Elise Christie opens up on rape ordeal, mental health, her Olympic quest ... and serving pizza
The memory is imprinted on her mind. Amid Elise Christie’s troubles at Sochi, the Winter Olympics where she first tried, tried and then tried again, she recalls seeing female ice hockey players, upset at failing to land gold, dejectedly toss their medals away.
“They wanted to win it but didn’t,” she recalled. “I think they came second or third. I walked past them and they were all just throwing their medals on the floor. I was like: ‘I wouldn’t mind one of them!’”
The pursuit of this dream has proved costly, in all senses.
Currently sponsorless, the speed skater, arguably Britain’s most recognisable active Winter Olympian, is reliant on sports body funding and is supplementing her income by working at a Pizza Hut in Nottingham.
It’s a proactive way to relieve herself of the burden of debt, a consequence – there are others, more life-threatening ones – of years spent struggling with her self-worth amid levels of social media abuse that would seem completely excessive now, never mind several years ago.
Delivering pizzas is far easier than delivering Olympic medals though don’t disrespect fast food.
“The people who manage at Pizza Hut are very different to people who are managers in sport,” says Christie. “They take it just as seriously, though, I tell you – blooming heck! Sometimes I am in there and I am like: it is only pizza! But it is nice to see they are serious about what they do.
“There are some people who recognise you. They get really excited. It is quite funny. There was a little Korean girl who was over at uni and in Korea speed skating is massive. She was like: ‘I cannot believe I have met you!’
“When I am doing the pizza all I am thinking about is the pizza and that’s the whole point for me. I struggle to do something unless it is useful.”
She has begun the countdown to the Winter Olympics and typically, the process has not been as smooth as the ice she hopes to race on in February in Beijing. Long Covid combined with mental health issues, stabilised now because she accepts she must take medication on a long-term basis, were challenging enough, as were two lockdowns when opening ice rinks was low on the list of priorities.
She also had her appendix removed just over two years ago and underestimated the effects on someone so reliant on core muscles.
Christie has already undergone an assessment to ensure she is in sufficiently sound mental health to make the trip to China. Although she says she feels “a bit victimised”, she accepts this is for her own good.
It is certainly a step forward compared to what used to happen, which is basically this: she would be pushed out onto the ice and told to skate not just for her future, but also the future of her teammates, and those who might choose to try and follow her. In short, the fate of Britain’s entire short track speed skating programme depended on her securing medals.
No wonder she is bent almost double in that familiar pose as she glides around the track: what a burden. The grace with which she moves contrasted with the turmoil in her head. There was even a spell when she ended up being traumatised by ice itself. In much the same way as an allergy to grass cannot enhance a footballer’s career prospects, this presented a problem.
The mere sight of ice would prompt panic attacks. “It was mixed up with the noise and all the people,” she says.
Again, all this is little surprise given the pressure she was put under, in both Sochi in 2014, where she was disqualified in all three attempts to win gold, and then at Pyeongchang four years later, when a fall, a crash and a contested disqualification scuppered her ambitions and, perhaps more significantly, the desperate hopes of those relying on her.
“I felt like I was being sent out to be the medal machine and I had to do it for the whole programme,” she says.
“I remember loads of people coming up to me before we left for the Games (in South Korea) saying ‘you know we have to do to this’….I didn’t feel good, I had an injury.
“But I thought: ‘Ok I have to do it, it is all up to me’. And then when it didn’t happen having to come home and obviously, as a programme, we got our funding pulled….At no point was this Elise’s fault but I felt like it was. Anyone would have thought that in that situation.”
The landscape has changed since she was last placed in the metaphorical stocks for those tumbles and misfortunes.
Tennis player Naomi Osaka has started a debate about press briefings, arguing that they can increase the anxiety levels of athletes. American artistic gymnast Simone Biles, meanwhile, dropped out of five of six of her events at the Tokyo Olympics this summer to protect her mental health.
Christie herself struggled at the start of this season. She is unwilling to explain the details, but another trauma set her back. But it is not for nothing that her autobiography, published two days ago complete with some alarming revelations, is called Resilience.
She is putting herself out there. From its pages spill ample reasons for her breakdowns and mental struggles, vividly portrayed by the scars on her wrists.
At one point during an hour-long conversation on Zoom earlier this week, she lifts her right arm towards the camera and displays a new tattoo. It comprises a tears symbol, a squiggly line and the outline of a heart.
“That’s a suicide prevention charity, that is their logo,” Christie explains. “And this is a lifeline, as in life carries on. And then a heart. Firstly, it distracts a bit from the scars on the arms. And, secondly, it is a constant reminder that you do not want to go there again.”
She had it inked two months ago. "I got to a point where I had gone about three or four months without self-harming. I thought: I have actually turned a corner, I am consistently on my medication, I am dealing with everything and in the right way. It was time to get the tattoo!"
Telling her story
Witten in conjunction with fellow Scot Mark Eglinton, who most recently penned Michael Owen’s memoirs, her new book is not always an easy read. How could it be?
“There are a lot of people, male and female, who go through similar things and they think they will never be able to make anything of themselves," she explains. "It haunts them for years to come and changes them. Hopefully I can help show that you can still be whatever you want to be.
“A lot of people don’t speak up. I mean, it is getting better, but by doing things like this book I want to help people speak out. I always remembered Kelly Holmes when she spoke out about her self-harm. I was like: ‘wow, I thought I was the only one’. Each person that speaks more and more about these things helps. What’s that saying….? Strength in numbers?”
