Elise Christie puts Sochi behind her as she targets Korea

Elise Christie revealed it took her two years to recover from Russia. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Elise Christie revealed it took her two years to recover from Russia. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
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Three-and-a-half years ago, the nation lived through the agonies of Elise Christie’s Sochi nightmare as not once, not twice, but three times her gold medal hopes crumbled in a tempestuous swirl of disqualifications and crashes.

Short-track speed skating is a sport which stretches the sports lover’s thrill at watching raw drama unfold to almost unbearable limits.

At any moment, one false move can literally bring everything crashing down. Mistakes by rivals can lead to a domino effect that leaves you innocently robbed of your dream.

As with many Winter Olympics sports, the spotlight fades but for Christie, recently a triple world champion, the drama has continued. Initially, after Sochi, there was a social media firestorm which led to her having to close her Twitter account.

Korean fans took exception to one race when it was perceived Christie had caused one of their stars to crash out and there were even death threats. Thankfully, that fizzled out and the Scot is now treated as a celebrity in speed skating-mad South Korea, where next February’s Winter Olympics take place in Pyeongchang.

Christie exudes confidence and happiness now, in stark contrast to the teary shell of an athlete witnessed in Sochi, but in her chosen sport, drama comes with the territory and she fully appreciates that the pressures of competing pale in comparison to the stresses of watching, especially for those closest to her.

“My mum was at the Worlds and didn’t watch my races,” said the now 27-year-old. “Especially after what happened in Sochi and I always feel it when I watch [GB team-mate] Charlotte [Gilmartin]. I can understand why it’s more stressful to be watching it than doing it. Doing it you’re in control of it at least.

“When I’m watching and Charlotte is normally sitting at the back with four to go and I’m like ‘come on… move.’ So my mum can’t watch it and she’s obviously got the mum side of it, being scared of people getting injured too, but the family do struggle to watch it.”

Those world championships were held in Rotterdam earlier this year and Christie stormed to a magnificent triple gold, taking the 1000m, 1500m and overall titles. The only blip came in the 500m when she was edged out of the medals after setting a new world record of 42.335 seconds at a shorter distance on which she has been putting increased focus.

Those are the same three events she failed at in Sochi, including one heartbreaking disqualification when it was deemed she had finished wide of the official finish line by 1cm after cruising to a heat win.

Gilmartin, pictured right, is Christie’s friend, room and team-mate and she offers further insight into the torment her mother went through in Rotterdam. “I was sat in the crowd with her mum when she was skating at the Worlds and I was sat there excited and thinking she must be feeling it too,” said the 27-year-old from Redditch, who has European gold, silver and bronze to her name in the past couple of seasons.

“Then she just gets up and runs off as soon as Elise gets on the ice and I’m like, what, where’s she gone? She just runs away because she can’t physically watch it.”

The drama will recommence in South Korea in February and, as if there wasn’t enough pressure on her slender shoulders, the world-beating exploits of Christie has led to Team GB extending their maximum medal target out to eight.

Sochi was Britain’s best Winter Olympics for 90 years with four medals won and Christie knows that if the ambitious target for Pyeongchang is to met she will be expected to deliver a good chunk of it.

“I’d be disappointed if I didn’t have that responsibility,” she says without hesitation. “That’s what I’ve set out to do at the end of the day. The whole pinnacle of the career is to get Olympic gold medals. If I wasn’t in that position right now I would have done something wrong.

“That’s where I’ve always wanted to be. Yes, it is a lot of pressure and I wouldn’t want to let anyone down, no one does. But I can only do what I can do and I’m giving it my best shot now, training with those boys every day.”

Those boys are the men, including her Hungarian boyfriend Sándor Liu Shaolin, who she trains with, and often beats, as she strives to be in peak condition for the Olympics.

“I do like when that happens,” she says with a smile at winning those battle of the sexes on ice. “My boyfriend’s a previous world champion and I always want to beat him, so I get off sessions and my strength and conditioning coach will say that was great, you beat this person, that person, skated faster than the world record and I’m saying ‘I didn’t beat Shaolin.’ Until I beat him I will not be satisfied. A gold medal might make up for it.”

Christie, who grew up in Livingston and moved to Nottingham when she was 15, is open about the fact she sought professional help to exorcise the demons of Russia.

“It took two years,” she said. “People had advised it and I had just gone ‘Nah, I’m fine.’ But I really felt that without doing that there was no way I was going to unlock my full potential and I was sick of going to World Championships and not winning, because physically I felt I could win for a while. Not that I would have, but I felt physically capable and I hadn’t.

“It was a backlash of Sochi when I was in bronze medal position, tried to win and it didn’t work. So then the fear in the last few laps of losing a silver medal overcame the desire to win.

“When I went to this World Championships, basically I had no fear of losing medals, I just wanted to win and if that meant I lost medals I didn’t care. I was still disappointed because the 500 didn’t work out, though.”

It is a sport where things rarely go perfectly to plan but Christie is clearly in the perfect form and mindset to give her all in South Korea this winter and hopefully put that Sochi disappointment firmly behind her.

Her races are sure to be some of the must-watch events of the Winter Olympics. Through the fingers from behind the sofa if needs be.