Winter Olympics: Elise Christie back in from the cold

Elise Christie recounts past tales of woe like a gloomy Brothers Grimm but it is not sympathy she seeks, rather redemption. What does not kill you makes you stronger, they say. If true, the short-track speed-skater must surely be brawny enough to move mountains based on the traumas faced and subsequently overcome.

Elise Christie has won 29 major medals, including three world titles in Rotterdam last season. Picture: Getty.

The Winter Olympics commence on Friday in Pyeongchang and the 27-year-old from Livingston is the British team’s brightest hope, by far, to deliver at least one gold, if not more. Understandably, 29 major medals, including three world titles in Rotterdam last season, have instilled a healthy dose of optimism about what might be achieved in Korea.

Yet the events of Sochi 2014 brought home the maddening unpredictability of life on the thinnest of edges. Arriving at the previous Games in Russia, just as she is now, as a potent, proven performer, the Scot sustained two disqualifications and a fall in her three events and departed dispirited and disconsolate.

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She almost quit for good. It took a concerted effort from her coach Nick Gooch and sports psychologists to piece her broken spirit back together. The key, Christie reveals, was removing the nagging sense of fear that kept surfacing despite the fulsome adrenaline rush of slicing around the frozen track. Only then, she admits, could full potential be unlocked.

“One of my biggest things was accepting failure – that was one of the things I developed,” she reveals. “Because I’d felt for so long that I’d been almost hesitating for the winning position because I’d been securing medals.

“I think part of that comes from what happened in Sochi but also when we’ve not got a massive team of winners I feel responsible for the medals sometimes. I just decided that I was sick of being 
unhappy.”

The real transformation came after the 2016 world championships in Seoul. It was a fork in the road laden with irony. It was from South Korea where the most venomous insults had come two years earlier when she bundled over the country’s national heroine, Park Seung-Hi, in the 500m final, a torrent of online abuse that extended to death threats at its horrifyingly manic extreme.

Heading into the bear pit should have been cathartic. To a point, it was, with three bronze medals acquired. Yet she came home dissatisfied. “My boyfriend, he’s from Hungary, told me off,” she recounts. “I was like ‘I’ve just won a medal, why are you telling me off?’”

A speed-skater himself, Liu Sándor Shaolin, made a diagnosis that has proven pivotal to his girlfriend’s additional ascent. That, in some small but significant way, the Scot was holding back. “It was just about having that outlook on it where if I’m in second place with three laps to go and I don’t try and make the move that’s worse than doing it and failing,” she explains.

“I would have been happier coming back from worlds last year knowing that I had almost done everything I could than coming back with a few silver medals because what was that really gaining me? I’d done that before and it’s not life-changing.”

A trio of shiny souvenirs this month would alter everything, however. Christie is the reigning world champion at 1000 metres and 1500m and the world- record holder in the 500m which will offer her initial Olympic gambit on Saturday. Nevertheless she knows better than to offer a guaranteed forecast. “You’re going 35mph down a straight where you’ve got about a second and a half to make a decision,” she outlines. “It’s not easy.” Nor should it be on sport’s greatest stage, of course. But now she boasts a resilient core, having leant heavily in recent months on the heft of her male counterparts to prepare her for the scraps ahead, battles for glory in which often it is the bravest, rather than the best, left standing.

“It’s weird because when you put me with a girl on the team I’m not competitive,” she smiles. “But put me with the boys and I just want to beat them so bad. I think they find it quite annoying because I’m so insulting and give them a lot of banter. They might say it’s all funny now but sometimes when I’ve beaten one of them before, and I’ve 
given them some banter, they’ve not found it funny at the time.”

How valuable the in-house battle of the sexes has been though, especially when her rivals can count on the help of team-mates and she will largely be fighting alone. “They’ve never once tried to hit me or knock me over to stop me doing it. They are aware I’m a girl and they do look after me. I wouldn’t be where I was without them doing that.”

Or without a little pressure at the age of 16 from her mother, Angela, who ordered her reluctant daughter to venture to live and train in Nottingham and pursue this dream. Or from the support crew who hauled her off the floor at her low 
ebbs and persuaded her to aim high once more.

“Obviously I went through some bad stuff but everyone does,” she says. “Not many people get to see the fact that I’m a world champion or the type of person it takes to do that after everything that has gone wrong.” The type capable of landing 
Olympic gold, perhaps.