Amy Williams: 'It's been a great experience and I hope it never ends'
Now Amy Williams had an Olympic gold aura along with her wide eyes and curly brown hair but what remained so stunning was the sense of a young woman who had conquered a hazardous world entirely on her own terms.
Britain's first female individual winter gold medallist in 58 years didn't just put in a record-shattering performance on the world's fastest and most dangerous skeleton track. She made it a triumph so formal, so unanswerable, that her last surprise was to reveal that she had shared every fear of every contender sliding at speeds of up to 90mph, in the unshakeable shadow of the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on this same ribbon of ice a week earlier.
The 27-year-old from Bath, who calls her sled Arthur and concedes, "Maybe you have to have a screw loose to do this sport," pushed aside a mountain of messages of congratulation, including one from the Prime Minister, and returned to the taut days before last Thursday, when she made the first run of four which systematically beat down all opposition.
She said: "I'm probably pretty fearless compared with most people but I'm always nervous on the first day of training on any track. I am likely to be most nervous on the first day of training. But once I am down the first time I settle to it and get on with the job.
"All the athletes probably had an increase in nerves because of the drama that had gone before, this had to be so, but, to be honest, for me it was not much more than it would have been normally. Once that first day was over, I thought, 'I'm fine – get on with it'."
After the gold and a record time of 53.68 on the 1,450-metre run had been gathered in, Williams went back to her room in the athletes' village and struggled to grasp quite what she had done.
"It still didn't feel real," she said. "I woke up in the early hours and couldn't get back to sleep. I was thinking, 'I've gone and won something but it won't hit for a long time. I have a completely new world'.
"I think I'm in a little bubble which hasn't quite burst and I'm not sure it ever will. I am just loving it. It's been a great experience and I hope it never ends."
Her new world has been fashioned with relentless determination since the crushing moment four years ago when she discovered that she had lost Britain's one place in the Turin Olympics to her team-mate, and fierce rival, Shelley Rudman.
Rudman became the British heroine of Turin with silver – the team's only medal – while Williams supplied analysis in the broadcasting booth of BBC radio. The residue of Rudman's glory was plain enough here when she was asked to carry the British flag at the opening ceremony and handed the joint captaincy of the team.
Williams simply bore down hard on her ambition to wipe away the bitter disappointment. "It was hard not to be picked in Turin and it was tough to commentate on the race but all the time I thought, 'I'm not going to be in this position in four years' time. I will be the athlete sliding."
In fact, Rudman slid here too and, after admitting that she had never come to terms with the track properly, put in a fine performance, finished sixth and congratulated a team-mate with whom, inevitably in all the circumstances, there had been an often abrasive edge of competition. "Shelley did us proud in Turin," said Williams, "and she was the first to congratulate me here."
For Williams' Austrian coach Mickey Gruenberger the triumph was a reminder of his own world championship triumph – his first career win. "It is as though a switch is turned and you know you can win. What Amy did here was quite amazing, especially in her first and third runs. It was really amazing how she did it, yes she obliterated the field. It was unbelievable how quick she was. She hit 143kph [89mph) – and it's quite tough for a woman, I must say. She's very easy to handle. Give her advice, feedback and she immediately puts it into action. She is punctual, nice kind and she's not at all selfish. She's really a team player and this makes what she has done here, really, really special. She has worked so hard to get over what happened in Turin."
She said she was startled to find herself talking to Sir Steve Redgrave in the wake of her triumph, then even more stunned to overhear an interview he was giving on the subject of Amy Williams.
She is intrigued to know what her success will bring – and certainly she thought it reasonable to believe her dependency on her parents, with whom she continued to live until recently before renting a flat in Bath, will lessen. But money has never been the greatest consideration, not when she was required to lug her sled Arthur on to trains and buses, and not now when a sponsored car seems to be among the least of her prospects.
"My message from here to young people is, 'Have a go at Winter sports, find something you can have fun at, enjoy it and work hard and you could be sitting here like I am.
"UK sport have been very good to us. They have supported us once we have achieved certain results but it has still been hard over the years. Everyone is still really struggling and I have to count my pennies every month to see that I have enough. It is tough but every athlete finds a way, with family support and friends.
"I didn't want to get a job because I wanted to train hard and, luckily, my parents didn't kick me out."
One potential source of income was art work and she did have one exhibition in a Bath café, but she abandoned it because of the pressure of training. "When I got home I just wanted to slip under the duvet."
It is not odd, she insists, that she has christened her sled. "You name a boat. Why wouldn't I name my sled? Every sled is different. I have to know him well, so we can work together. You have to bond with it, know how it works, its characteristics. Sometimes I don't speak to him, sometimes I do. He is part of my life, and my boyfriend understands our relationship."
The involvement of Amy and Arthur was never so intense as in the moments of victory. "Normally, I give him a pat – this time I gave him a few pats. He comes with me everywhere in winter."
The likelihood in a corner of sports which is not noted for offering guarantees, is that Williams will work as hard as ever in the run-in to the Games of Sochi in Russia in four years' time.
Amy and Arthur, we know now, is one of the great stories of British sport. Andy Hunt, Britain's team leader, says it has announced a new dawn for the nation's winter sports. Maybe, maybe not; the certainty, though, is that it will continue to run at the most exhilarating speed.
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