Winter Olympics 2014: Elise Christie sharpens her elbows for speeding on ice


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The Independent Online

There is not much to Elise Christie. Skates off, she stands 5ft 3in and weighs a little over 8st, a Scottish will o'the wisp with mischievous eyes, eyes that sparkle when she is asked how she looks after herself in a sport notorious for its rough and tumble, some above board, plenty below it.

She may be slight but, insists Christie, she can fight her own fights. In the last two years she has become a contender in the short-track speed-skating World Cup and a World Championship medallist, providing genuine Olympic ambitions of adding to Britain's solitary short-track medal, Nicky Gooch's bronze in 1994.

The sport balances on an edge as sharp as the skates in which athletes swoop around a tight oval at speeds of 30mph. No quarter is given in the pack and falls, some through foul play, are frequent. Christie is a front-runner, in part to stay out of trouble. As a contender, you become a target – the big nations, South Korea, China, the US and Canada, hunt in packs – but Christie has only one team-mate, Charlotte Gilmartin, which leaves her vulnerable to being picked off.

"There have been certain races aimed at me and they have ganged up on me a bit," says Christie, 23. "I was a bit offended at first. I was like 'Oh come on'. But it's good because it means they're threatened."

Then the track bullies get to work. "It can be quite physical. You will get a few elbows and hits, even people pulling you back. It's just the nature of the sport. I don't think watching it you can see how rough it really is. It's what makes it unpredictable and fun.

"If you are known to be flimsy, people will bully you more…" says Christie, tapering off into an elfin giggle. "I'm not known to be the most aggressive out there. I'm generally one that stays out of the mess. I'm not flimsy, though. If I'm involved I've got a big ego so I will fight back." The giggle turns into a laugh. No pushover then? A firm "no".

Christie spent last month's European Championships in Dresden – she won her third title in her signature event, the 1,000m – experimenting with tactics. In the 1500m and 500m, her other two races in Sochi, she tried coming from the back and tucking into – sharp elbows at the ready – the pack. Her fondness for front-running was verging on an overreliance.

"I worked on my weaknesses," she explains. "I started from the back of the pack, which I'm not known for and I don't enjoy because it stresses me out. I worked on that for the first day and then I went into the next day skating in the pack more. The reason I decided to try different tactics is that everyone knows what my tactic is now and try to stop me doing it. If I get to Sochi and I don't get to the front, I need to be able to race the other way – that's what I [have] spent the year doing."

It has been a tough campaign. After ending last season ranked No 1 in the world at 1,000m and becoming the first British woman to win a World Championship medal with bronze in that event, this season brought less reward, at least until the Europeans.

Christie and the rest of the team, including her boyfriend Jack Whelbourne – who also skates three events – had a first taste of Sochi's Iceberg Skating Palace on Friday.

Four years ago, she landed in Vancouver looking only for experience. In Russia there are expectations; her own, and the medal target set by UK Sport, none or one, which is aimed at her. This is why she left home in Livingston aged 15 to skate in Nottingham.

Her first race is in five days, her last and strongest event, the 1,000m, 11 days after that. "It's the anticipation of waiting," she says. "You wait for so long. It gets really close and you just want to get out there. It is probably the most nervous bit you get. I want to come back with no regrets."