Team GB: Why are Britain so good at skeleton?
Ben Dirs investigates the secrets behind Great Britain’s remarkable success in the skeleton.
**This feature was first published on 7th February, before Lizzy Yarnold's gold and Laura Deas's bronze in the women's skeleton at PyeongChang 2018 - we think the analysis is now more relevant than ever**
If you’d mentioned skeleton bob to someone pre-2002, they might have thought you were referring to that really skinny bloke who drinks in your local.
But some of that changed when Alex Coomber won bronze for Great Britain at the Olympics in Salt Lake City. True, skeleton remained an amusing curiosity for many – some maniac throwing themselves down a hill on what appeared to be tea tray – but who cared, if it meant a rare Winter medal for Team GB.
In Pyeongchang, GB’s four-person skeleton team will be aiming to add to their country’s tally of six medals from all six Olympic Games in which the sport has featured. Defending women’s champion Lizzy Yarnold appears the athlete most likely, although team-mate Laura Deas has usurped her as British number one. But how did temperate Britain, a country with no ice track, end up being one of the powerhouses of this rather obscure, exotic winter sport?
Laura Deas of Great Britain competes in the Women's Skeleton during the BMW IBSF Bobsleigh and Skeleton World Cup on November 18, 2017 in Park City, UtahGetty Images
It probably helps that the Brits invented it, in the Swiss resort of St Moritz in the late 19th Century. Britain won bronze medals at the 1924 and 1948 Olympics, but the sport was then dropped from the schedules until 2002. However, during its 54-year hiatus, skeleton remained a popular past-time in the British military. Indeed, Coomber was a Royal Air Force officer.
Coomber’s emergence coincided with the building of a state-of-the-art, lightning-quick sled by a PhD student called Kristan Bromley. Both Coomber and Bromley – who was reportedly the only man brave, or mad, enough to ride his own sled – became overall World Cup champions in 1999 and the sport regained Olympic status a year later, which meant investment from UK Sport.
Former bobsledder Simon Timson was appointed British Skeleton’s performance director, and a push-start facility was built at the University of Bath. Then it was a case of identifying athletes with the potential to be the fastest starters in the world, before getting them acquainted with a sled with runners, travelling at 80mph, down a bendy hill. Head first, nose to the ice.
Amy Williams, who won gold for GB in 2010, stumbled into the skeleton, having got chatting to some skeleton and bobsled athletes in her gym.
“I tagged along to one of their training sessions in Bath, before coming second overall at the [defunct] World Push Championships [which took place on a wheeled push-start track in summer],” says Williams, a former 400m runner. “I joined the Army ice camp in Lillehammer in October 2002, and was one of the early GB squad members who didn’t come from a military background.”
But with Austrian skeleton legend Andi Schmid having been brought on board as a coach, British Skeleton became more sophisticated in their recruiting of talent.
Nigel Laughton (R) the Performance Director of Team GB and Head Ice coach Andi Schmid (L) pose for a portrait during a media session at Team GB kitting out ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics on January 28, 2014 in Stockport, England.Getty Images
“Most nations who have home tracks – Germany, America, Austria – also have club systems, so their athletes start sliding at 11 or 12,” says Danny Holdcroft, British Skeleton’s current performance director. “By the time they’re 18 or 19, they’ve got maybe 2000 runs in the bank. Our athletes will probably not hit that number in their whole career. So every couple of years, with the help of UK Sport, we do a recruitment drive, looking to identify athletes with power, speed and explosiveness. Our programme has to be built on being very good at the start, because that’s the only way we can bridge the gap.”
Yarnold (a former heptathlete) and Deas (a former hockey player and eventer) were both identified as potential skeleton racers by UK Sport’s Girls4Gold scheme. But their rapid progress wasn’t just down to their speed off the blocks.
“We spend a lot of time looking at psychological profiles, because winter sports are not easy mentally,” says Holdcroft, a former football goalkeeper who joined British Skeleton as a strength and conditioning coach in 2005, having previously worked for the Lawn Tennis Association.
“A British skeleton racer might be away from home, training and competing, for six months of the year, so they have to be mentally strong. Also, throwing yourself off a mountain at 90mph is not everyone’s cup of tea. We’ve had athletes spend three or four days on ice and say, ‘No, this is not for me’. Other athletes didn’t like it initially but persevered and grew to love it.
“They also have to learn quickly. Not only do they have a lot of catching up to do initially, but if they are good enough to progress to World Championships and Olympics, they might only have 40 runs to learn a brand-new track.”
Williams believes the British approach, born of necessity, can be an advantage, because countries which have their own ice tracks, and where skeleton racers start young, have tended to focus on nous at the expense of explosiveness.
“Some of the Germans weren’t the quickest at the start, but had so much skill and knowledge of tracks that they still managed to beat you at the bottom,” says Williams, while adding that female skeleton racers have got bigger and heavier across the board since her early days in the sport.
“We had to focus on the best pushers – Laura Deas is always one of the fastest – then teach them how to drive the sled. But something like one tenth of a second at the top of the track can translate to two tenths at the bottom.”
Holdcroft says the assumption that GB’s success is largely down to money is a fallacy. While UK Sport has given British Skeleton £6.5m over the last four years, that is partly because what looks like a tea tray actually costs hundreds of thousands of pounds to design and build, while there are helmets and suits to consider. In fact, Holdcroft says that continued success is actually down to coaching intuition and understanding the science of learning.
“We invest in technology, and still have Rachel Blackburn [formerly of McLaren, now a consultant engineer] helping design sleds, as well as the research and innovation team at the English Institute of Sport,” says Holdcroft, who took over the top job at British Skeleton in 2009.
“But I can categorically say that other countries invest as much in their equipment as us. And because we have no home track, and can’t put electronic equipment inside a sled when competing on the international tour, gathering data and assessing sliders becomes quite difficult. So we get the right athletes in, understand how their bodies work and how they learn, before applying the technology.”
How far British Skeleton has come, at break-neck speed, is exemplified by the fact that Holdcroft didn’t know what skeleton was when he first joined up, whereas now British racers are having to fight for ice time on foreign tracks.
“It’s funny how things turn out, but if you have a dream, you can achieve an awful lot, with hard work and basic talent,” says Holdcroft.
“There have been a lot of people involved over the last 16 years, but really what the success has been down to is five or six people with a clear vision and lots of drive, creating a strategy and enticing athletes into that environment.
" We have a saying in our programme that we want to achieve the impossible. In 2001, if you had said Great Britain was going to win a medal in skeleton, without a home track, people would have laughed. But that’s what we’ve done."
UK Sport has suggested that funding might be withdrawn if GB fail to win a skeleton medal in Korea, which, with Yarnold struggling for top form so far this season and Deas only an outside medal hope, is a distinct possibility. But Holdcroft is confident that a medal will indeed be won, and that the future of skeleton in Britain is secure, whether UK Sport pulls the plug or not.
“We do have some good commercial backing, and that’s something we’re very keen to continue exploring, because we want to build a sustainable future, irrespective of funding,” says Holdcroft. “We’re going to Korea to win a medal, we’ve got a very strong group of athletes coming through, and our data and analytics show that we are on track to win medals in Beijing in 2022. We’re not just living cycle to cycle, we are six to eight years ahead of that.”