British becoming short-track world beaters

By Ollie WilliamsBBC Olympic sports reporter

Thirty tonnes of gravel, a bull and a cliff-face have transformed Britain into a global force in short-track speed skating.

UK Sport investment to the tune of £2.8m has also played a part. Skaters who could not reach finals at the 2010 Winter Olympics now weep on the ice when they miss a world-record time in training.

And while London 2012 tends to guzzle media attention, this revolution is playing out quietly in a Nottingham ice rink.

Elise Christie is the one shedding the tears. As a 19-year-old at Vancouver 2010, she did not get past the last 16. Eighteen months later, she is the world number two.

"Yes, I was crying. I skated quite a fast time [this morning] but I wanted to go faster," she explains.

Christie was within a second of the world record, over a 1,000m distance, which takes a full minute-and-a-half to complete.

"Yeah, but… I've skated the world record - I can skate faster," she adds. "It's a good thing to be disappointed with that time - if I did that in a race I'd be fine, but I want more."

In the Winter Olympics, billed as bankers to bring home a medal or two, Britain's skaters failed to reach the podium in any event.

Team performance director Stuart Horsepool, who had spent years convincing doctors, nutritionists and psychologists to lend their time for free, sat down with funding body UK Sport after the Games and made his case for better, consistent funding, to develop a successful infrastructure like cycling.

Normally UK Sport does not fund potential, it wants to see results to continue funding athletes.

But Horsepool argued winter sports deserved more than the 1.5% of summer sports' funding they received - and on this occasion UK Sport agreed. Late last year, short-track was one of four Winter Olympic sports handed a seven-figure cash injection for the years leading up to Sochi 2014. Horsepool's funding trebled to £2.8m.

The new-look British team made its mark in February this year, when the men broke the 5,000m relay world record. The relay is the sport's biggest event, and the record is the first ever to be held by the British.

Jon Eley, whose best finish in Vancouver was sixth, is now the men's world number one over 500m and led the relay team's record-breaking skate.

"The relay world record was a massive thing for us. It gave us the belief that we were going in the right direction. We're now the fastest team in the world," he says.

"It's a nudge to top teams like Korea and Canada that we're here to push them all the way and maybe knock them off their perch."

The extra cash is used by the team to improve travel times, take extra equipment to events, buy in more sports science support and develop new technology. But Horsepool thinks the funding increase had more than a purely financial impact.

"We have given the skaters belief by demonstrating to them that people are willing to invest in them," he says.

"Before, we needed results to get money and the skaters felt that desperation. Every time we went somewhere it was, 'What's the result, is it good enough to get more money?'

"I'm the first one to believe in performance-related pay but, when you get to the world-class level, it comes back to the belief that somebody out there is supporting the programme properly, and we are serious athletes doing a serious job."

Belief has come through other methods, too. Recent team-building exercises devised by sports psychologist Mark Bawden had skaters left in the woods in the dark, sleeping rough in the rain and shifting tonnes of gravel using only spades. Squad member Jack Whelbourne, after hours of walking in the pitch black, narrowly avoided a diplomatic incident when he collided with a bull.

But Christie does not dismiss these as the kind of trite exercises immortalised in Drop The Dead Donkey's paintball outingexternal-link. Forced off a cliff by Bawden, she learned lessons that now help her win races.

"We had to jump off this cliff attached to a harness, but you weren't allowed to use your hands - you had to dive-bomb off it," she explains.

"I never like going first - I'm analytical, I like to watch people - so they chose me because they know it's out of my comfort zone.

"If I can do that, I can do anything. It gives me so much confidence to just deal with things and get the medal."

When Christie describes how things have changed for her since Vancouver, she could be speaking for the entire British programme.

"I decided I don't want to just be this middle-ground person going to the Olympics and skating. I want to be going there and winning a medal," she adds.

"There's giving it everything, and then there's giving it everything. I changed my lifestyle completely."

Would the old Elise Christie have cried?

"No. I'd have been very pleased with that time two years ago, and settled for it. But now I know I can get more."

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