James Lawton: Burns and bruises all part of building Williams' golden sled

Behind the gloriously uncomplicated triumph of Britain's world-beating skeleton gold medallist Amy Williams is an equally extraordinary story of determination, this one involving the design brilliance of another 27-year-old, Rachael Blackburn.

She will soon have her own tangible reward – a doctorate in engineering design entitled: How to build an Olympic-winning sled.

Blackburn, a postgraduate engineering student at Southampton University, sums up the success of a project costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, with impressive brevity.

She explains: "Four years ago I started an engineering doctorate at Southampton for a skeleton programme. We didn't know what we were going to do then. It was down to the sport to decide on the questions they needed answering. About six months later they said, 'We need a sled.' So we made a sled. That's pretty much it."

In fact, there was rather more to it, and some of it controversial in that Williams' team-mate and fierce rival Shelley Rudman was operating on a sled designed by her partner Kristan Bromley – one that the couple had been promoting for some time.

The rival project, sponsored by UK Sport, was named Blackroc – a combination of the surnames of Blackburn and her co-designer James Roche, who is also a post-graduate student at Southampon.

Blackburn said: "I think the difference is that our sled is purely for UK Sport, they're more commercial.

"I knew nothing about the sport. I came at it purely from an engineering point of view. I thought: 'What's out there and how can we make it better?' There were existing sleds that we could modify, but there was too much to modify – and we decided to start from scratch.

"It's the balance between the stiffness of the chassis for speed versus the sensitivity of the control. If you can't get the lines but you have the speed you're going to crash. What you have to achieve is the fine balance for every individual.

"I've had many dreams – and many nightmares. We came up with some concept designs and before anything was made we went and got approval and more suggestions from McLaren and Prodrive [the British automotive engineering group] and they said, 'Go for it.'

"From that point on we had more belief. It took a bit of tweaking. We sent them [the skeleton riders] down on some antique sleds from before their time and got them to test how things had changed. They got a few bruises and some ice burns but we knew where we had to go."

Indeed, they took the fast track to a stunning coup which rocked the most powerful Alpine sport nations and led, out of the deepest and most aimless frustration, to piffling challenges from the Americans and the Canadians to the design of Williams' helmet. Both protests were thrown out by the jury with some contempt.

Williams' coach, the former world champion Austrian Mickey Gruenberger, was emphatic that, above all, it was triumph for the rider's skill and nerve – but there was no doubt about the value of her design support.

Gruenberger said: "If you want to win a medal everything has to stick together. You have to have the right equipment – you have to have the right athlete. You see in Formula One, Michael Schumacher is not able to win with a Minardi. It's quick but it is limited when compared to a Ferrari."

Gruenberger's work has also drawn the envy of the powerhouse nations, including his native Austria. He has already received one overture but it is expected that an improved British contract will keep him in place. He said: "I'm not Mourinho, but I still have to pay my bills."

There is no doubt, though, about the status of the achievement here. It is, everyone agrees, a special one.

Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders