Elise Christie: Scottish Winter Olympics medal hope

Christie will go into the Winter Olympics next year with European and World Championship success. Picture: Contributed
Christie will go into the Winter Olympics next year with European and World Championship success. Picture: Contributed
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THE sun is out in Nottingham, and it’s a day for skipping work, staying outside and basking in this teasing suggestion of summer.

Unfortunately for Great Britain’s short-track speed-skating team, their summer has already come and gone.

Instead of lapping up the rays, Elise Christie and her colleagues are racking up the laps inside the chill cavern that is the National Ice Centre. This morning, and just about every morning between now and next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, they are training indoors.

While the football and rugby seasons are coming to a close, speed-skating’s is just beginning. Their annual break was from mid-March to the end of April; now they’re back to work. There will be a brief break at Christmas to go home, which in Christie’s case is Livingston, but otherwise that’s it until the opening ceremony in the Russian city on the Black Sea coast.

“We had a break and the Arctic winds came,” Christie says after the morning training session is over. “The most time we’ll probably have off is at Christmas, when we’ll get two-and-a-half or three days.

“This month we’ll generally have the weekend off. But from June onwards we’ll get half a day off maximum each week. It’s only a small, short-term part of your life, so you need to give it everything just now and deal with the fact that you’ll have the sun another day.”

She may have to forgo what passes for good weather in this country, but Christie has a sunny disposition nonetheless. Cheery and chatty and relaxed, she is the undisputed star of the squad, the only British woman ever to win a World Championship medal.

Even so, she gives no hint of feeling in any way superior to her dozen team-mates. They are a close-knit, unassuming bunch: very self-reliant – Christie and several others left home in their mid-teens to join the squad – and accustomed to working away without much public recognition.

That is changing somewhat now, as the countdown to Sochi continues. This season the team has a new sponsor in accountancy firm Reeves, and a new charity partner in Right To Play, who also work with Chelsea. But by and large the squad survive on National Lottery funding: enough to get by on, but a pittance compared to some, far less successful, summer Olympic sports.

They are making pretty good use of what money they get, especially bearing in mind the lack of a real tradition of the sport in Britain. Short track, where competitors race on an ice-hockey rink – in long-track speedskating the circuit is usually 400 metres – has only been in the Olympics since 1992, but in countries such as South Korea it has long had millions of adherents.

In Britain short track has been nurtured by a small, highly professional group of enthusiasts, chief among them at present being the team’s performance director Stuart Horsepool. One of the designers of the NIC back in 2000, Horsepool competed in the relay at those 1992 Games along with current head coach Nicky Gooch. Two years later in Lillehammer, Gooch became the first and so far only British short-track competitor to win an Olympic medal, when he took bronze in the 500m.

Christie is the best British medal prospect since Gooch, although she got into short-track almost by accident. Her involvement began as no more than a bit of light relief from figure-skating, and even when she first left Scotland to join the GB squad as a 15-year-old, she had no real concept of it becoming her full-time occupation.

Seven years on, she is completely dedicated to her sport, in which she is enjoying increasing success on the world stage. At the last Olympics, when she was still a teenager, her best-place finish from her three events was tenth. This time, she will go into Sochi with European and World Cup medals as well as her World Championship 1,000-metre bronze from last season.

“I started figure-skating when I was about eight, just for a bit of a fun,” she explains. “Then I started doing it more often, and joined an elite training programme at Centrum in Prestwick, so I had to travel quite far from my home in Livingston.

“That was where I started speedskating. I had a go because it was a bit different and looked fun. Then I kind of got to a point where I didn’t want to do figureskating any more, but speedskating had been fun, so I thought ‘I’ll do the British championships’, and that was when I got invited on to the team. And that’s when I changed and thought I’m going to start doing speedskating more seriously now.

“I always liked it more, but I didn’t know if that was because I wasn’t doing it seriously at the time. But when I started doing it properly I realised that I really liked it. It was more me, I guess.

“I was kind of told I was pretty good at it. I was 12 or 13, and at that age you don’t really know, I guess. I didn’t really expect to get on the team.

“The first year I was on the team I was at the world championships: I was 15, 16 at the time, and I didn’t quite realise how serious that was. They were sending me off and I was just doing as I was told.

“It was the year after that when I realised everyone else my age was still at junior events and I was on the World Cup circuit. Then it was time to try and make the Olympics – before then I hadn’t thought about it. I never went into Vancouver thinking I was going to medal. People in other countries get brought up speedskating, so I knew I had a lot to learn. But I knew I wanted to get there.

“I was chuffed with getting to the Olympics, and just went out to see what I could do. Then I decided that after that it was either time to stop, or time to make a change and aim for a medal. And I thought ‘Well, you know, why not?’

“That’s when I sat down and thought ‘Right, what do I need to do to get a medal?’, rather than ‘What do I need to do to get to the Olympics?’

“In the three years since I’ve gradually won more medals. It’s been a gradual progression, but it’s gone the way I wanted it to, thankfully.”

When she first moved down to Nottingham, Christie did not really know how she wanted things to go. Indeed, she was not even sure if making the move was a good decision, and was swayed by her mother, Angela Wright.

