Ticket to slide: How Team GB's skeleton women conquered the slopes at the Winter Olympics

 

Cut into a steep slope of pine trees, beneath the spiky summits of the Caucasus Mountains, what looks like a frozen water slide bends and winds round little spectator concourses and hot-dog stands, where terrible Russian accordion bands belt out terrible, pop-infused folk songs.

If there is to be a corner of this troubled Russian region that will remain forever Team GB, the history books dictate that this should be it. More promisingly, so do the bookies.

Volunteers dressed in unimaginably garish rainbow tracksuits are perched on high chairs belting good cheer out of megaphones, doing their very best impressions of London 2012. Half a yard behind them, the track banks up and bends to vertical. A wall of ice you can reach out and almost touch. It is along here that the sliders are about to come charging at 80 miles an hour, or more.

It's mid-February, 11.15 am, a few minutes before the start of the first of two sessions of the Women's Skeleton, and it's hot. Very hot. In the exposed sun, it's 18 degrees or more . The icy track of the Sanki Sliding Centre is mostly covered over with white, bathroom-style blinds, and there is considerable uncertainty over whether they will even be raised for the racing, which will go on for two hours, certainly long enough to start melting the ice.

For the assembled British faithful – and quite a few have made the 2,000-mile trip to the little Black Sea resort town of Sochi – this is not an immediate concern. The competitors, or sliders as they are known, will go down in order of current world ranking, and two of the first three are Brits.

Rewind three months. It's October, the first snows are falling on the mountains of the 2014 Winter Games. President Putin is secretly panicking at how little is ready and Shelley Rudman is stepping across the icy car park of Sky News headquarters near Heathrow, her high heels clacking against the Tarmac, with a five-strong entourage – hair, make-up, press, sponsors all trail her. Her first appointment of the day is done, on the Sunrise sofa with Eamonn Holmes. The crescendo to Sochi is beginning, and with the joys of 2012 still reverberating – a little bit – around the nation, there is more interest than ever.

Now, with her sled, her helmet and skintight racing suit in the boot, she will drive to the Ice Bar in Soho for a photoshoot.

Her sponsors, P&G, only began their association with the Olympics two years ago. Now they support hundreds of athletes from all over the world. For the Winter Games – understandably – their budget extended only to one Brit. Rudman, the 2013 World Champion, was the obvious choice. Great Britain has won a medal in the skeleton every time it has been contested. In 1928 and 1948 at St Moritz, and since its return in 2002. One of those was won by Rudman herself, a silver at Turin in 2006. She has improved since then, to the extent that many are already hanging a medal around her neck – a reality she is quick to dispel.

"Within the sport, the overall World Cup title, based on the results over the entire season, is the pinnacle. The Olympics is about who can connect with that brand new track at that time, and get it right. The media don't grasp that it is a new track for all the athletes. Not everyone has necessarily had the time to grasp its technical aspects, the steering, the combinations."

Lizzy Yarnold in action during a training session in Sochi last month (Getty Images) Lizzy Yarnold in action during a training session in Sochi last month (Getty Images)
Each track is unique, and some suit some sliders better than others. Rudman has been down the Sochi run several times. "It has three uphill sections. That's unique. If you make a mistake before you go uphill, you will bleed a lot of time."

She knows who she thinks the track will suit best, but she won't say who.

As we speak, the current World Cup season is nearing its conclusion, and it has become a two-horse race. Noelle Pikus-Pace, a 31-year-old American, is nearing the end of a superb if unlucky career. She is the only one mounting a serious challenge to the new kid on the block – Lizzy Yarnold, the 25-year-old farmer's daughter from Kent. An aspiring heptathlete as a teenager, she was pointed in the direction of the skeleton at a National Lottery talent identification day, called Girls4Gold, in 2008 – Shelley Rudman's face was on the posters. Yarnold's lead is already huge, and it's growing.

If you missed Brit Amy Williams sliding to gold in Vancouver, many people's first exposure to skeleton might well have been when it featured in an episode of Channel 4's winter sports celebrity reality show, The Jump, in which Britain's greatest-ever Olympian, Sir Steve Redgrave, was roundly beaten by fading boyband star Ritchie Neville from 5ive, and the comedian Marcus Brigstocke. It should be observed that the singer and the stand-up are both considerably lighter and younger than Sir Steve, but it does cause one to wonder quite what attributes the talent-spotters look for.

