How winning a selection box sparked Elise Christie’s Olympic dream

Scottish speed-skater Elise Christie will be chasing gold medals in three disciplines at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Picture: Patrick Elmont/Getty Images
Scottish speed-skater Elise Christie will be chasing gold medals in three disciplines at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Picture: Patrick Elmont/Getty Images
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The skates speak volumes by themselves, not merely devices of propulsion but also supreme statements of intent. The blades are sheathed in purple, the leather black but the straps, the trimmings, are dyed pure gold. Elise Christie’s name is embossed across them, lest anyone mistake the owner and what colour she values most.

As ornate as they look, all the 27-year-old will hope for is that they allow her to be the fleetest of foot when she steps on to the ice this week in Pyeongchang with a goal to become an Olympic champion thrice over. The presumed favourite in the three short-track speed skating disciplines of 500, 1,000 and 1,500 metres, the Scot has travelled far and wide since first hiring boots at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Rink in her early teens, a journey that has brought her three world titles – all last year in Rotterdam – and numerous medals to adorn her Nottingham home.

It felt her natural domain from the off. “When I first got on the ice, the first day I could skate right away,” she brags. “You know how some people go on and, like, soldier walk. I was just skating. I did take quite naturally to it.”

However, it was figure skating where her initial foray lay, spins not sprints the mission in every practice. “I’d never even heard of fast track to be honest,” she reveals. Stages like a Winter Olympiad were not remotely an ambition. Just a pleasure, occasionally even a chore.

But for small twists of fate, she might be back in Livingston rather than putting in her final preparations in South Korea. The tale of ifs and buts she recounts is pockmarked with diversions in the road that might have taken her on very different paths. Foremost at the age of 15, an away day to the now-demolished Centrum Arena in Prestwick when her enthusiasm was already on the wane. A speed skating circuit had been laid out. The skates caught her eye. More comfortable, she thought. Worth giving them a whirl.

“I did a race within the first two weeks,” she recounts. “I won so I got a Selection Box. The only reason I kept doing figure skating after that was because my Mum told me to, to get ice time.” Neither felt truly compelling. Christie vowed to give up and concentrate on her schooling. At what was intended as her final British Championships in figure skating, she confirms: “I completely bombed out.”

No biggie. At her farewell short track nationals, she came second after a penalty but saying goodbye was not hard to do. A call came from the sport’s performance chief a few weeks later. “Do you want to come down and make this your life?” he asked. The phone was put down. The answer to a life-altering move to Nottingham was no. Teenage obstinacy trumps apparent good sense.

Well, almost. Mum’s word rules all, surmounting even the whims of adolescent tantrums. “You’re going,” she decreed. “I was 15 – I’d no choice, I got sent down,” Christie confirms. “I’m very thankful for that.” But it was a leap of faith into the complete unknown. Pyeongchang may be her third Winter Olympics but, then, it was an alien concept.

“I didn’t know any short trackers who had been to an Olympics. So when people ask ‘who was your hero growing up?’, I didn’t have one…I didn’t know it would be my destiny to do sport at a high level until I started doing it. Once I started getting on the ice every day of the week, I thought there’s no point doing this unless I properly go for it.” And that she has. 11th in Vancouver in 2010, she was expected to gain one medal at the very least four years ago at the subsequent Games in Sochi but three calamitous outings left her empty-handed and distraught. It needed a psychologist to piece her shattered self-belief back together. Painful then, prescient now.

Christie, who will be joined on the short-track starting line by rising Ayrshire prospect Kathryn Thomson, is being counted upon to deliver a hefty chunk of the British team’s minimum goal of five medals in Korea. The skates, she trusts, will hold up to the test. But despite the fortuitous forks that have led her to this shot at Olympic immortality, the unpredictable nature of the event has left her taking nothing for certain.

“That would be nice,” she grins. “But in all honesty, I haven’t looked at the medal target. I know there’s a lot of expectations on winter sport. And that’s a good thing because there’s a lot of us doing well. I hope it’s a breakthrough Winter Olympics. That’s one of the dreams.”