Shelley Rudman: The ice queen leading the charge at the Winter Olympics
The woman at the head of Team GB's impressive female contingent in Sochi next year, reflects on the dangers of racing tea trays and her frosty relationship with the last golden girl
Sunday 29 December 2013
Britain's hopes of a Winter Olympics fit to follow last year's golden summer are going downhill fast. Which happens to be exactly the plan for the Games in Sochi next February.
High speed and hi-tech form the blueprint which it is hoped could see Team GB enjoy a repeat of the success that captivated the nation during London 2012. No winter sports squad has been better prepared or funded than the one assembled for the coming extravaganza in the Caucasus Mountains that form the breathtaking backdrop to Russia's chic Black Sea resort.
Even if some of the more eccentric pursuits fail to grab you by the snowballs, the British Olympic Association are resolute in their belief that Team GB's 50-odd skiers, sledders, skaters and curlers can achieve the nation's most successful Winter Games since 1924, which saw them gain four medals – gold in curling, silver in bobsleigh and bronze in figure skating and ice hockey. Certainly they hope for more than the solitary medal – gold from Amy Williams in the bob skeleton – that GB won in Vancouver four years ago.
This time such podium aspirations are led by Shelley Rudman, like Williams an intrepid West Country woman who risks life and limb every time she hisses head-first down the ice tunnel flat on her face at 90mph on a brakeless metal tray. She is the coolest runner in the oddball event, in which she is the current world champion.
The skeleton, which actually does reside in a cupboard at the home of the 32-year-old Wiltshire-born mother, is literally a bone-shaker – 40kg of hi-tech machinery which, when put on ice, unleashes 60 seconds of sheer terror.
There are 18 curves on a 1,500m skeleton run, all of them dangerous in what appears a slippery slope to insanity. "At first there's just this incredible silence inside your helmet," Rudman tells The Independent on Sunday. "Then all you can hear is the clattering as you're going down.
"When you do a corner, well it's a great feeling, a tremendous thrill – whoosh! Then you seem to float your way down. A fraction of a second can be the difference between first and last." Not to mention injury – or worse.
Rudman is certainly no stranger to danger, such as when she has been flung off and bounced along the inner walls of the ice chute. She can still painfully recall one particularly dramatic crash at Salt Lake City.
"I went hard into bend six," she explains. "The pressure slammed my head down and I just nutted the ice. I couldn't remember anything. Suddenly I saw I was flying towards bend 12, and thought, 'Wow, what happened to the last four bends?'
"I could just see the darkness rising. I knew it was blood filling my helmet. That's when you start panicking. You think, 'How much damage have I done?' I could feel the blood leaking out of my helmet and my nose was broken. I had to have an operation because the septum had divided."
A day before the previous Winter Games opened in Vancouver, a young Georgian luger, Nodar Kumaritashvili, suffered fatal injuries during a training run on the track also used for bobsleigh and skeleton. He was the fourth athlete to have died during Winter Olympics preparations.
Conscious of this unwanted record, the Russian organisers have introduced a novel feature for Sochi: small hillocks designed rather like sleeping policemen to slow the sledders down. "It's strange having to negotiate uphill as well as down," says Rudman. "But look, this is a risk sport – we all know that. The inherent danger is part of the thrill."
The skeleton, which gung-ho British bobsledders are said to have invented as a spin-off from the Cresta Run toboggan track in St Moritz back in 1887, has been Team GB's most successful Winter Games sport in recent years, never failing to produce a medal since its permanent introduction to the Olympics in 2002.
Rudman herself won a silver in Turin in 2006, but four years later it was her team-mate Williams who became the golden girl. There is no love lost between the two of them. They had not spoken in the build-up to those Games, nor during them, the cold shoulder stemming not just from a rivalry as intense as that of Coe and Ovett but Rudman's disinclination to share the aerodynamic advances made on her own sled by her engineer partner, Kristan Bromley. She said she saw no reason to do so, as it was an individual, not a team, sport.
When Williams subsequently became the first Briton to win an individual gold medal in 30 years, Rudman – bitterly disappointed with her own performance – briefly congratulated her but did not attend the celebratory meal for the new champion. The sixth-placed Rudman admits: "It was a bit of a downer. I needed some time to get over it."
