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Skeleton key to Winter Olympic medals

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Ollie Williams | 15:55 UK time, Tuesday, 6 October 2009

If you go down to the woods today, you may be in for a big surprise.

Namely, Great Britain's most likely Winter Olympic medal hopes.

Creeping like Sir David Attenborough through mounds of unruly undergrowth, stalking the length of a barbed-wire fence, and all the while serenaded by the howls of a hundred slavering hounds, you will reach a raggedy old wooden hut.

Stretching down the slope from the hut is a track, at the top of which sits a small sled on tiny wheels.

This is where the GB skeleton team train. And it's not the Forbidden Forest, it's Bath.

Skeleton training centre at Bath, and Shelley Rudman in actionThe training centre at Bath, left, and the finished product, Shelley Rudman in action on yet another foreign track, right

Alright, the barking is from the dogs' home next door as well. But it's all about evoking an atmosphere, isn't it?

If so, I'm not sure what atmosphere this training centre evokes. It hardly looks like the sort of facility guaranteed to kickstart a conveyor belt of skeleton legends.

Yet British skeleton competitors are among the best in the world, and they expect medals in Canada.

We're just a few months away from the Winter Olympics and the team are embarking on their winter season, building up to the Games at the Whistler Sliding Centre in February.

It's a good job they're off out of the country as well, because the one problem with being a British skeleton specialist is: we don't have a track.

Not one. This little sled on runners in Bath is as close as you get, and all it's good for is fine-tuning your start.

Taking corners at 100mph is not really something you can work on using a Somerset hillock, in a sport where the aim is to hurl yourself head-first down a tube of ice on a sled.

So your surprise could be excused when I tell you Britain had, at the end of last season, four of the world's top 20 men and two of the top five women.

Not only that, but the team are probably your best bet for British medals at the Winter Olympics.Amy Williams

"We don't have our own track but we've focused on all the other areas," says women's skeleton star Amy Williams (pictured, right), who won silver at the World Championships in Lake Placid this year, as did fellow Briton Adam Pengilly in the men's event.

"We've given 100% in equipment and coaching, everything that makes us good athletes. We don't miss the little things."

"Because we don't have a track, we need to be good at every track," adds Andy Schmid, performance director for the British team.

"The lesson we have learned is that we need to be consistent.

"Other nations, like Germany, can go onto their track on a regular basis. But our athletes have to be used to different situations."

Shelley Rudman is a name you may well remember. Her silver at Torino was Britain's only medal of the 2006 Winter Olympics.

"Skeleton is such an exhilarating experience," enthuses the 28-year-old.

"You go into bends and the G-force pulls your head down onto the ice at times. It takes your breath away, you can't stop. It's such an addictive sport."

She is now second in the world, behind Germany's Marion Trott, with Williams fifth.

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Rudman took 18 months out of the sport to bring up Ella, the daughter she has with partner and fellow British skeleton athlete Kristan Bromley, but came back in style last season.

"Last season was my best ever," she says. "I had two track records and got the European Championship title.

"This season, I need to concentrate on qualifying, then we'll see what happens at the Olympics, but it's a tricky track.

"Each track changes and this is a brand new track with different bends and a different weather system. I'm a different person as well. I've got a lot of work to do."

The entire skeleton team, which comprises some 30 athletes and support staff (up from just 12 a decade ago), has plenty to do to ensure they live up to expectations in Canada.

The cut-off point for Olympic qualfiication is mid-January, at which stage the world rankings will determine how many athletes each country gets to send.

Team GB would, ideally, like to send six athletes - three men and three women - to compete in Whistler, but it all depends on individual performances over the next three months.

BBC Sport's camera takes a trip down the test trackOur camera straps itself in, then takes a trip down the Bath practice track

"The next six months are going to be full of twists and turns, both on the track and off it," admits Bromley, ranked 10th in the world heading into the new season.

"I've been through this twice and there's always something waiting to trip you up. We have to go in, do what we're good at, and hopefully it'll fall into line with where we want to be.

"I've never wanted anything more than an Olympic medal," he concludes. "I've given absolutely everything."

Some of the team are unsure about the training arrangements - Canadian athletes will get up to 300 practice runs down the Whistler track, compared with just 30 for those from GB - but Vancouver 2010 approaches at exactly the right time for a British skeleton squad miraculously at the top of its game.

Unlike some other winter sports, the squad has held on to precious funding arrangements through its performances, and that has paid off in talent on the track.

They now hope their work on the Somerset slopes translates into victory down Whistler's icy rollercoaster because, unlike so many athletes riding high on London 2012 hype, they will never get a home track, never mind a home Olympics.


  • Comment number 1.

    Well...If anyone is gonna be good at throwing themselves down an icy hill on a Tea Tray it's gonna be a Brit :)

    Seriously though, good luck to all the British sliders. I shall be glued to the TV in anticipation of a fantastic event and hopefully some medals.

  • Comment number 2.

    It just proves that you don't need all the right conditions to be top of the game!!

    It's great to see us working hard and being truly world contenders in these sports. It's a shame there isn't more funding for all the smaller sports instead of wasting it on athletics because it is supposedly the blue ribboned Olympics events.

    Come on lets show them and the other winter sports how good our country is.

  • Comment number 3.

    Apparently, Whistler has opened early this year - maybe they should just hop on a cheap flight now and get a couple of months in? :)

  • Comment number 4.

    Good piece Ollie. I was just at the track today and well done to the brit who got the bronze.

    Just wanted to raise awareness that most other countries are without tracks also as they cost several hundred million a piece.
    In fact I don't believe there is a single track in the southern hemisphere.
    Also the Brits had camera staff at every corner filmimg there athletes as well as many coaches. The spainish and Irish racers didn't even have coaches.

    Bottom line is having the silly track they have to train on in Bath is more than most. The guys I met fund the majority of their challenge just to get to the Olympics. They work their tails off in the summer saving every penny simply to spend it during the winter and start all over again.

    You write a nice sympathetic article, but it's not the Brits who need your sympathy, they are doing just fine.

  • Comment number 5.

    thewaughtwins - I semi-agree with you. Britain may not be the only team but it's still an unusual position to be in, having so many athletes in the top 20 despite the near-total absence of home facilities. The fact they are doing "just fine" is deserving of attention in those circumstances.

    Realistically, the countries who do have tracks should dominate the sport to the total exclusion of others. But you're right to point out that they are not alone in battling those odds.

  • Comment number 6.

    Yes Ollie you're totally right in that any attention is good attention.
    I was more disappointed in what I saw walking around the track the other day and on race day in particular that led me to being a little harsh on those more fortunate in the sport of skeleton.
    Certain teams obviously had much larger numbers in their support groups than others, but what probably disappointed me the most was the lack of spectators. I counted maybe 15 in all.
    In truth those countries I call fortunate like the Germans, Russians, Brits, and even the Ozzies are actually not really that fortunate at all compared to a lot of other sports. In fact they are probably just getting by.

  • Comment number 7.

    GOLD!!!! May I be the first (on this thread) to say CONGRATULATIONS!!! Amy and the team have done Great Britain proud. Fantastic achievement! Well done!

  • Comment number 8.

    well done Amy .an inspiration to the rest of the team. Also loads of kids will be out on their "trays" today. Here in North Wales we have loads of snow!!
    linda North wales


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