“When I think back, at 15 I couldn’t really make the decision to move down or not. A lot of it was down to my mum. She did athletics when she was younger, and she injured her knee quite badly at a young age and had to stop. I think that’s why she encouraged me, because she didn’t get a chance to do that. So I was just like, ‘OK, if you think its’a good idea, I’ll do it’, and moved down.

“I wasn’t very grown up for my age. I was quite a small, young-looking 15-year-old. Didn’t know how to cook or anything like that.

“So I was put straight in at the deep end. Within a year I was a completely changed person. I was a grown-up. I think it’s good, because it does teach you how to do all the stuff. Instead of what’s important being hanging out with your friends from school, it is also becomes important to learn to cook for yourself and clean for yourself and wash for yourself. I stayed with a host family, but they left me to do my own thing. I went in there thinking they’d cook for me and that. They did the food shopping but other than that I had to do everything for myself.

“Within another year I was living with the secretary at the time from here, and she just left me to it. Within another year I moved into my own place, so in two years I had grown up.

“I think that was quite good, because if you get overmothered you’re never going to grow up. It definitely changed me as a person, and helped me make the bigger decisions in the long run. Had I stayed at home with my mum I don’t think I’d have been able to make those decisions. I was one of those people who needed to be on my own and learn to do it all.”

As those who saw her on A Question of Sport this week will have noted, her accent is far more East Midlands than West Lothian – another aspect of the way in which she adapted to her new life. “No-one understood a word I said when I moved here, and I blame them. I spoke in Scottish slang and all that.

“Gradually, with people looking at me like they didn’t have a clue what I was saying, I had to adapt. When I joined the team there was no-one Scottish on it. I’m devastated about it. I’ll definitely move back to Scotland when I finish skating and get my accent back, hopefully.”

Christie’s older brother Jamie should help her with that, having stayed in Scotland. More academically gifted than his sister, he has already helped her, albeit indirectly, by showing that hard work can compensate for a lack of innate talent.

“He’s the brains of the family. He started doing astrophysics and is now doing computing at university in Edinburgh.

“It all comes naturally to him. I’d always been focused on school – I wasn’t naturally that clever, but I worked hard and didn’t fail any exams.

“I’m not saying I’m stupid, but it was always harder for me. He didn’t study, anything like that. All he did was play on his computer, go out and play football or watch Hearts. And he still got As or 1s for everything. I might not have been as clever as him, but I still came out with the same results.”

That return home, incidentally, is unlikely to be for some time yet. There are always retirements in the wake of every Olympic Games, but Christie appears set to continue competing for another four years after Sochi.

“I don’t like to admit it, but I probably will carry on. Technically, speak to all the physiologists, I don’t reach my peak till the next Games – physically you don’t reach your peak until after you’ve been doing it for ten years full-time in speedskating.

“At the moment I’m midway coming to my peak – last year would have been my halfway mark, so the next Games is the perfect time for me to peak.

“The two chances are going to be better anyway, because in speedskating anything can go wrong. I don’t want to get through to the Olympics and say it does go disastrously wrong – we get to the first corner and someone knocks me over and that’s it.

“At the same time, if it goes well you want to try and do it again, because you don’t want to be someone who just fizzles out after one race. If everything goes well I’ll keep going.

“I might have to have time off after the Games for surgery on my leg – I’d need to take two months off to deal with that. It’s a problem with an artery, and I get it checked every year. We might check it and find I don’t need anything done.”

Her reluctance to admit that she will go on after Sochi stems from a determination to focus wholly on those Games, and get the maximum out of them. And she is sure that, unlike in some previous Winter Olympics, she will have quite a few Great Britain team-mates who will also be medal contenders.

“Compared to Vancouver, when our goal was to win one medal and we got one medal, I think we could get a few this time. There’s always someone it’s going to go wrong for; that’s guaranteed. But you’ve got back-up now. That spreads the pressure.

“Going into the World Championships I’d never felt so much pressure. That was another step up and something I hadn’t quite achieved yet. It was really good to go through that last year instead of this year. I understand it now and can deal with it a lot better. I learned a lot from the worlds because I didn’t come out of it with the medal I felt I should have. But it’s positive saying I’ve still got a lot to learn, yet coming away with that one medal from that world championships.

“I do see it as a positive rather than a negative, and in training this year I know what I have to work on.”

She will not be working alone. When she won the European 1,500m title in January, team-mate Charlotte Gilmartin took bronze: together, the two do some of their training along with the men’s squad.

And, should Christie ever decide to revert to her old accent, Scottish slang and all, she now has two compatriots in Nottingham who will understand her: 19-year-old Dundonian Murray Cochrane, and 17-year-old Kathryn Thompson from Kilmarnock, a European Youth Championships silver medallist. Christie may be the one with the standout results so far, but she welcomes – and expects – increasing internal competition.

“The year before, everyone was getting the same kind of results and we were all so happy. This year at World Cups things weren’t going so well for the team as a whole, but I felt really happy because they were going all right for me. Obviously I’d be even happier if the whole team were doing really well, but the problem was I had to hold it in a bit. As the year went on everyone started skating really good again.

“They’ve always been really happy for me and shown a lot of support, which is really nice. I’ve never felt different to the team.”