Interview: Elise Christie, speed skater
Scottish short-track racer’s sport was transformed by Olympic money – now she’s targeting a medal
IF you are one of the many thousands who have been persuaded, against their better judgment, to pull on a pair of bladed boots, totter on to the ice rink in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens and cling pathetically to the perimeter fence, you might be interested in the progress lately of Elise Christie.
She was seven when she took her first steps on the ice at Murrayfield. Almost immediately, she was shooting off across the surface and setting in motion a journey that has perpetually gathered pace in the 14 years since. Now based in Nottingham, and ranked second in the world, the short-track speed skater from Livingston is closing fast on a medal at the Winter Olympics.
As her preparations continue for the 2014 Games in Russia, she and her Great Britain team-mates talk about “turning possibilities into probabilities”. Already this season, Christie has demonstrated the possibilities by winning two silver medals in World Cup events – one in Canada, the other in Japan just the other week. If a medal in the next Olympics is not yet a probability, she admits that she has a realistic chance, especially as time is on her side.
Christie, in fact, is four years younger than the Japanese world No.1 who is already in her sights. “I have another two years to polish my performances and get the consistency I need. I’m definitely capable. At the moment, everything is geared towards 2014, but I’ll only be 23 at that time. I’ve a lot longer to go. You’re not supposed to peak till your mid- to late-20s. I’m only 21. I’m really excited about the years ahead.”
Christie likes excitement, of which there is plenty in short-track speed skating, a more subtle discipline than its long-track equivalent. On a 110m oval layout, competitors race each other at speeds of up to 50km per hour, while also negotiating tight bends, second-guessing opponents and running the risk of serious injury. Christie’s worst accident was a crash into the barrier, where a nail gouged a chunk from her back.
“It’s a very hard sport to participate in because it’s not just down to who’s physically the best. You also have to be tactically very good, knowing when to attack and how tight to come out of corners. It challenges your body and your brain. And it can be dangerous. You’re on sharp blades. There are injuries. There is a danger of someone breaking something. But it’s a lot of fun. You get that adrenalin rush.”
Christie turned to the short track aged 12, which meant weekly trips from her home in West Lothian to practise, first in Prestwick, then Stirling. Before that, she had been a figure skater, but the artistic element did not appeal to her competitive instincts. “Unfortunately, I found figure skating a bit political. I prefer it when it’s basically down to you whether you win or lose. If there are judges, it’s all about opinion isn’t it?”
When Christie was 15, she was invited to join the GB team on a full-time basis at the National Performance Centre in Nottingham. While her mother had doubts about so early a flight from the family nest – and according to Christie, still “hates it” – the teenager sacrificed the last two years of her education in favour of something much more adventurous. “I was always good at school, but I guess I just prefer something a bit more exciting,” she says.
At first, it was hard going, with her mum sending down money to pay the rent and the programme itself financially challenged but, two years ago, the project was transformed by a funding breakthrough. After a meeting with Stuart Horsepool, speed skating’s performance director, UK Sport decided to do what it had previously done for cycling by making the sport one of only four winter pursuits to receive a seven-figure sum, with £2.8m to be invested over four years.
That faith in the skaters has been richly rewarded. In February, the GB men’s team broke the 5,000m relay world record. Jon Eley, whose best finish at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 was sixth, is now the world No.1. And with more than a little help from Christie, they have already reached their target of six medals from this season’s World Cup. With two events still to come, she is second overall in the women’s 1,000m.
They are using better equipment, travelling more professionally and enjoying access to the best in sports science, including the inevitable psychologist, whose wacky methods have raised an eyebrow or two. In an effort to push the skaters to their limits, both physically and mentally, he came up with the idea of a “boot camp” in the Peak District, which would be so traumatic that all other subsequent challenges, including the race for an Olympic medal, would be a breeze by comparison.
Among the ruses was a hike through the woods after dark. Christie and a team of four others were sent out at 11pm on a three-hour mission, but when they got lost, and thereby failed to meet the challenge, they were punished. “We had to sleep rough, outside, with no pillow, not even a proper sleeping bag. I remember waking up at about four or five in the morning with the rain coming down on me.”
Then there was the jump off a cliff – head first and hands-free until a zip wire came to the rescue. “It was terrifying. I’m the kind of person that likes to watch and then do, but I went first because I felt it was something I needed to do. Learning to deal with pressure is very important. They try to make training so stressful that competitions feel almost easy. I’m much more level headed than I used to be. I don’t really get nervous anymore.”
Since venturing on to the ice 14 years ago, Christie has come a long way, so long that her failure to make it past the last 16 at the Vancouver Games in 2010 came as quite a disappointment. In 2014, she will be aiming even higher, only this time she will be older, wiser and much better prepared.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east