If Ever You Needed a Kick off the Couch

This piece is about two British, female athletes, Elise Christie, and Lizzy Yarnold. For very different reasons they are inspirational and especially inspirational for women.

Let’s talk first about Christie.

Elise Christie is a short track speed skater who represents Great Britain.

If you don’t know anything about short track speed skating it is another of those crazy winter sports. Between 4 and 7 skaters race around an oval track, a bit over 110 metres long with record average speed of over 50 km/hour. They race at distances between 500 and 1,500 metres.

In the last Olympics in Sochi, she was disqualified in each of her three events. It was heart-breaking to watch as Christie showed to the world on live TV, all her emotions of disappointment. As she cried for herself so we all cried for her and with her.

She says her favourite event is the 1000m event. Following the tragedy of Sochi, she was ten times a European gold medallist, including two overall European titles in 2015 and 2016. In the 2017 World Championships in Rotterdam, she won world titles in both the 1000m and 1500m events, as well as the overall gold. She is the first British woman and first European woman to do so.

In other words, she is an elite athlete at the top of her form, or so you would think. The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang was going to be her redemption. As I write 2 of her events have taken place and again she has also been eliminated from both. In the last, she was also badly injured as she fell heavily into the edge padding and was taken to a hospital.

At first, as she was taken to hospital it was feared that she had broken her ankle. After a scan, it was found to be ‘nothing more’ than a soft tissue injury. Although not a break she was unable to put on her boots. Today she was posting videos of her on a training bike with the promise that she would do everything she could to be on the track, whatever the pain, to race on Tuesday.

It is a frantic, hectic sport almost guaranteed to lead to crashes and dispute, but how can one person seem to have so much misfortune? However, despite set back after set back, Christie still returns for more. It is the strength of an elite athlete that they accept the misfortune and come back stronger ready again compete.

Yarnold’s route to a second an Olympic Gold Medal in the Skeleton was not a cruise over the 4-year gap.  For the year after Sochi, she was unbeatable and was world champion. However, since 2015 she has taken a two-year gap from the exhausting schedule. There are no training facilities in the UK. To train and compete she has been away from home travelling around Europe, North America, and Japan. She was spending more than six months every year on the road.

After a two year break last year she returned to the sport with just one ambition: to win another gold medal.

This year her form has been, at best, patchy and she has not won any of the World Championship races. In fact, she has often not been in the top 10. After her first run, travelling at more than 80 miles an hour and covering the one-mile course is a fraction over 50 seconds, she was dizzy. She suffers from an ear infection and this is quite regular.

When calm and resolve were needed at the start of the final run she proved to have an abundance of both. She has the winner’s core requirement of belief in herself, she has belief in what she was doing and the training process.

Let’s be clear there is no history of winter sports in the UK.  We have only ever won 11 Winter Golds and Lizzy Yarnold has won 2 of those. It is a superhuman effort from a wonderful athlete, but it shows exactly what happens when dedication and purpose are combined with opportunity.

What links these two great athletes. It is not just winning and courage but the way they have taken the opportunities offered them.

Elise has suffered untold pain and disappointment in the Olympics but despite that excelled straight after. Lizzy has had the glory of the Olympic Gold Medal but fought back from a loss of form and motivation to again reach the pinnacle of her sport.

You don’t suddenly become a winner.

A decade ago Lizzie was an aspiring heptathlete when she converted to Skeleton spotted by the ‘Girls for Gold’ sports programme.

Elise got her first taste of short track speed skating at the age of twelve and quickly took to the sport. By the age of fifteen, she was invited to join the GB Squad. Originally from Scotland, Elise moved to Nottingham to concentrate full-time on skating at the National Performance Centre with the rest of the Squad.

There was an opportunity and they grasped it with everything they had. Significant National Lottery funding supported both.

There are opportunities out there for everyone. Success is there for anyone who wants it badly enough and willing to give their all to succeed.

In particular, I hope Lizzy and Elise inspire young women. GB has won 4 medals at these Winter Olympics and women have won 3 of those.

An inspiration for us all.

Pyeongchang: It’s All in the Kit

The British have an enviable record in Olympic Velodrome cycling. Apart from tremendous, powerful, and super-human athletes, British cycling has worked, and then worked some more on what they have called marginal gains.

Everything is reviewed and optimised: the bike’s aerodynamic shape; the materials it is built with to give maximum strength, minimum weight, bend and twist when needed; the shape of the helmet shape, and of course, the materials used to make the kit. All is considered and tested in wide tunnels.

It gets on the nerves of the opposition and it always ends with someone questioning the legality of what the British are doing.