She still longs to stand on a podium, preferably on the top step. But it’s not the be all and end all. A heroine whatever else happens, there is a metaphorical medal pinned to her chest inscribed with one word: survivor. She intends to help others conquer their fears and overcome hardship and that, surely, is one of the key messages of the interlocking rings in the Olympics logo.
“It’s twice now that I could have done something that I really regretted,” she says.
“I have never been what you would class as suicidal. I am not someone who wants to die. I just get to the point – and I think a lot of people get to this – where I cannot cope with how I am feeling anymore. Enough is enough. I don’t want to feel like it and at that moment I make a mistake…”
She recounts a mad dash to a hospital in Nottingham in December 2018 after one near-fatal mistake with a razor blade. Brett, a friend, was beside her shrieking that he could see the inside of her arm.
“He was so panicked which actually made the whole thing quite funny in the end,” she says, with the nonchalance of someone used to reaching the edge.
The self-harm passages were difficult for her to relay to Eglinton. They were certainly difficult for her mother, Angela, to read.
“She does not cope with self-harm well at all,” says Christie. “She is one of the people where she thinks it is a suicide attempt every time you cut yourself. She really struggles with that concept. If I don’t answer the phone for a day she’s like, ‘I thought you were dead!’ At the same time, I, too, have to understand her fears."
She has received some insight into how others might view her actions, and the pain it guarantees all parties.
“One of my closest friends, who is actually my ex-boyfriend, taught me a big lesson - though I do not think it was the right way to go about it. However, it taught me a lot. A year or two ago I had been self-harming, I had the knife in my hand.
“He had come home from work and was like: ‘give me the knife!’. I wouldn’t. So he took the knife and held it on his wrist and I was screaming: ‘don’t do it!’ You see, it was out of my control then. I don’t know if he was going to make a mistake, cut too deep and I was panicking. He said: ‘you have to understand this is how you make other people feel when you do it’.”
The R word
If R is for resilience, it is also for a word Christie has spent a long time, over a decade, processing, and yet still finds it hard to utter.
Even now, in conversation, she refers to what happened as “sexual assault” although it is there, in bold black type, on page 59 of her new autobiography, starkly employed as the heading for chapter four: Rape.
Very few people knew the details until Thursday, when the Elise Christie story, or at least her subsequent successes, including being crowned world champion on three occasions, became even more worthy of admiration.
“I still struggle to call it a rape,” she says of an incident when she was forced into unprotected sex after an attack when she was just 19-year-old. “Because when you watch rape on TV people get battered and I was not. And I am thankful for that. It could have been a lot more traumatic than the experience I went through. But there are a lot of girls and even males – it’s ignorant to think it is just females it happens to – who go through that. And this is why I have control issues: it was taken out of my control.
“I had only slept with one boyfriend at this point and it was a long term relationship. I was so worried he could have given me something and my life could be over. The whole thing changed me.”
She believes “100 per cent” that her drinks – she only had two of them on the night in question, on her return from her first Winter Olympics in 2010 in Vancouver - were spiked.
“I could not walk I could not run, he followed me,” she recalls. “I lost control over my limbs. I could not move properly.”
Chillingly, the culprit later contacted her on Facebook, so she knows his name, even if she suspects she might not recognise him if he still lives in the Nottingham area, as he did then. Not that she ventures into town much.
“I do not go out anymore,” she says. “Other people have gone through it. I know someone else, and they are a lot younger. That encouraged me to speak out. I am quite tough but this could happen to someone who is not so tough and have a completely different reaction. It could be the end of them.”
It’s time for Christie to be a little less selfless. Important months lie ahead for the 31-year-old, with the winter season due to begin shortly.
She is deliberating bringing her career to an end whatever happens in the Winter Olympics, potentially after the following month's world championships in Norway.
"I am not saying you will never see me race again but I do not want to be a funded athlete anymore,” she says. “That sounds horrible. I am so appreciative of having Beijing to look forward to and people helping me through because I would never have got where I got without it.
“But obviously I want to become the person where my life is not just speed skating. If I want to have a baby I can go and have a baby. If I don’t want to go into training one day because I want to do something else then do I not have to. So I definitely see it as a turning point in my career."
Her mother, a Dundonian, has just moved back to Wormit and Christie herself is considering relocating to Edinburgh, where, aged seven at Murrayfield ice rink, she first discovered she was a natural skater.
Her aim is to establish a coaching programme in Scotland "because there is not anything for people up north".
Also, she doesn't see anything keeping her stationed in Nottingham when she's no longer a competitive speed skater.
"But you never know how things might change," she says. "Romeo might turn up at my window one day!"
Outside that same window, a strong wind is blowing the trees about. It's finally a lot calmer inside Christie's head.
Two empty photograph frames sit on a sideboard and almost beg the question: are they for the Olympic medal snapshots only cruel social media trolls can argue she does not deserve?
"Last time was about redemption and winning," she says. "This time I don’t see it so much about that. I think I can win a medal. I want to win a medal and I feel it will be very sad if I have carried on all this time and it did not happen.
“But my main goal is obviously now changed; I want to go and show people that I did not quit on them or quit on myself and that they can do this too.
“Never mind how bad things get, and I nearly died, I am still here doing it. I think that’s an important message to send out. It was important that I did not run away after the last Olympics."
Elise Christie: Resilience, published by Reach Sport, is on sale now. Save 25% from reachsportshop.com.
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