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Skeleton team make no bones about Whistler track

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Rob Hodgetts | 14:58 UK time, Sunday, 31 January 2010

Skeleton sliders do it at 140kmh, under extreme G-forces, with their faces inches from diamond-hard ice.

They are scientific, analytical, hard-nosed and talk a lot about things like physics. It's not just careering down a track for thrills and giggles. So they aren't the sort of people given to whingeing.

But they have good reason to ahead of the Winter Olympics. The Canadian team have monopolised the Whistler track, closing it to other nations, and will have had 10 times as many practice runs as anyone else by the time competition starts.

For Britain, the chief significance of this is that Turin silver medallist Shelley Rudman's main rival, Melissa Hollingsworth, is Canadian. But while the rest of us are just getting worked up about the injustice, the British skeleton squad have long since moved on.

"I'm not happy with it, for sure," the team's Austrian performance director Andi Schmid told me. "But what should we do, complain all the time? No. We need to stop discussing it too much now. The home country has always had more runs. We'll do what we need to do - the Canadians have a bit of pressure on themselves."

Rudman, 28, goes to Vancouver in promising form, finishing second behind Hollingsworth in the season-long World Cup after taking time off since Turin in 2006 to have a baby daughter - Ella - with team-mate and fiancé Kristan Bromley.

Shelley RudmanShelley Rudman has finished in the top four in every race but one this season

The 37-year-old Bromley narrowly missed out on a medal in Turin, coming fifth, but in 2008 he became the first man to hold the World, European and World Cup titles. After a slow start he hit back to finish sixth in the World Cup this season.

"Every year you've got to play this game of seeing what the competition is doing then releasing your performance package at the right time," Bromley said when we met at the team announcement in London.

But it's not just Rudman and Bromley who are in the frame. The other members of the skeleton squad, Amy Williams and Adam Pengilly, also have claims.

Williams was fifth overall in the World Cup this season, won silver at last year's world championships at Lake Placid, and claimed a silver in a World Cup event on the same Whistler track in 2009. Pengilly, though slightly further behind in the overall standings, also claimed world championship silver last year.

UK Sport has set an overall target of three British medals across all sports from the Games, and Schmid says one medal of any colour from his team will represent a "great achievement".

But Rudman is understandably the focus after becoming Britain's only medallist four years ago, though she is keen to play down expectation.

"I'm fully aware that the media and the public want me to go home with a medal or even a gold, but it's the Olympics - anything can happen," she said. "It's not Turin, it's a different location, different track, different weather systems, and I'm different.

"I've got a good head on my shoulders and will sort my mind out and will try to do as best as I can on the two days."

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Shelley Rudman's video profile

Like all the other visiting nations, the British squad will have just six practice runs under Games conditions when they get to Whistler to take them to a total of 40 descents each on the track before the skeleton gets under way on 18 February. The Canadians will be up near the 400 mark.

Learning the track and understanding the physics of it are essential, says Bromley, but after the science it seems you need to apply the art.

"We understand it from a driving point of view, now we need time to tune into it, to build up the right sensations and feelings," he added.

So what's the course like?

"It's fast and furious," said Bromley, who is nicknamed Dr Ice because as a materials engineering graduate he went on to earn a PhD with a thesis entitled "factors affecting the performance of skeleton bobsleds".

"We hit speed from curve three onwards, it maintains that speed all the way down and then build ups at the bottom to 140kmh, so it is the fastest track in the world with some of the heaviest "Gs" on curves in the world.

"It's about 5-5.5G at the bottom curve. It's pretty hard to stay relaxed at such force and keep your head up when it's being pushed into the ice, never mind trying to execute a perfect line.

"It's extremely technical and if you get it wrong it will potentially hurt you.

"That's the skill of skeleton. It's finesse while under such extreme conditions."

The danger is real, too. British luger AJ Rosen broke his hip there in a crash last year.

And that's another reason why the Canadians' policy of policing the track has angered some in the sliding community.

"I would say especially for speed sports you need to have more access to tracks and whoever organises the Olympics needs to offer that," said Schmid.

