Going for gold: I can rule at skeleton, I feel it in my bones...
Amy Williams loves going at 136kph headfirst on a tin tray. Now she's hopeful of bobbing her way to Winter Olympic glory
Sunday 15 February 2009
Amy Williams has a skeleton in her cupboard. She calls it Arthur and it is certainly a bit of a bone-shaker – 40kg of hi-tech machinery which, when put on ice, goes like a bomb, exploding into 60 seconds of sheer terror. This is a sport where success or disaster can be determined by the twitch of a single muscle. Riding the skeleton is the oldest form of bobsleighing, but it is now the youngest Winter Olympic sport. Clattering head- first on what resembles a tin tray down a zigzagging 1500-metre ice tunnel may seem like a slippery slope to insanity, but for exponents such as Williams there's method in this madness.
The skeleton, believed to be derived from the Norwegian word for sled, skelor, is a cousin of the luge and bobsleigh, but the sliders, as they like to be called, say there is nothing else like it on earth – or ice – and it can only be mastered through scientific principles: mechanics, physics and aerodynamics.
Incredible as it seems, the British, who used to practise the sport in car parks and alleyways, sit atop the skeleton mountain. Kristan Bromley, aka "Dr Ice", is the men's world champion at 36 and his partner, Shelley Rudman, 27, who won the Olympic silver medal in Turin, is back on the ice after the birth of their daughter, winning aWorld Cup gold and, last month, the European Championship.
And in her slipstream hurtles the 26-year-old Williams, from Bath, a former track athlete who produced a stunning performance last week to win a silver medal in the World Cup on the very Vancouver track where next year's Winter Olympics will be held.
Williams, who has a personality as bubbly as her coiffure, caught the bob skeleton bug when watching another Brit, Alex Coomber, win a bronze medal at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. "Until I saw it on TV I had no idea what bob skeleton was," she said. "I'd seen Cool Runnings of course, and knew about bobsleighing, but this was something totally different.
"At the time I was a 400-metre runner with a local club. I'd been quite good at school and ran in county events but I knew I wasn't good enough to get into the British team. I knew a few people who trained on the push-start track at Bath University so I just went along and gave it a go." Her first event was the World Push Championships in Holland, which she entered as a guest, won her category and came second overall. She paid her own way to join one of Team GB's ice camps. "I hated it to begin with. When you first go down, there are so many emotions going through you. You are scared yet exhilarated at the time, you're happy yet frightened and you feel you don't want to do it again, but of course you do. I didn't want to seem like a little wimp with all those big guys around – most of them were from the Army."
So rapid was her progress it became a battle between her and Rudman as to who would go to Turin for the 2006 Games. "It had been a bit neck-and-neck but she did well towards the end of the season and was ranked higher. I was there as a reserve and enjoyed the experience, it gave me a great idea of what Vancouver might be like because I am determined to get there. There will be two places available because of Britain's good results in the event, so hopefully both Shelley and I will go.
"Although we are in the same team, obviously we are individuals, so there is a great rivalry. We have known each other since 2002 but I wouldn't say we are close, because that's the way it is in sport when you are competitors."
Williams quit university after a year "because I decided I wanted to put all my effort into sport, as you only get one shot at it", but now she has a foundation degree in sports performance, for which she studied part-time. Eventually she hopes to do an arts degree. "I like canvas art and textile art. I'd like a little gallery with my own stuff and a workshop above it, and then again, maybe I want to keep in sport." Boyfriends? "No, I'm still looking for that rich polo player!"
Tall and slim, Williams, who lives at home with her parents in Bath – her father, Ian, is a professor of science at the university and she has a twin sister– is currently in North America, gearing up for the World Championships at Lake Placid. "I know in my heart I can beat everyone out there, but you can never be sure what is going to happen in the races ahead. Obviously you can get injured, although I have been pretty lucky." Her most serious injury was not on the ice but dry land, at the push-start track at Bath where she does her non-winter training. A fall sent her back into spasms, and there was some concern that she might have broken it.
"It was raining and it had made the braking system a bit greasy. It didn't catch properly and by the time it got caught I had come off with a bang. The people I most admire in sport are those who keep coming back from bad injuries. The athlete Jason Gardener, who I used to train with at Bath, was a particular inspiration to me.
"To do this, you have to be a speed freak. I've reached 136km an hour in practice on the new Olympic track. There can be anything up to 19 corners to manoeuvre so there are a lot of things to memorise about steering and what time to turn. You get such an adrenalin rush. It's this addiction of wanting to beat your own time on every run. When you do a corner well it's a great feeling, a tremendous thrill. You seem to float your way down – it's hard to explain.
"A fraction of a second can be the difference between first and last. I came second in the World Junior Championships, losing by two hundredths of a second. When I got my first two podium places I thought, 'I can be the best'. I was fifth in the World Championships last year and know I can be the quickest out there. It's just waiting for it to happen – that perfect day when it comes together."
If it does, Britain will again be whooshing on a star in Vancouver.
Message from an icon: Jason Gardener
It may sound strange for a track athlete to be giving advice to someone in winter sports, but I know Amy from our days at Wessex and Bath AC when we trained a fair bit together at the University of Bath. She always had tremendous enthusiasm for whatever she was doing – a very committed person.
She has the sort of body that was built for athletics, and when she was running she always wanted to get it absolutely right. She is a natural athletewith great co-ordination and was always hungry to succeed. When she realised she was not going to make it to the top on the track she wasn't afraid to try something very different – though the principle is similar in terms of how to achieve success.
I am not surprised she has done as well as she has. She has already tasted the flavour of what it is like to be at an Olympic Games and now she has this opportunity perhaps to get a medal in Vancouver and she must grab it, go out and capture her dream.
She should not take notice of anything going on around her but stay completely focused on herself and her performance, and not pay too much attention to stats. She's been fortunate in that she's been able to watch how other athletes prepare, and she'll know they don't give Olympic medals away.
"Her athletics background will be of great benefit – it has been already – because she needs that leg strength at the start. She ticks all the boxes and I think the intelligence and commitment that she has shown will get its reward. I certainly hope so, because Amy has a great personality and she would be a credit as an Olympian.
Jason Gardener, 38, the former world and European indoor sprint champion and Olympic relay gold medallist, is a consultant in sports performance
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