Winter Sports: Coomber the great white-wall hope

Britain's daredevil Winter Olympian is expected to claim a medal in the skeleton
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The Independent Online

Alex Coomber regularly descends channels of ice at 75 mph, head-first, on an object that resembles a tea-tray, but which is actually known as a skeleton. You might expect such a woman to be without fear, but you would be wrong.

Because this 27-year-old RAF Intelligence Officer – one of Britain's best medal prospects at the Winter Olympics which start in just under eight weeks' time – is afraid of something. "If I was in the water," she said, "and a big, hungry shark was swimming at me, then yes, I would probably be scared."

Note, though, that the shark would have to be hungry. And big.

The skeleton event will form a part of the Olympic programme in Salt Lake City for the first time since 1948, when it was left out because it was deemed too dangerous. Coomber, however, does not view it as a perilous pursuit, even though she already has a couple of scars above her eye which came as a result of, in her phrase, "taking a hit".

That said, even Coomber admits to having been daunted by her first experience of the sport after turning up at an invitation event organised by British Aerospace at Igls, in Austria in November 1997.

"I was looking to do something different, and they didn't have space in the luge, so I thought I'd try this thing called the skeleton," she said. "I had in mind something like a single person bobsleigh. When I saw the sled, I said: 'That's it?' I was petrified by the speed... But at the same time it was brilliant."

That first outing came on a Monday. By Friday of the following week she competed for Britain in the first World Cup race of the season, finishing fifth. Coomber, it seems, is following in the RAF's Spitfire tradition.

Having won the World Cup for the last two years, and also finished runner-up twice at the World Championships, she has put herself in the unenviable position of being that rare thing, a British Winter Olympian expected to come home with a medal.

How is she coping with being the great white-wall hope?

"I can understand people saying that," she admits. "I've had good results in the last couple of years and been quite consistent. But in my sport, races are won by hundredths of a second, so I could do exceptionally well, or I could not. I've raced all my main rivals before, and beaten them before. So I can beat them again. The most important thing for me to do now is concentrate on my own performance."

The sport requires a very effective strength to weight ratio, something which Coomber – 5ft 3in and just under eight stone – uses to good effect as she travels on a metal carriage that flexes like a skateboard as she applies pressure to it on the way down.

Having run for Worthing Athletics Club and Oxford University, where she did a Geography degree, Coomber also possesses sprinting speed that is matched by very few of her rivals. But the really tricky part of her event is the demand it makes upon her mind rather than her body.

"You've got to be able to relax well on the track," she explains. "Which is quite difficult. You're subject to high G-forces on the bends, around five or five and a half G's, and you've got to be able to steer your way out of the bends while that's happening. Mentally, it's very, very tiring because things are coming towards you at high speed and you have to have quick reactions. Sometimes you get involved in 'panic steering' – although in theory you should never touch the ice, sometimes you know you have to do it and you just dip down a toe to reposition yourself.

"Although you never lose vision on the way down, you can only see three or four metres in front of you at any time. You have to feel the pressure of a bend coming on – you can feel it in your body.

"The only way you can get to know a run properly is to get off the sled and walk it several times. I can close my eyes now and go out on any track in the world that I've been down over the last two years, and I'll know every bend. That information is very, very well maintained in your head."

Equally well maintained are the sleds on which Coomber and her British colleagues make their perilous – sorry, straightforward – descents. Britain's No 1 male skeleton competitor, Dr Kristan Bromley, is an engineer based at Bath University who is working on a project to optimise sled design and performance.

In order to replicate the Olympic track at Salt Lake City, Bromley shipped home four five-gallon drums of water from the venue last winter and re-frozen in the Bath lab for test runs.

The value of that planning was borne out two weeks ago as Coomber flourished on a brief training trip to the Salt Lake track before moving on to Calgary, where she finished third in the third of the World Cup events on Friday.

Simon Timson, a sports scientist who now acts as a road manager for the British team, likens the fit of human ability to technology in skeleton to that of Formula One motor racing. "In terms of technology, you have to have the equivalent of a McLaren or a Ferrari to have a chance of winning. But without a talented driver you can't do that. The thing about Alex is that she is the complete package. She is physically and mentally suited to all the demands the event makes."

Coomber acknowledges as much, although she still seems mystified by the paradoxical processes which occur in the event.

"The faster you go, the slower it feels," she says. "Your brain slows everything down so much on fast runs. If you turn up at a track you don't know it seems very fast at first – everything flashes by.

"But by the time you have got to know every single inch of the course and you are travelling two or three seconds faster, you seem to have time."

One other element is required for Coomber's Olympic quest, however: durability. In the course of the last month she has had to manage a back injury which stemmed from a muscle spasm and caused her pelvis to twist. When someone like Coomber uses the word "agony" you know it is likely to be justified. But her performances this season continue to underline the fact that here is a British high flyer made of the Right Stuff.

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