Taking to the ice: from Bath to Beijing

Sportspeople at the Team Bath Sports Training Village will be looking to extend a remarkable run of medal success when Beijing hosts the 2022 Winter Olympic Games from 4–20 February. Ten athletes and two travelling reserves with the British Bobsleigh & Skeleton Association (BBSA), based at the University of Bath, have been officially selected by Team GB for Beijing – Emma Clegg talks to the head of talent, research and innovation for skeleton and two of the athletes.

Danny Holdcroft: head of talent
“We only slide for about two hours a year, probably three minutes in a given day,” says Danny Holdcroft, head of performance at the British Bobsleigh & Skeleton Association. Danny is the longest serving member of the British Skeleton team. This is all very well, but two hours a year just doesn’t sound like an Olympic level effort to me. But when I query this (diplomatically) I discover that there is very good reason for these practice times – there is no ice track in the UK and therefore no opportunity to slide regularly. There are 17 or 18 ice tracks in the world, the nearest in Winterberg, North Germany, a 10-hour drive. Another one used by the team is in Lillehammer, Norway.

“Not having a local ice track is a disadvantage, but it is also one of the things that has made us stand out and has given us the level of recognition that we’ve had,” says Danny.

“In addition, because there are no local ice tracks we have no athlete participation base and no local clubs, which means we have to recruit complete novices at the age of 18 or 19, and then give them four or five years to get to the Games.”

So why then has the British Skeleton team achieved so many medals in recent years, with Alex Coomber winning bronze in 2002, Shelley Rudman silver in 2006, Amy Williams gold in 2010, Lizzy Yarnold gold in 2014 and 2018 and Dominic Parsons and Laura Deas bronze in 2018? The most crucial factor is how the BBSA is able to use Team Bath’s push-start track at the University of Bath. This outdoor 140m track – the only one of its type in the UK – enables Britain’s skeleton athletes to hone their starts away from the ice. Another advantage is the great sprinting, strength and conditioning, and performance gym facilities offered by Team Bath, supporting the other aspects of training the skeleton athletes.

Danny joined the skeleton team in 2005 as a start coach, a role that focuses on the first 55 metres of the race from the point where you run with the sled until when you dive on it. “I was one of the first start coaches in the world and that was when we were setting our programme up. That was always our go-to advantage, to make the start the best in the world,” he explains.

“Push-track is all about the start of the race. The key principle is that the start needs to be on a par with the best and then it gives you a stable platform in the race. Because it’s all about accelerating as much as possible – you don’t really drive the sled, you let yourself go and then you guide the sled to keep it going forwards and accelerating.”

It’s all about creativity and innovation, says Danny. “One of our key pitches as a sport is our ability to be innovative, so we don’t set any perameters. Traditionally the sport will track sprinters in athletics because they are fast runners. We don’t have a specified list of sports – in fact we encourage those who are less well trained and are interested in multi sports, or who just like going fast and love the adrenalin kick. We go as far and wide as ballet, dancing and gymnastics, as well as targeting those who are good at all sports but haven’t tried them at a high level.

If you have a genuine belief in a vision and the right work ethic and some natural talent, then you can go all the way

“The motto for our programme is ‘Achieving the Impossible’. This was born out of the fact that it was said that it was not possible for us to win Olympic medals. But we have an internal belief that we can. If you have a genuine belief in a vision, and the right work ethic and some natural talent, then you can go all the way.”

Skeleton athletes in Bath train from March until October, doing 13–14 sessions a week, including on the push track. Balance and body awareness work takes place over the summer. Considerable time is spent in the gym, focusing on skills to improve power-based acceleration at the start of the race. From October to March the athletes slide five days a week doing around two runs a day. Alongside this is the psychological training. “We spend a lot of time talking about the theory of tracks and sliding, and working on mental imagery and focus. We also use videos to build experience in different ways.”

I ask if it might ever be feasible to have an ice track in the UK, but Danny tells me the cost would be prohibitive. “I also don’t think it would be the right investment. We have a way of working within our programme that is successful. To have a home track would be an advantage but we could lose sight of how we operate. It’s a way of life. I don’t think we’d be any better having a home track and sliding every day for six months.

