Winter Olympics: All because the lady loves the tea tray

The ice-breaker: Alex Coomber
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On a sled which rolled off the same production line as the Eurofighter, an RAF intelligence officer will attempt to bring home Britain's first Winter Olympic gold for 18 years in Salt Lake City later this month. That Alex Coomber has the face of a child and the mind of an assassin only heightens the sense of wonder already prompted by the speed of her rise to the top of a sport once deemed too dangerous for Olympic competition.

Coomber only took up the skeleton bob by accident, on an British Aerospace sponsored trip to Austria in 1997. Ten days and 23 runs later, she finished fifth in a World Cup event, a vertical learning curve which says something about the depth of international competition at the time, but a lot more about Coomber's instinct for speed. If the ascent has been rapid, the descent is jet-propelled. Coomber is Britain's best hope for a gold medal since Torvill and Dean won the ice-dance title in Sarajevo in 1984.

Last month, in St Moritz, the spiritual home of madcap British bobbers, the 28-year-old Oxford University graduate won her third successive World Cup title, and if she would swap each one of them for the glory of wearing gold in Salt Lake City, the sight of this diminutive blonde Briton hurling herself down impossibly icy inclines, her neck subject to the G-forces of a Formula One driver, her chin guarded against the bloodiest of shaves, has already stirred the souls of the Austrians, who guard their Alpine heritage with fanatical zeal.

"Just think about it," says Andreas Schmid, the former world bobsleigh champion who coaches the British team. "A nation without a bobsleigh track winning the gold medal. It's impossible. In Austria we have a national centre where we train and compete between World Cup races. But Alex?" Coomber's off-season training involves a flat RAF airfield and a makeshift sled made from makeshift handles and skateboard wheels.

However haphazard her introduction to the sport, Coomber is not auditioning for Cool Runnings II. Behind the 5ft 3in, 8st frame lies a wealth of hi-tech expertise. Coomber's steel-sprung, carbon-fibre sled would cost £4,000 and she runs two, one for training, the other in race trim. Each weighs approximately 30kg and was built by BAe from a design by Dr Kristan Bromley, who will be competing in the men's event in Salt Lake. In the belief that skeleton bob will replace the luge as the chosen sport of extremists, adidas have invested heavily in the development of equipment, while at Bath University, where Coomber is based, a refrigerated laboratory has been set up by Bromley, using gallons of water taken from the Park City venue, to simulate likely ice conditions on the day of Olympic competition. Coomber has spent much of the last few months experimenting with new runners to ensure minimum friction over the plunging contours of the Utah track. When you have lost a world championship by 0.07 seconds, as Coomber did last year, attention to detail becomes an obsession.

But it is still the human qualities which will be decisive. The youngest of three sisters, brought up by her mother in the West Sussex village of Rustington, Coomber grafted an independent streak on to a fiercely competitive spirit. She has worked hard for success and so treats it properly.

It was all her sister Ronnie's fault. She was the one invited to try the luge; Alex tagged along. "They didn't have any more space for the luge," she recalls. "But the bloke said: 'I've got this thing called a skeleton, it's like a one-person bobsleigh'. I thought that sounded all right, but when I turned up, they pointed to this tray. By then, it was too late, there were people waiting behind and people going in front, so I couldn't back out. It was absolutely terrifying, but I couldn't wait to get back and try again."

She shrugs off the notion that riding down mountains face first on a tea tray at speeds of 80mph might be even remotely at odds with longevity. If you crash, she says, the laws of physics take over. "You can't come off the track like you can with luge, you can't be trapped like you can under a bobsleigh, and you've only got four centimetres or so to fall, so you can't hurt yourself there. You just let go of the sled and off it goes. You're more likely to get injured in rugby."

But it still takes a particular type of character to relish the thrill, to arrive safely at the bottom of that first run, five years ago, aching only to repeat the experience. By the end of her novice course, Coomber had beaten all 15 of her rivals, men and women, and realised with a thumping heart that becoming the national standing high-jump champion in 1987 – "I have still got the medal and I am very proud of it" – was not going to be the only highlight of her sporting life. The prospect of winning an Olympic gold medal did not take root until 15 months ago, when the authorities sanctioned the return of the skeleton to Olympic competition in Salt Lake. But Coomber has flourished under the pressure.

"She is a unique talent," says her coach, Simon Timson. "She is an extremely skilful rider and she has got the courage to put the sled where other athletes might not. That's just natural." Coomber's slim figure has also proved a perfect fit for a skeleton bob, minimising the loss of momentum between the push start and the "flop" phase, when critical fractions can be lost.

In Salt Lake, four or five girls will all be watching each other, but mostly they will be watching the champion. "The good thing about Alex is that she has been in every situation in the last few years, leading from the front and coming from behind," says Timson. Most notably, when a blistering second run down the Olympic Park course in Salt Lake City took her from fourth to first in a recent World Cup race. "Realistically, I know that I can get a medal," Coomber says. "But I don't want to put any further pressure on myself than that."

Coomber's preparations began at Britain's new base camp in Calgary late last week, the fine-tuning for her first run on Wednesday 20 February. "What I remember most clearly about the Olympics is watching the parade with all the flags. I thought: 'Wow, that looks amazing.' I think that's what you've got to remember. You move through the ranks so quickly, you can get a bit blasé about it all. Once I get to the Olympics, it will hit home what is really happening."

If she can break Britain's longest Olympic spell without gold, that will only be the start of the adventure.

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