At first sighting there is not much to Elise Christie. She stands 5ft 3in and, clad in a roomy British tracksuit, appears slight. She speaks softly too. This is the deception of appearances. Play a game of word association with her coaches and there is one winner. Elise Christie is tough.
“They always say that,” says Christie. “Sometimes I look at other people and think: ‘You’re not doing that the best you can.’ Sometimes I look at myself and think: ‘You’re not being tough enough’.”
That is not an opinion echoed by the coaches of Britain’s speed-skating team, a collection buoyed as never before by the success garnered by Christie. They will take to the rink in Debrecen, Hungary’s second city, for the start of the World Championships today to begin a year that holds the promise of being like no other in the brief, and rarely glittering, history of British speed skating. This time next year it is Sochi and the 2014 Winter Olympics.
“Elise is super mentally tough,” says Nicky Gooch, the head coach and Britain’s only ever Olympic medallist, having won bronze in 1994. “She’s good technically, has good glide, efficient movement but really it’s the mental toughness that makes the difference.”
Christie is the best in the world at her signature event, the 1,000 metres. Britain has never had a female world champion, nor an Olympic champion of either sex and that could change over the next year.
Short-track speed skating, racing around a tight 110m oval at speeds of up to 48kph (30mph), is a notoriously unpredictable sport. A single slip can cause chaos – in the 2002 Olympics the unheralded Steven Bradbury was adrift in last place when the rest of field were caught in a pile-up, leaving the Australian free to amble through to take gold. Bradbury had only reached the final because of another crash among his competitors in qualifying. Christie will be the one to beat in Debrecen this weekend, and in Sochi next year after a season that has established her as a double European champion – she also won the 1500m – and the World Cup champion, Britain’s first ever, after eight podium finishes, two of those gold.
The concern in Christie’s camp is that the good times have come too soon. Not for any distractions or lack of application that may follow – far from it – but rather her opponents have a year to work out how to stop her. The bigger nations, such as Canada, Korea and China, race as teams. Their lesser lights will effectively gang up on Christie and, so goes the blueprint, leave their best skater a free run. It is all within the rules, and because Britain has fewer skaters at this level it leaves Christie vulnerable to attack.
Combating that has been the focus of preparation at the team’s training centre in Nottingham. “It’s been going quite well,” says Christie. “You have to scare them a bit so they are not so confident of doing it.”
Christie’s usual approach is to race against tradition. She likes to lead from the front, whereas most of the top skaters prefer to tuck in and draft – much like track cyclists. Christie’s reasoning is she can control the race from the front, it keeps her out of trouble and her strength is her power – again the appearance of the 22-year-old belies the steel within. She really is, as the ad for a fizzy drink popular north of the border used to have it, made in Scotland from girders.
“I don’t want to sound big-headed – I’m not a cocky person – [but] I’m a lot stronger than a lot of girls,” she says. “I might not be as good a racer [so] if I’m at the front I’m giving myself the best opportunity.
“Not a lot of people can lead round a whole race and win it. If you’re in second, it’s a lot easier, you’re drafting, following their stride. Out in front you have to set the stride, fight against the wind. It’s hard physically leading from the front but I find it a lot calmer. I like being at the front, giving it everything you’ve got.”
Christie’s results have improved dramatically over the last year but it is in the wake of her Olympic debut in Vancouver three years ago that this transformation has its roots. That Christie had talent had long been obvious – she was asked to move to Nottingham from her hometown of Livingston to train full-time when she was just 15 (it meant giving up school a year later, a move that most teenagers would have leapt at but Christie wrestled with, once again conforming to her nonconformity). An 11th place in her first Games aged 19 was, on the surface, a sound result but afterwards she decided it was nothing of the sort.
“Vancouver was my turning point,” she says. “I came into speed skating thinking I just want to skate in the Olympics. I didn’t think I was going to be anything special. Then I came back from Vancouver and thought: ‘There’s no point going to another Olympics and just being someone competing in it – the aim is to win.’ My mentality changed – I went out there and thought I’ve got to make them beat me now rather than trying to beat them.
“Vancouver really did change me. It’s strange – it’s not like anything went off in my life. Usually it’s something dramatic that happens and you change yourself. I just sat down and thought about it, thought that I might as well make it worthwhile.
“I did my 1,000m there and I skated from the back of the race. It was like I was just happy to be there. Afterwards I thought: ‘Right, I want to be someone who tries to be the best.’ It doesn’t mean I’m going to be the best but I will do everything I can to make me the best.”