“We’re not a nation that dominates every event – our focus in skeleton is to build a programme that comes back every four years and aims to win Olympic medals.”

Nick Gleeson: bobsleigh athlete
Nick Gleeson is Britain’s youngest ever Olympic bobsledder – his inclusion in the Team GB squad for the PyeongChang Games in February 2018 came just four months after his 21st birthday. A member of the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment, his first taste of bobsleigh came in the military. “The army has given me an elite sports job role, and they have supported me 100% of the way and I’ll forever be grateful because without them I wouldn’t be doing this.”

Nick has recently been selected for his second Olympic Games, for both the two-man and four-man competitions in Beijing. In the four-man event he will work with fellow athletes Brad Hall, Greg Cackett and Taylor Lawrence. In the two-man team Nick acts as the brakeman, he explains: “The brakeman is at the back of the sled – labelled as the pusher, your job is to accelerate the sled from the top of the track to about 45–55 metres at the top as fast as you can, to give the sled as much speed as possible.” After the racing start in a four-man sled, athletes 2 and 3 (including Nick) hop in and sit down and hold their position. No 4 (the brakeman) at the back jumps in too and sits with the others on the sled until it crosses the finish line when he pulls on two handles, setting off the brake mechanism so the sled comes to a standstill. “I like to learn the track so I know what’s coming,” says Nick, explaining what happens when the team crosess the finish line, adding that “the brakeman needs to react quickly to get the brakes on, to ensure you don’t go flying off the end of the track.”

Team Bath’s push-start track is key for the bobsleigh as well as the skeleton team. “The push-start track has been the pinnacle of all our training. In this country we have to do everything dry, because our nearest ice push house is in the middle of Germany. So we wouldn’t be able to get the results that we’ve had without this track,” says Nick.
What makes a good bobsledder? “The key features that make a good bobsleigh athlete are strength, speed and power. Also you need to be a bit of an idiot because you know what’s coming ahead of you!” laughs Nick. He explains how training on the indoor and outdoor sprint tracks in Bath helps encourage speed and agility. “The facilities are perfect for us because it’s all in the one place, including the gym.”

Above: the 4-man bobsleigh team at the start of the race as the pilot leaps onto the sled

What about running on ice, though – how different is this to a standard surface? “The techniques are the same,” he says, “you just have to be more mindful on the ice because it’s more slippy. We have ice spikes, with about 300 metal spikes that grip the ice like a brush to stop you slipping.”

Nick has a dramatic scar on his shoulder, an ice burn from a bobsleigh accident in Winterberg in 2016, demonstrating the dangers of travelling at a top speed of 97 miles per hour, but Nick was fairly new to bobsleigh at the time and didn’t know about burns vests. “The burns only happen when you’re not wearing the right equipment or when something goes wrong. Most injuries are sprained ankles, pulled hamstrings, bad backs. A 4-man sled weighs about 410 kilos and this brings risks.”

Nick’s injury has not put him off. “Once you get the bug and when you realise you are half decent at bobsleigh you want to push it as far as you can. That involves making yourself physically and mentally better, and entering competitions. Fortunately it’s spiralled to the point that we’re now heading towards Beijing as serious medal contenders.”

The bobsleigh team spent three weeks in October on the Beijing track to familiarise themselves with it. When the team arrives for the Games they will have six training runs during the week and then four competitive race runs, but they need to be ranked inside the top 20 after the third heat otherwise they won’t get a fourth run.

The four-man bobsleigh event always falls at the end of the competition. “It’s called the blue ribbon event because it’s four big guys jumping into this funny bath tub and travelling at a top speed of 97mph per hour down this little icy track,” says Nick. They had better watch out though because we’ve heard that the Jamaican bobsleigh team have been training at the University of Bath to finalise their preparations. We’ll be watching, Nick – and don’t forget your burns vest.

