main contenders has dumbfounded the bob skeleton world. There are no bobsleigh runs in Britain and athletes (there are about 30 serious sliders in Britain) have to travel abroad in order to train on ice.

Coomber's success has certainly been extraordinary. The RAF intelligence officer first tried the sport in 1997, and, 11 days later, came fifth in a World Cup race. "I think the main thing was that I'm very small and I didn't get injured at all," says Coomber of her first attempt. She is 5ft 3in and weighs around 8st. "The size of the sled is wider than I am, so the bumpers go out further than my shoulders. A lot of other people who were bigger were coming back after the runs with bumps, bruises and scraps, whereas I was coming back down with absolutely nothing on me at all, so I wanted to go even faster. My confidence built up very, very quickly."

Such was her instant success that she was frequently tested for drugs and her sled scrutinised by officials. "They thought I must be cheating: no one from Britain wins winter sports for God's sake," says Coomber at her home near Shepton Mallet, Somerset, the day before my ordeal in Bath. Coomber insists that bob skeleton is not dangerous. "That's my worst injury," she says, pointing to a bloodied scab on her chin. "I hit the front of the sled about a week ago." She then rolls up her track suit bottoms to reveal two violently scabby knees that she dismisses as "just ice burns".

"The tracks are designed to be very safe. It's impossible to come out of a skeleton track. It's very unlikely you'll break your neck. You're far more likely to break a rib, a hand or a foot."

I'm already feeling unwell at the thought of going down the track at Bath, and the sight of Coomber's congealed blood collection sends a fresh wave of nausea through me. Does she, I ask, swallowing hard, have any tips for my descent?

"Keep your hands in and hold tight. It's fast apparently. The worst thing you can do is let go: you'll shoot off the end when you hit the bungee, which I've done once on a different system," she says laughing (if not a little sadistically).

At the track in Bath, Simon Timson, performance manager for the British Bob Skeleton Association, warns me of the worst-case scenario – "bumping along the concrete for a bit" at around 20mph.

My bottom needs careful positioning, he explains as I prepare for lift-off. It needs to be up so as not to restrict my stride length. I, however, would rather it be in – well in, in the shed behind us, even – rather than in the air, clad in Lycra, in full view of a bunch of highly interested workmen planting trees at the side of the track. Not ready to fly over the edge quite yet I ask if there is any chance of a rope being attached to my ankle. "We could, but it would probably pull your leg off," says Timson.

I bend over and take a few paces with the sled. I built up to running with it, and then master the art of lowering my considerable bulk down on to it. It's soon time to go over the edge. I am told in no uncertain terms to keep my head and legs up and hold on for dear life. I take a run, dive on to the sled with the grace of water buffalo hitting water and zoom off into oblivion. As I rattle down the track, I'm minded of a line from a song in the musical Five Guys Named Mo about a woman's awe-inspiringly large posterior: "It must be jelly 'cos fat don't shake like that."

As I zoom down I can see ahead of me what looks like two railway buffers across which is stretched the elastic. I am told my top speed is only 30mph, but it feels far faster. I hold on like there's no tomorrow. In fact, if I don't hold on there may well be no tomorrow. I lift my chin up so as not to be garrotted. There's a sudden change in the direction of airflow and I'm being twanged backwards.

I find myself emitting a series of squawking sounds, like a demented chicken as I slide backwards up the slope. Timson is pleased at my performance. Not only does he not have any mopping up to do, but he's already talking about the 2006 Olympics. "There's potential there," he says, eager to get as many women involved in the sport as possible. "You never know where the next Alex Coomber is going to come from." Sadly, I doubt very much whether it will come from Independent HQ.

As I head back to the hut to change, I trip over the sled, narrowly missing breaking my neck and exploding out of my Lycra during the ensuing gymnastics as I try to regain my balance. The next Eddie the Eagle, more like.

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