"Not only so that everyone has a fair chance but also because of the danger. We need to be careful so that these sports stay great action sports and don't become dangerous killer sports. I'm not saying that will happen but some athletes from other nations are less experienced."

From left to right: Kristan Bromley, Shelley Rudman, Amy WilliamsBromley, Rudman and Williams will be joined by Adam Pengilly in Vancouver

Rudman revealed that her helmet-encased head actually scrapes along the ice on some of the more severe curves as, like many of the other women, she lacks the neck strength to keep it up.

"You can go through a quiet sequence of bends and then you'll hear the noise of your chin guard on the ice," she said.

"The problem is sometimes on a 180 degree bend the head gets pinned in the wrong direction, you can't see and you have to go by feeling alone.

"With the Whistler track I'm still trying to get that awareness of kind of looking at myself from the outside when I can't physically see. It's all about feeling the pressures coming on and coming off to get the entry and exit points right.

"Some G force is good but when it becomes really intense I'm not a big fan. The finish curve in Whistler is really intense and takes quite a lot out of the body, especially if you get the entrance wrong hit the side on the exit."

So what else makes a good slider?

"You've got to be a very fast sprinter over 30m," said Bromley, whose company designs and builds the pair's sleds as well as the bobsleighs of GB team-mate Nicola Minichiello.

"You've got to have the spatial awareness of a gymnast, and you need the nerves of an extreme sports athlete. Combine those three and you've got skeleton.

"The idea of just lying on a tray and off you go are completely unfounded and anyone who says that I suggest you come and have a go."

Bromley tells me that he and Rudman have a healthy rivalry during the World Cup season, with the better performance each week winning not just a moral victory but earning the chance to rule the domestic roost and choose dinner.

I ask if they've got any little wagers on the Olympics, and I tell him about sailor Sarah Ayton, who had a bet with fiancé Nick Dempsey, Britain's windsurfing representative at the Beijing Games, that if she did better than him in China she could keep her name when they married.

"Crikey, don't tell Shelley about that whatever you do. In fact, you'd better leave right now," said Bromley laughing.

I thought about stirring up trouble, but he'd promised me a go on his sled after the Games. If the British can tune into the Whistler track in time, it might be a golden one.


  • Comment number 1.

    I think if the Canadians want to monopolise the track perhaps Britian should restrict their access to the 2012 arenas. I'm sure they wouldn't be to happy with that.

  • Comment number 2.

    Thats a real shame that Canucks so famous for their fair play are behaving like the nation they look down on the map.....

  • Comment number 3.

    Surely the IOC lay down guidelines for this sort of thing? Home advantage should be the benefit of not having to travel and having the majority of the fans on your side but to effectively allow the home country to cheat their rivals of proper practise seems very wrong to me.
    I thought the Olympic movement was supposed to showcase high ideals - not shabby gamesmanship.

  • Comment number 4.

    I have just got tickets for the Skeleton finals, hopefully to see some British medals!!! Also going to the Men's Slalom and will be courseside for several of the other alpine skiing events - BRING IT ON!!!

  • Comment number 5.

    The host nation has always, always, taken advantage of home tracks - be it in the sliding events or on skis - by ensuring their own athletes have more opportunities to practice on the runs. The US has done it, the Japanese have done it. This is nothing new. Nothing to see here, move on.

  • Comment number 6.

    I agree move on whiners

  • Comment number 7.

    Restricting Canada to 2012 arenas? You don't think that's already in the plans? The IOC set out the minimum required amount of track time that the host nation must provide to all competitors. Canada is simply providing the minimum and denying anyone further access other than their own athletes. Canada did not cheat, it simply wanted its own athletes a competitive edge that so far it's achieved.

    The unfortunate death of the Georgian luger brought this issue to the forefront, but it's poor sportsmanship to use his death as a means to argue that Canada was at fault. The United States and Italy did the same thing at Salt Lake and Turin, Canada was merely following suit while the Russians are probably planning the same tactics in 2014.


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