Marcus Wyatt: skeleton athlete
Making his World Cup debut in Igls, Austria in December 2017, Marcus Wyatt finished an impressive 10th in his first elite-level skeleton outing. He narrowly missed out on a spot in the Team GB squad for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang but did travel to South Korea after being selected to join the British Olympic Association’s Ambitions Programme for potential future Olympians.

Marcus is one of four skeleton athletes to have been selected by Team GB for the Winter Olympic Games. “It is a dream come true. This season has been tough, but I’m really excited to go out to compete for a medal,” he says.
Marcus’ chance to become a skeleton athlete came in his final year at university in 2014 when he watched Lizzy Yarnold win gold in Sochi. “I was looking at what I was going to do next. And in the Olympic coverage they said that UK Sport wanted people to do trials for skeleton and I thought it sounded amazing – I was always a bit of an adrenalin junkie. After 10–11 months of trials I was accepted on the team – over 1,000 people applied and they cut us down to four boys and four girls – suddenly I was part of a sports team.”

Just three years later Marcus missed out on being selected for the PyeongChang team. “That was really tough,” he says. “I always felt I had a chance and I got super close. I knew I was good enough and it was hard for a few weeks, but it was just a case of picking myself back up and getting going again. I like to think it’s made me a stronger, more resilient athlete.”

Now back in force, Marcus won the Olympic Test Event silver in October on the Beijing track. “Beijing is a unique track, unlike any other where we’ve been,” says Marcus. “There are two different track styles. Europe has one style where the corners are quite low, more like a C-shape – we call it the ‘rollover’, so where the ice goes over vertical it will turn you back down. In North America they have really big corners, so where you roll over the ice is almost flat, so you can be parallel going in a straight line but you might be 3ft or 8ft high. Beijing has mixed the two so you’ve got some corners that feel small and some where you can be going flat in the corner. It can be difficult to tell how high you are, crucial in terms of getting the best exit for the corner.”

Above: Marcus Wyatt
Above: Marcus Wyatt making sure his race start is a fast one

The coaching team at British Skeleton taps into every aspect of preparation, says Marcus: “I work with a strength and conditioning coach and we have ice coaches who are more involved in the actual sliding. Then there are physios and psychologists, as well as technology aids and research and innovation – it’s a big coaching team with multiple facilities and they all play their part.”

All this goes a long way to overcoming the lack of a nearby ice track: “We try and use the disadvantage of not having our own track as an advantage. We’ve shown in the past how we’re really good at going to a brand new track and learning it quickly. The Germans will do a couple of hundred runs down their own track every year, whereas we’re really good at turning up to a track and working it out in 10 runs. That’s something we really pride ourselves on and it’s been key to our success.”

The team’s success is also about collaboration: “We sit down as a group when we join the programme – even though it’s an individual sport, our philosophy is that we work as a team, so I’m benefitting from my runs, but also from Matt’s runs and Laura’s runs [Matt Weston and Laura Deas]. If you’re happy to have open, honest discussions as a group then you can learn so much more quickly. Ultimately it’s you versus the clock, but we’re happy to share ideas because it’s how you go and use them when you’re sliding.”

And what about medal hopes? “This year the field has been absolutely wide open,” says Marcus. “There are a couple of Olympic champions there, Sung-Bin Yun of Korea who won in PyeongChang and Russian Aleksandr Tretyakov who won in Sochi, two Latvian Brothers, Martins and Tomass Dukurs, one of whom has won silver at the last three Games, and there are multiple World Cup race winners – honestly this year many races might see up to 15 potential skeleton athletes on the podium. I’d like to put myself and Matt in the mix as well. This could all come down to a couple of 100ths of a second over four and a half minutes of racing.”

There are of course no medal guarantees, but the preparation has been immaculate. Good luck, Team GB!

The BBSA run taster sessions and corporate sessions at the push-track from April to September, where GB athletes and coaches coach companies or members of the public to try out the sports. They get the chance to do exactly what Nick and Marcus do on the track and it’s great fun. Email: office@thebbsa.co.uk

thebbsa.co.uk; teambath.com; teamgb.com

Featured image: Nick Gleeson (right) with his teammates at the World Cup in Altenberg