"Power, explosiveness, quick thinking and adaptability," says Rudman. A certain degree of fearlessness helps, too.

"The first time you see a full-length ice track, oh my God, they're huge. They have this aura about them. You can't quite believe you're going to go down it. That's the first thing you've got to overcome.

"A lot of people joke about the sport. You know, you just get on a tea tray and go from A to B. I did as well, to begin with. Then I went down my first > run and it opened up a whole new world to me. I was a really fit 300 and 400 metre hurdler. I can cope with heavy training sessions. But then one run down the track, and I was like, 'Wow, that was really, really tough'. I was shaking. Trying to remember everything you need to remember when there's that much adrenalin? Wow."

Shelley Rudman receives an award from P&G communications (Getty Images) Shelley Rudman receives an award from P&G communications (Getty Images)
This fearlessness is a character trait Yarnold has often claimed not to have. She is, she says, to a certain extent terrified before every single run. At the top of the Sanki Sliding Centre in Sochi, however, such terror could not be less apparent.

It's 11.30am, and it's getting ever hotter. Where the track is exposed to sun, the blinds are kept in place, which means there's not a lot for the spectators to see. Noelle Pikus-Pace is the first slider down: 58.68 seconds, it's a course record. Yarnold is next. As the clock ticks down, she inches her sled back and forth on its runners and then explodes forward, sprinting. Bent half over, one hand grips one of the sled's handles, until after five seconds or so, that hand moves across to the far handle, the other hand comes down to take the near side and in one movement she is flat on to the sled. There is much still to do, but to the watching eye, from this point on, she must be an inanimate object. The angling of the head and neck, little flexes of the shoulder blades and the calves, will steer the sled, and if needs be a toe on the ice to correct the line, but that will cost her time.

For 58.43 seconds, she appears motionless, and she is in the lead. A little section of the crowd goes wild – the Yarny Army. They are mum, dad, sisters, her boyfriend James Roche, a Team GB sled designer, and the Foxwell-Dowsetts; two women recently married, one of whom pole vaulted with Yarnold when they were younger, and for whom no amount of anti-gay sentiment in the build-up was going to keep them away. All have Lizzy face's beaming from their midriffs on custom-made T-shirts.

Rudman is down third, but she strikes the sliders of her sled against the ice as it banks up into an uphill – the mistake she had feared the most. She is a second down after one run. There are three more to come, but her times are added together, so every mistake is also added up. It may already be over for her.

None of the next 17 sliders comes close to Yarnold. It is all a bit Ennis-like. She has dominated.

"On the second run, she'll relax more," explains her boyfriend, James. "Her driving will be more consistent, but her push won't be as strong."

On the second run, the sliders go off in ascending order, last placed to first. Rudman is 12th, and briefly takes the lead, but as she finishes, her eyes behind her helmet visor don't look happy. She's down to second by the very next run, and the big guns are yet to fire.

Shelley Rudman waves to the fans after competing a run during the women's skeleton (Getty Images) Shelley Rudman waves to the fans after competing a run during the women's skeleton (Getty Images)
Yarnold had a long wait on her hands, but it evidently hasn't bothered her. She smiles at the cameras, pushes off, whizzes round like a stone and by the finish she's half a second in front. It's a huge margin, and only miracle or disaster can keep her from gold. But that will have to wait until tomorrow.

Britain's burgeoning relationship with the skeleton can be divided into two distinct parts. Our current success is not really related to the curious fact that we invented the sport. Unhinged 19th-century British winter holidaymakers at St Moritz in Switzerland had taken to racing each other head-first on toboggans down the town's downhill streets, causing no small amount of nuisance. The local hoteliers didn't wish to lose this crucial part of their custom, but nor did they wish to have them wipe out the rest.

