After the standard ‘what actually is skeleton?’ the next question is usually ‘what made you want to do that?’. It is a question I (and I am sure most of us skeleton athletes) get asked all the time; and for good reason!
Skeleton, in case you’re a newbie (hey!) is a winter sliding sport. Imagine a huge waterslide filled with ice, you slide down it headfirst on a sled (think an oversized baking tray) with some steel runners wearing just a helmet for protection. Athletes go one at a time, racing the clock to see who can get from top to bottom in the quickest time, hitting speeds of up to 140 kph with their chin centimetres from the ice. The winner is the athlete whose cumulative time over two go’s is the quickest.
So, it’s understandable that the next question after you’ve explained that is ‘what on earth made you want to do that?’.
What you need to know is that when I applied to get on to the British Skeleton talent programme (the grassroots for the sport in the UK) I really didn’t anticipate having to actually do the sport because I thought the competition would be too tough. There were over 1000 applicants for #power2podium which I the talent ID search I was part of. Saying that, I did think I might be suitable, coming from a long jump background I had the physical qualities needed.
I was encouraged by a friend, intrigued by the sport and captivated by the opportunity it presented if I was to go all the way. And by all the way I mean Olympic gold. As a long jumper, it had been my dream to represent GB at the Olympics; I remember calculating how old I’d be for London 2012 when it was announced we got the games. I’d be 23, a good age and I was super optimistic and elated. Between then and 2012 it became apparent I wasn’t progressing at the rate necessary so I made new dreams; to support athletes at an Olympics in my role as an exercise physiologist. But in 2014 #power2podium dangled that original dream right in front of my face; and I couldn’t resist.
Of course, I wasn’t naive enough to think that it would be easy or that it (the Olympics) was guaranteed. I did believe it was possible though and that sealed the deal. I applied and the rest is history. However, it hasn’t been a smooth journey. Skeleton presented challenges I’d rarely (if ever) had to deal with on a regular basis. I’d be lying if I said I loved the sport straight away; I didn’t. Hitting walls at high speed with little protection and no control (oh the early days!) was not my idea of fun; but I had the bigger picture in mind and I am persistent.
I have been sliding for almost three years now (my first time on a sled was November 2014) and can say that I do now love the sport; even if I am still learning to embrace the challenges it presents (Whistler… cough cough). This sport now represents more than an opportunity to compete at the Olympics; it is a part of my person. I have learned SO much from doing skeleton and achieved things I didn’t know I was capable of. Yes, I look forward to going back to work when it’s all over and being at home for my birthday (1st November; pop it in your diary!) but for now this is a significant part of my life.
I consider it a complete privilege to be able to train and compete in skeleton for a living. I always identified as an athlete and I was struggling to come to terms with not being the calibre of long jumper I felt I could have been. So yes, it does seem crazy to throw yourself off a mountain a few times a day, five days a week between October and March but it is just like any other sport. The mastery of it removes (some of) the enormity of the bigger picture; everyday just trying to get better. It really isn’t as bad as it looks (except on the first day of pre-season/a new track!).