Olympic speed skating: Ice-cool approach is key for Williams

The Winter Olympics, which open in Salt Lake City on Friday, hold no fears for one of Britain's speed skaters
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The Independent Online

She has has been as polite as humanly possible in preparing to make her Olympic debut in short track speed skating, but one question has been put to Joanna Williams with wearing regularity.

"Everyone keeps asking me: 'What are your expectations of the Olympics?'," says the 20-year-old British champion and European bronze medallist. "I can't actually tell them. In our sport there's no way of knowing who's going to win."

Williams and a gaggle of other skaters from her Aldwych Guildford club saw that for themselves as they watched team-mate Nicky Gooch take bronze for Britain at the 1994 Winter Olympics. The youngsters were not in Lillehammer, but Manchester, watching someone's television after competing in Altrincham. But they saw Gooch – who had lost out on a silver medal when he was disqualified for pushing in the 1,000 metres – make amends in a dramatic 500m race.

Four years later, as if to underline the unstable nature of the sport, Gooch – hampered by illness – crashed out in his 1,000m qualifier.

"The closest parallel I can think of is athletics," said Williams. "But athletes don't have 18cm blades on their feet where you make one mistake and you're down, or someone else makes a mistake and you are down. Someone can kick me in the first round in Salt Lake and that's my Olympics over. But I can skate well and get to the semi-final and someone else falls over and I'm in the final."

Williams is still finding it difficult to take in the fact that she is about to realise the ambition she has held ever since taking up the event as a six-year-old. "The Olympics have always been my main aim," she said. "It was really inspiring watching Nicky doing so well and being on television. I looked at him and thought 'I want to do that'."

Last month, Williams offered the clearest indication yet that she has what it takes to perform on the big occasion when she secured an overall bronze medal at the European Championships in Grénoble, an achievement that came at the end of a World Cup season where she established herself in eighth position in the world rankings. She is young, and on the rise, and this could be the first of a sequence of Olympic outings for her.

"Earning a bronze was almost what was expected of Joanna after the way she had performed during the season," said the British team manager, Stuart Horsepool. "But the way she conducted herself under pressure was remarkable. We are a minority sport, and most of the time skaters are not performing to packed crowds and TV cameras. It takes a certain type of character to deal with that kind of situation."

Williams felt she had a good chance of success in Grénoble, but managed to prevent her excitement affecting her performance.

"I knew I was capable of winning a medal because I had already done five World Cup events and the Olympic qualifier and I had beaten most of the other European skaters in various competitions," Williams said. "Evgenia Radonova, the Bulgarian girl who won the overall gold, is really strong. But there were nine of us who were all capable of doing well depending on how things went on the day."

That said, the event continues to be dominated by Asian competitors, with only Radonova posing a regular European challenge to them.

Williams, however, has made prodigious progress over the last 18 months after moving north to join other British squad members in regular training sessions at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham.

Horsepool, who took over his team leader role in May, works regularly on the ice with his group of 18 athletes, all of whom live nearby.

"Our performances have improved enormously since moving in here," he said. "The women train together in a group with the men, and they are treated simply as athletes. I give them the same amount of barracking as the men if they don't do the workload. That has been a massive change for them. In the past they have always been kept separate."

The regime is paying off, not just for Williams, but her friend, Sarah Lindsay, with whom she has skated since she was seven. Lindsay, who specialises in the shorter distances, has also broken into the world top 10.

The opening of the Nottingham centre, and the flow of Lottery funding which went with it, came at a perfect time for Williams, who had just completed her A levels and was ready to devote herself to the sport full-time.

"When I was training at Guildford I was doing two sessions a week of one hour each," she said. "It was quite difficult to get time on the ice. Now I'm on the ice every day for one and a half hours, and on Tuesday and Thursday I have two sessions. I'm on the ice 100 per cent more, which has made an incredible amount of difference."

Her European performance will also move her into the next category up in the Lottery's World-Class Performance programme. Britain's young speed skaters, in short, have never had it so good.

For more experienced squad members such as Gooch – who considered giving up soon after Lillehammer because of the shortage of funds available – the new dawn has arrived just a bit late for comfort.

Williams acknowledges the irony. But her career is gathering pace nicely. "My first day on the ice at Nottingham felt like a luxury," she said. "It is a luxury when I think about it. I'm lucky I can get on the ice with almost the sole attention of my coach. That's how it should be for everyone. I can't imagine it working in any other way now."

Williams can now dare to look forward to the achievement of her main goal. "It's beginning to sink in that I will actually be at the Olympics," she said. "Nicky has been talking to us about his experience of the Games and telling us what to expect. There's so much going on, so much excitement, but you've got to contain yourself before your races."

Excitement in the Salt Lake Ice Center is guaranteed already – the Williams family in its entirety has made the necessary travel arrangements. Mum and dad, Susan and Paul, are travelling out to watch Joanna along with her younger brothers, Gavin, Gerard and Hugh, and younger sister, Helena. Her elder brother, Chris, and elder sister, Emma, will also be rinkside.

"The way things had been going for me in the season I could tell I would be going," Williams said. "Of course, when the trials came along in December all the family were saying: "You've got to go now, because we've booked the tickets." Now there, if ever, was pressure. Williams, as usual, dealt with it.

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