So in 1884, the Kulm hotel constructed the now famous Cresta Run, a winding track of 10 turns, packed together from snow and ice, to be sledded down head-first. That skeleton was a feature of the 1928 and 1948 games is purely because both competitions were held at St Moritz, home of the Cresta.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the skeleton was readmitted to the Olympics, to run on the same tracks as the luge and the bobsleigh. At that point, if a Brit wanted to do it, they had to be in the Army. BAE Systems was tasked with designing a sled, and they gave the job to a PhD student called Kristan Bromley. But none of the soldiers was prepared to test-drive his sled, so he did it himself. His sled was a bullet. Britain's Alex Coomber won three consecutive World Cups – still a record – and a bronze medal in Salt Lake City in 2002. In 2008, Bromley himself was the Men's World Champion. He also has a six-year-old daughter, Ella. Ella's mother, and the third part of their happy skeleton family, is Shelley Rudman.

Yarnold takes part training session - the 25-year-old farmer's daughter from Kent was pointed in the direction of the skeleton at a National Lottery talent identification day (AFP/Getty Images) Yarnold takes part training session - the 25-year-old farmer's daughter from Kent was pointed in the direction of the skeleton at a National Lottery talent identification day (AFP/Getty Images)
Rudman still races on a Bromley sled. Yarnold's, however, has been designed by an altogether different British institution – McLaren F1. But that doesn't completely explain the factors behind British skeleton glory.

"We have to adapt very fast because we don't have our own track," says Rudman. "And we're not complacent. When you have your own track you expect to do well. Sometimes that expectation can lead to a lot more pressure. We have to do a lot of quick thinking to learn new tracks. And we've got a lot of belief."

The British talent identification programme reckons it can take athletes from their first-ever run to Olympic contention within six years. That's a fast return. In the event most closely related to skeleton, the luge, German kids in Bavaria have taken up the sport by the age of six. We can never compete. But skeleton sliders and bobsledders don't get started until 16. That's time the Brits can make up. All the world's tracks are closed from April to October in any case, during which time Britain's athletes train at home. And once they're up and running again, they're off round the world competing. There's also a 140 metre push track in Bath, and it should come as no surprise that Rudman, and also Amy Williams, who won gold in Vancouver in 2010, were students there.

The next night, Williams is in the commentary box as the sun drops and the light fades, turning the mountains pink, while the sloping track gleams bright white under the floodlights – no blinds tonight. There are British flags everywhere, and BBC cameras, too. For the third run, Yarnold comes down first. She is utterly still on the sled and smashes her own course record by half a second. Pikus-Pace comes down next, and she is slower than the day before. The lead is all but unassailable, but the wait for the final run is long.

Rudman is smoother and faster than yesterday, no collisions, but her lines are too high and she crosses the line in 11th.

Shelley Rudman prepares for a PR event (Getty Images) Shelley Rudman prepares for a PR event (Getty Images)
One by one, the sliders come down, carrying their advantages from the previous day and each smashing further and further into the lead. Each time the lead changes, the big screens cut to a hidden ante-room where a figure with GREAT BRITAIN written up her back is bouncing over a skipping rope. Though the spectators cannot see her face, Yarnold appears an apparition of calm. When it gets to her turn, she is embarrassingly far ahead at every time checkpoint. She whooshes past the Union Jacks set up all around the horseshoe of the final bend – and it's gold by miles. Rudman, her face split into a beaming smile, is the first to embrace her. The Yarny Army go predictably bonkers, and their little hero jumps off her sled to embrace them.

At a pub in Pewsey, Wiltshire, Rudman's parents and her little daughter are watching on television, a press photographer lurking, hoping to capture a moment of great joy. Instead, they are crying. Her mother Josie is too tearful to talk over the telephone.

"I did everything I possibly could to connect with that track, but it just didn't happen," Rudman admits the next day. She is 33 next month. The next games, in Pyeongchang, South Korea in four years' time, might be a bridge too far, but she hasn't made a decision yet.

Quite what that track will look like, and who will connect with it, it is too early to tell. But despite protestations, in the British public consciousness, the medal is already hanging around Yarnold's neck. In a sport where you can go from never having heard of it, to Olympic Champion in six years, new talents may yet emerge, but it will take a very special talent to unseat the sport's new superstar.

Shelley Rudman is an ambassador for P&G's Thank You Mum campaign, which is celebrating the journey of mums of Olympic athletes. Visit supersavvyme.co.uk/tag/thank-you-mum

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
filmDirector said film would 'never have been financed' with ethnic minority actors in key roles
News
people
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
film
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
Caption competition
Caption competition
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

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?