Williams has now retired and has taken up rally driving, competing in the Wales Rally GB last month. Meanwhile, Rudman's World Championship victory in St Moritz this winter, coupled with the overall World Cup title last season, has sent her hopes soaring for Sochi this time around.
However, she will have fierce competition from American, Canadian and European rivals, as well as fellow Brit Lizzy Yarnold, the 25-year-old former world junior champion who has won two recent World Cup events. Describing herself as "an adrenalin junkie", Kent's Yarnold says of the skeleton: "It's a petrifying, crazy and unnatural sport – but I love it."
So what is it about perilously bombing downhill on ice that so attracts women, who in this country seem better equipped than men to master a pursuit which demands the ultimate in fitness, skill and, above all, bottle?
"A good question," says Rudman, like Williams a former hurdler who took up the sport while a student at Bath. "I doubt it is physiological. Maybe there's that something extra inside us which tells us we have to prove to ourselves that we can be as good, if not better, than men at certain sports, and that there's nothing they can do in sport that we can't."
Rudman's fiancé Bromley, aka "Dr Ice", was the men's world champion in 2008 before becoming a professor of physics, applying years of research into refining an object that once resembled a tea tray into a sophisticated piece of aerodynamics. The couple have a six-year-old daughter, Ella, and now live in Sheffield. They say marriage is on the back burner until after the Games.
"Having Ella really helps me," says Rudman. "Sometimes she comes with us to competitions. I can be on the start line and she'll shout, just as it falls quiet, 'Go, go, mummy!' Or I can be in the crouch position and she'll yell, 'I love you mummy!' Those are special moments, but as soon as I'm ready I don't hear anything. I'm on my own." She adds: "Winning the world championship is a real motivation for the Olympics, but the expectations now are enormous." And they are high elsewhere, too. Short-track speed skater Elise Christie, Britain's first World Cup overall winner at 1,000m and a double European champion, spends her waking hours skimming around in circles, going hell-for-Lycra, arms sweeping like windscreen wipers in a frenetic 35mph glide for glory. Christie says: "I do think this is going to be the most successful Winter Olympics ever for Britain."
The 23-year-old Scot offers her own theory about why women do so well in ice sports. "I think these days a lot of girls don't want to be girly. We want action and excitement. I prefer to pull on a jumper and get out on the ice rather than get all dolled up and go out partying."
And so the icewomen cometh. Led by the bagpipe-playing Eve Muirhead, Scotland's female curlers – who will comprise Team GB – are current world champions and reckoned to have an outstanding chance of emulating Rhona Martin's Salt Lake City golden girls of 2002.
Sport's next big production number will run from 7 to 23 February. For Britain's female athletes there's no business like snow business, and Team GB's Sochi show-stoppers will be on ice, hopefully alongside the champagne.
The icewomen cometh... Five more cold prospects
Christie started out as a figure skater, but was introduced to speed skating at 12 years old; by 15, she was in the GB squad. Her meteoric rise has continued ever since, culminating in the World Cup title last season over her favoured 1,000m distance. She may be just 5ft tall, but the 23-year-old represents perhaps Britain's best hope of gold in Sochi.
At 33 and with three X-Games world titles under her belt, Jones is one of the veterans of the GB squad. But this is her first Winter Olympics, as slopestyle snowboarding – the "show us your tricks" equivalent of freestyle skiing – makes its debut. She lies fourth in this season's world rankings. Once worked in a cardboard factory to finance her career.
As a 12-year-old, Muirhead was allowed to stay up past her bedtime to watch Britain's women win the curling gold medal at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002; now it's her turn to skip the team. At 24, she has already won world and European gold medals, and she and her fellow Scots will be strongly fancied to complete the set. Plays golf off a handicap of two.
The 18-year-old has battled back from major knee surgery to establish herself as a genuine medal contender for Sochi: she finished fourth at last season's World Championships. In a sport where contenders are judged on the difficulty of their tricks, she was the first woman to achieve a "switch 12" – a backwards jump with three-and-a-half spins.
Isle of Man native Gillings has spent much of her career in the shadow of Manx cycling star Mark Cavendish; now she has the chance to surpass Cav by winning an Olympic medal. Only ranked eighth in the world, she has been in good form recently, and will be in with a medal chance in this notoriously unpredictable sport.
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