Olympics: Coomber focuses on vibrant future

British bronze medallist wants to help youngsters take up skeleton as Ice Centre reverberates to sound of booing

By Mike Rowbottom
Friday 22 February 2002 01:00

Alex Coomber yawned again, for the fourth time in the space of a minute. It had been a long day, beginning when she had woken up with a start at 2.30 in the morning thinking "Oh my God, it's the day of the race" and then opened the curtains to see snow falling – the conditions she would least have wanted for her long awaited bob skeleton final.

Having come through the snow, and the doubts, with a bronze, and with a Games official hovering in preparation for escorting her to the medal ceremony at the Olympic Plaza, the 28-year-old RAF Intelligence Officer was feeling temporarily fatigued.

But even as she analysed her own performance in finishing behind the two Americans, the local girl Tristan Gale and the Ohio firefighter Lea Ann Parsley, she was looking ahead to the future of a fledgling sport which her efforts over the last three years – when she has won three World Cup titles – have done so much to promote.

"Five years ago, skeleton was extreme, off the wall," she said. "It was a sport equated with bungee jumping. It was a mad, nutter's thing. I think we've established ourselves very well and shown we can act very professionally. "

Coomber's big concern now is that she helps the sport to consolidate on the high profile it has achieved in the run-up to these Games. "I know that the interest is only temporary, and that in four months' time no one is going to remember the Winter Olympics. That's why it's important to try and put plans in place now so that new people can come into the sport."

While Coomber will be seeking to ride the current wave of publicity as far as it will take her, including soon making an appearance on the television programme They Think It's All Over, her long-term goals are twofold. She plans to compete again at the next Olympics in Turin, and will ask her employers whether they will extend the leave she had of 18 months to concentrate on Olympic preparation. She also wants to return to running novice programmes on the push-start run which has been built at Bath University, where potential young talent can be introduced to the sport.

"Running those courses is one of the things I enjoy doing most," she said. "At the beginning of the week you take someone down to a bend and say that they will be sliding through it with their face two inches away from the ice, and they look at you as if you have shot them. But by the end of the week they are doing it. I don' t want to lose this opportunity for the sport."

The snow which began to fall densely on the course on the morning of the event might previously have been enough to unnerve the Briton, who has had less chance to train in such conditions than her rivals for the good reason that there is no track in her home country. Her lighter frame, too, is a disadvantage in conditions where heavier competitors are more able to maintain impetus.

However, Coomber was heartened by the memory of her last World Cup win at Lake Placid in conditions which were similar to those that prevailed at Utah Olympic Park.

"I think I did really well today," she said. "Primarily because of the snow. In the past I would have thought 'Oh my God it's snowing, I'm going to do really badly'. But I really tried to not let that happen.

"Also the position I was in after the first run was almost the worst position to be in, because you are in a medal position, but if you drop one place you're not. Trying to keep the focus then, with the weather and knowing I had absolutely everything to lose – there's no worse place to finish at an Olympics than fourth – I was really pleased with myself."

Asked if she was glad to have got the day over, she smiled. "Yes," she said. "I am. Simply because the not knowing is the worst thing.

"So there is a sense of relief, definitely, that I have proved myself, even though it's not a gold. Not many people can say they've got an Olympic medal, and not many Britons can say they've got an Olympic Winter medal."

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