Britain's Olympic dreams resting on ice queen's 80mph 'tea tray'

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The Independent Online

Britain's flagging fortunes at the Winter Olympics are about to get a significant boost, if it is not tempting fate to say so, from the small but very competitive figure of Alex Coomber.

The 28-year-old RAF intelligence officer enters today's skeleton event – named after the sleds, shaped like tea trays, upon which competitors travel head first down an ice channel at 80 mph – as Britain's first Winter Olympic gold medal prospect since the ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean won in 1984.

The medal won this week by the Australian speed skater Steven Bradbury demonstrated even to Olympians with the remotest chance of success that taking part can be the same as winning, provided all your opponents fall over. However, short of receiving a similar helping of outrageous fortune, it is hard to see Britain earning anything tangible from these Games other than through Coomber.

At 5ft 3in, and just under eight stone, Coomber is one of the smaller competitors in her event, but she has all the abilities required to go fast.

Regular weight training has improved the speed that she once put to good purpose at Worthing Athletics Club, which allows her to gain impetus before flinging herself down on the sled. Once there, she has a rare ability to use only the minimum of movement to guide herself on her chosen line down the ice, shifting weight to either shoulder and occasionally digging in her toes. She also has luck on her side – the worst injury she has endured in her five-year career is a cut forehead.

During a run, where her body has to withstand G-forces of between five and six on the bends, Coomber can see only a couple of metres ahead of her. "You have to feel the pressure of the bend carry on," she says. "You can feel it in your body."

She is helped in her efforts by a phenomenal memory – she can close her eyes and picture every part of every course she has ridden, including the Olympic run, where she won a pre-Games event last year.

Skeleton racing was dropped from the Olympic programme after 1948 because it was deemed too dangerous, but its reintroduction this year for both men and women is ideally timed for Coomber, who has come to Salt Lake as world number one after three successive World Cup titles.

A self confessed tomboy in her youth, Coomber always had an affinity for extreme sports. Despite her mother's protests, she became a frequent parachutist and para-glider before her fancy was taken by an invitation event being put on by British Aerospace at Igls, Austria, in November 1997. When she first saw the skeleton, essentially a bare steel hull mounted on runners, even the tomboy was taken aback. "Is that it?" she thought, but there was a queue of others behind her and she felt obliged to carry on. "I was petrified by the speed at first, but it was a brilliant experience," she said.

The event clearly suited her. Eleven days later she competed for Britain in a World Cup race and finished fifth.

Since then, skeleton racing has changed the course of her life. She met her husband, Eric, a Royal Navy officer, through the sport, and has been allowed to take 18 months leave to prepare for the Olympics.

Four years ago in Nagano, Britain had to wait until the penultimate day of the Games for our only medal, the bronze won by the four-man bob. Coomber has the credentials to put her team officials out of their misery with more time to spare. Her form in training this week, where she won two of the opening four runs, has done nothing to dampen British optimism. But team considerations are strictly secondary for her.

"I'm not here to save the British team," she announced firmly upon her arrival in the Olympic village.

"I'm racing because I have performed well and I can beat all these people and I will try and do it again. I've got a good track record, and I know I can win a gold medal. But then there are a lot of women out there who feel exactly the same themselves."

Should she manage to achieve her aim, one of the first to hear the good news will be her dog, Foggy, named after Britain's former world superbike champion Carl Fogarty.

Coomber, who lives in the village of Dean, near Shepton Mallet, Somerset, is making regular calls to neighbours who are looking after her dog and often has a word with him – just for good luck.

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