Go back to the Summer Olympics of 2012 and France’s director of cycling Isabelle Gautheron said: “We are looking a lot at the kit they use. We are asking a lot of questions: how have they gained so many tenths of seconds? I am not talking about any illicit product because anti-doping tests are so strong. Honestly, we are looking a lot at the kit they use. They hide their wheels a lot. The ones for the bikes they race on are put in wheel covers at the finish [of a race].”

The French were further unnerved when Sir Dave Brailsford, the head of British cycling replied, “I told them we had some special wheels because we had made them especially round.”

British humour was yet again lost on the French. Referring to a French make of wheel, French paper L’Equipe’s ran a headline “Magic or Mavic.”

Brailsford was forced to later add, “The French seemed to have taken it seriously, but I was joking. They are the same wheels as everyone else. There is nothing special about them.”

When victory is measured in hundredths of seconds, it is the sum of all those tiny fractions of one percent of marginal gains that can be the difference between winning and perceived failure.  A life can be forged out of the two Olympic weeks and an athlete wants every chance they can to win.

The debate about the British focus on marginal gains has reopened at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The Skeleton is an event for either the maddest of the mad or the bravest of the brave. You lie on a sledge and head down the course for around 50 seconds, head first at speeds of over 80 miles per hour.

For the last two Olympics the UK has won the women’s Gold Medal and defending champion Lizzy Yarnold is there again. The women’s medals haven’t been decided and overnight Dom Parsons won a bronze in the men’s race.

But in training, Yarnold, team-mate Laura Deas and men’s slider Parsons have performed much better than was expected based on recent World Cup performances. Could it be that they are just simply better at learning the best way down a course that no one has used before, or have they peaked at just the right time?

Of course, those were the reasons, but the British have done it again, announcing that for the first time the British sliders are wearing new hi-tech suits. Competitors are asking whether their new attire has played a part.

The complaints prompted the sport’s governing body to clarify that the suits were legal. It said: “The International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation currently checked race suits of the British skeleton team. There were no rule violations at the presented suits.”

Just as in cycling there are marginal gains to be made on the equipment but to question the kit that takes away all the credit from the athlete who has the skills, the muscles and focus. They train hard and the harder if they want to get to the top. These guys are dedicated beyond what most of us could imagine.

As Lewis Hamilton, the Formula 1 driver almost always reminds us when he wins, winning is a team effort. The driver, and that includes Skeleton drivers Yarnold, Deas and Parsons, are at the tip of a massive team effort of coaches, nutritionists, dieticians, physios, and science.

When a footballer is injured, and the manager says he will be back playing in three weeks that isn’t a guess. The physios are supported with a massive array of quantitative biometric and scan data. The answer is the answer of science.

Sometimes, it is the science of food. Harry Kane is an English footballer. Some might argue that he is currently the best centre-forward in Europe. This is what he said in October last year.

“I think, over the last year or so now, I’ve changed a lot off the pitch with the nutrition side of it, It kind of clicked in my head that a football career is so short. It goes so quickly, you have to make every day count.

“So, I have a chef at home to eat the right food, helping recovery. You can’t train as hard as you’d like when you have so many games, so you have to make the little gains elsewhere, like with food.

 “I was always eating well, never badly. But I have a guy come round and he explained what you could do, eating the right food at the right times. You could eat healthily all week and then carbs [carbohydrates] before a game, and that could make your body go into shock because you’re not used to it. So, maybe higher carbs sometimes, lower other times, making plans around training. I started doing that on Jan 1, a New Year resolution.

“I met the guy in December. I spoke to him and it blew me away a bit. I’d never looked too much into it, but when he explained what the body does and how he could help me recover… He helped me in the recovery from the [ankle ligament] injury, with certain foods I was eating. It opened my eyes a bit.

“He’s there [at Kane’s home] every day, Monday to Saturday, and leaves it in the fridge for Sunday. I hardly ever see him because I’m at training, but he’ll cook the food and leave it in the fridge. We’ve got a good plan going and it seems to be working.”

The Skeleton, in Great Britain, was funded £6.5 million over 4 years up to Pyeongchang to win a medal and there is already payback.

To win, the athlete needs to be funded. The funding pays for both the athlete’s own costs and the technology development. That is why the slider who wins will come from one of a very few countries. We may want to know who the best slider is, but we won’t. What we will learn is which supreme athlete also has the best team working with them.

Is this what we want from our sport? Would we rather watch every athlete wearing the same suits and riding the same board? No, and it can never be, and never was.

One of the criticisms of Formula 1 car racing is that we all believe that Lewis Hamilton is the fastest driver, but we can’t be sure because of the differences in the cars. So, it is with every sport.

Kane is a professional footballer and the Skeleton sliders are professional athletes and so it is right that they search for and find every source of marginal gain to add to their own abilities.

Winning is a massive team effort. Applaud the whole team and not just the man or woman who stands on the podium.