Skeleton ride takes Rudman to silver glory on a tea tray

Rudman's form in the pre-event practice races had raised the possibility that she might force her way into medal contention, especially when she won the last one on the day before the main event. But no one would have predicted that she would come away from these Games with silver ­ one better than that other Wiltshire skeleton athlete Alex Coomber managed in Salt Lake.

Her performance on the first of the two runs, when she finished fourth, just 0.18sec adrift of the bronze medal place, left her in a promising position. She had been briefly in third place, but a slight mistake on the 18th of the 19 bends on this snaking course saw her lose valuable fractions of a second as her legs flipped up momentarily.

With the result being decided on aggregate times, the second run began with the slowest in the field of 15 and ended with Switzerland's 33-year-old world champion, Maya Pedersen, who had finished more than half a second clear in the first run. This time round Rudman mastered the bend which she subsequently revealed had twice seen her flip off her sled while practicising here earlier in the year and caused her to cut her chin. With an aggregate time of 2min 1.06sec, she was in first place with the fastest three to come.

Next down was Melissa Hollingsworth-Richards, who stands top of the current World Cup rankings. But the 25-year-old Canadian finished 0.35sec slower than the Briton overall, and Rudman began bobbing up and down in glee as she watched the proceedings on television in the brightly lit finish zone.

Germany's Diana Sartor was slower still. Rudman and Hollingsworth-Rich-ards, confirmed medallists, embraced tearfully. Now the only thing between Rudman and gold was Pedersen, who had thought of giving the sport up last year after having a baby, but could not resist a last attempt to improve on her disappointing fifth place at the last Olympics. The Swiss made no mistakes, finishing 1.23sec ahead of the Briton to trigger extravagant flag-waving and cattle-bell activity from her supporters in the finishing stand.

But silver felt like a victory both for Rudman and Team Britain, whose chef de mission, Simon Clegg, had predicted before the Games got under way that a target of one medal was realistic. Clegg added, with one eye towards the great British press corps, that the second week was more likely to produce that piece of metal than the first. "Don't expect too much too soon," he counselled.

Rudman's unexpected flourish has now created some heady possibilities for Clegg & Co, given that her boyfriend, Kristan Bromley, has genuine medal possibilities in tonight's men's skeleton event, where there are also growing hopes for his team-mate Adam Pengilly, who was third in practice.

"I definitely hope this will put skeleton on the map in Britain," Rudman said. "I just hope this inspires others in the team to get where I am today. That's not me bigging myself up ­ now they've seen me here they will realise they can all get here as well." Clegg, predictably, was buoyant. "That's given a real boost to the rest of the team," he said. "Everyone will be fired up."

Rudman, who took up skeleton racing only towards the end of 2002, and who is in her first full World Cup season, explained her dramatic rise in the sport to her background in 400m hurdles, where she was seventh in the English Schools Championships and second in the South of England Championships.

But a back injury checked her progress on the track and after being invited to try out the push-start where the British bobsled and skeleton teams train at Bath University while she was on a course there she soon shifted the emphasis of her sporting ambitions.

"Being conditioned as an athlete meant I was able to make quick progress when I switched across to the skeleton," she said. "I can't believe how well things have gone. My coach, Micky Grunberger, and I had agreed beforehand that top 10 would be a good result, top eight would be a lot better and anything else would be extra special.

"But I went into the race being as competitive as possible ­ I was not entering for the fun of it. My start is probably my weakest technical element, but I have worked really hard on it over the last two years and it worked well for me today."

Her result provided a cue for celebrations at the Moonrakers Inn in her home village of Pewsey, where residents had helped to raise funds for her through a variety of activities, including a canoe race.

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