Learning to fly

The multiple Cresta Run champion and record-breaker reveals his training secrets behind his success in this terrifying sport.

I came to skeleton relatively late in my sliding career. My background was always on the Cresta Run, where I was just making it into the top tier of riders in my late twenties. I would describe the Cresta as agricultural, whereas skeleton is much more about finesse. On the Cresta you really need to heave, shove, and tug yourself down the track. Recently, I was hooked up to sensors that measured how much force a rider applies in steering, and the forces I was applying coming from the Cresta were ten times those needed for the skeleton. It was a real eye-opener for me to see physical evidence of the difference.

In 1997 I was headhunted by Tony Wallington, performance director for British Bobsleigh, who thought that if I could ride the Cresta, I could drive a bob! I did this for a year, driving for the Brits on the Europa Cup circuit. However, I wasn’t nearly as good as Tony had hoped – essentially I ran out of talent – so, swallowing some pride, I headed back to the Cresta. I figured I was best suited to what I knew, and that was bombing down a track head first on my belly on a ‘toboggan’.

In the summer of 1999, they made skeleton an official Olympic sport. During my torrid time bobbing for GB, I had had a go at skeleton once, more out of curiosity as it looked quite exciting, so I had a vague idea of what it was like. I remember thinking, maybe I should give it a go. How many people can say they are an Olympian, after all?

After an unfortunate incident on the Cresta in the 1999/2000 season, I made up my mind. I called up the Brits that summer, and they suggested I go to a one-week skeleton school run by the military. Then I asked them to send me on a course run by the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation – I did this for a week in Igls, Austria. However, I didn’t stand a chance of making the GB team as they had already invested heavily in three sliders, so they weren’t prepared to throw scarce resources after a forlorn hope.

If I had any aspirations of being an Olympian I would have to slide for another nation. Fortunately I had an Irish passport, so I approached them and was pretty much pushing against an open door. It was a quick rise from then on: I competed in the Intercontinental Series (Europa Cup and America’s Cup) in 2000/2001, and by the end I had qualified for the World Championships. The following year, an Olympic year, I qualified for the World Cup.

I definitely had a taste of what elite performance training was about with the British Bobsleigh team. I trained with Mark Tout (previously the GB1 driver), so I got in vague shape. But in 2000 I had to take my training a hell of a lot more seriously. My single biggest challenge was that I wasn’t an athlete – I had never really trained as a youngster and didn’t have that solid base that others starting out would have had.

I had always been a good rider on the Cresta, so to a certain extent, once I got sliding on a skeleton track sorted, the next ‘easiest’ tick in the box was the start. By the Olympics, I was within a quarter of a second of the quickest starters. Although it doesn’t sound like a lot, in terms of split times even that quarter of a second translates to half a second, three-quarters of a second all the way down to the bottom.

I was training six days a week, sometimes twice a day. My routine was quite rigid: I would have breakfast, then be off to the gym or running track. If I went to the gym I would do circuits or weights, and within my weights programme I would adjust my workout to suit the stage I was at in the season (put together by my strength and conditioning coach, Adam Pengilly). This would be the same with circuits, or I would go to the running track and do some sprint or push training.

In terms of intensity, my training was probably not too dissimilar to what they do today, but in terms of being sport-specific it was nowhere near. For example, we didn’t have a push track (not even GB had a push track!), so I would have to put roller-blade wheels into the runner boxes at the bottom of my sled and push them along a running track – and there was only one track nearby that had a smooth enough surface. That was the only way I could practise my start.

My ‘tick list’ extended to getting the right people behind me whenever I could. I was exceptionally fortunate to be given a physio for the Olympic season by my father-in-law, and he became my currency: where other teams and other individuals might not have a physio on the circuit with them, I would ‘trade’ him for advice, information and favours.

I would call him my ‘performance multiplier’. At one time or another he worked on all three athletes who won gold, silver and bronze and, as they didn’t see me as a threat, they would give me their track notes and tips in return. So he became a very useful tool in my armoury.

I also had a sled technician who was vital in the whole process, because he was able to look after my sled and runners completely so I didn’t have to worry about them. Even some of the biggest nations didn’t have sled technicians travelling with them. My time here was better served by training, preparing, administering my team and resting. My team and I were definitely exploring what was possible during that time, but nowadays they certainly formalise it, and it becomes much more part of their day-to-day.

I’ve been very lucky regarding injuries. I’ve never sustained an injury that I couldn’t walk away from, or even one that has stopped me riding the next day. Staying injury-free on the Cresta is difficult, as you always pick up bumps and bruises, whereas with skeleton you get the odd graze, so you survive relatively intact.

I would love to race Lizzy Yarnold down the Cresta, and I would beat her! However, if you gave her another two or three years at it she would probably whup me. If she returned the favour and we raced skeleton, she would beat me by a second or a second and a half, at least. Combining the times, Lizzy would come out on top, but she does have a few years on me!

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