Dateline: Lillehammer, Norway, winter 2001. For the very first time in her life, 19-year-old Shelley Rudman launched herself head-first down a real skeleton track.
Before this, her experience on the “tin tray” was limited to the 140-metre rubber push track at Bath University, the sole facility of its kind in Britain, where only the start can be practised. And now she was hurtling down the 1,365-metre course at speeds touching 80mph, balancing on a steel and fibreglass sled with her chin and toes millimetres from the ice, enduring G-forces comparable to a fighter pilot.
“It was terrifying – horrible,” she grins now. “A huge shock. The curves were coming at me so fast and I was scuffing the sides. When I got to the bottom all I wanted to do was go home again. But I’d paid a lot of money out of my own pocket to spend a week at that track, to see if skeleton really was the sport for me, and I told myself to stick it out. And then I went down the second time, and began to steer a bit – and was hooked.”
Dateline: Turin, Italy, winter 2006. Shelley Rudman wins Olympic silver. In five short years she went from outright novice to Olympic medallist. She went to Vancouver in 2010 as favourite for Olympic gold, but Britain’s Amy Williams took it after a poor first run left Rudman with too much ground to make up and she finished sixth. Now, a month shy of her 33rd birthday, she is heading to Sochi as the reigning world champion – but once again her dream of gold may be eclipsed by another compatriot. Kent’s Lizzy Yarnold has dominated this season’s World Cup, with Rudman needing six races before even making the podium.
“It’s been hard going, a pretty average season,” admits Rudman. “But I’m world ranked three and happy with that. I lost eight days of strength training at Christmas through food poisoning and then a chest infection. I’m not in race mode yet. Everything is targeted to Sochi.”
The irony is that 25-year-old Yarnold has come through UK Sport’s Girls4Gold initiative, which Rudman helped launch in 2008. It was Britain’s most extensive female sporting talent recruitment drive ever, seeking highly competitive sportswomen to become champions in targeted Olympic sports. Now Rudman could see her own dream ended by a talent she helped find.
“I don’t think that matters,” she claims, perhaps stretching credulity. “It’s nice to perform well but also nice to know others in our nation are doing well. I was strong last year and Lizzy wasn’t, so we’re taking it in turns. It’s good for our sport and there’s good banter between us.”
Actually UK Sport – responsible for distributing £100 million of National Lottery and government funding annually to elite competitors – sees both Yarnold and Rudman as two of Team GB’s leading medal hopes. They forecast at least three British medals in Sochi, which would be the best in 78 years, and possibly as many as seven, easily outshining Britain’s best ever haul of four, at Chamonix in 1924.
Training for Rudman means summers in Sheffield, doing strength work at the ice rink, and winters in Europe and North America, wherever the competition circuit dictates.
She is mother to six-year-old Ella by her fellow British skeleton slider Kristan Bromley, her fiancé since 2009. Will they marry after Sochi? “To be confirmed” is all Rudman will say. Many elite female athletes choose to defer motherhood – not Rudman.
“Ella was planned,” she says firmly. “It was the right time. I knew I wanted children. It’s like any working mother. You just have to manage it, and I have really great support.” Remarkably, Rudman – who has some teacher training – home-schools Ella for the two months of the education year when training and competition take the family abroad.
“I get Ella’s module schoolwork from her teachers and go through it all with them. She doesn’t miss out on normal school life and the teachers are supportive because she is picking up languages – basic phrases in Russian, German, Spanish, French.”
Rudman’s own parents were a huge influence on her at home in the Wiltshire village of Pewsey. Her mother Josie worked nights as a care assistant and days providing learning support at a college for adults with special needs; her father Jack worked seven days a week as a builder.
“My mum has always been so supportive and inspirational, and such a hard worker. She’s a tough cookie. My dad is really competitive and pushed me into sport.”
Rudman plays down the idea that as parents she and Kristan are involved in a dangerous sport, despite the fact that skeleton sleds have no brakes (sliders use their feet to slow down at the end, and steer by shifting their bodyweight). She has crashed in her time, but her worst injury was a broken finger. “The sport looks extreme,” she says, “but actually the most likely injury is straining a muscle at the start.”
Assorted hazards lie ahead in Sochi. Questions on matters of the host government’s anti-gay legislation are batted away: “Politics is up to the politicians.” Security-related queries, following suicide bombings in southern Russia, draw a considered reply. “My thoughts go out to those affected, but I’m confident we’re in safe hands.”
Above all else, she expects to be prepared.
“By the time of the Games, I will have been down the Sochi track about 40 times,” says Rudman. “There are a couple of sequences where the driving lines are complicated. You need to know a track – the bends, the speed changes, just like a Formula One driver. If it’s warm it affects the ice badly. Driving rain is pretty bad. I pray for still, cold conditions.”
And gold? Does she pray for gold? Rudman smiles. “People put so much pressure on themselves,” she shrugs. “If it doesn’t happen, it won’t be the end of the world.”
Winter Olympics: Women's Skeleton, today 3:40pm, 5:00pm, BBC2
Shelley Rudman is an ambassador for P&G’s Thank You Mum campaign, celebrating the contribution of mothers of Olympic athletes. To find out more visit www.supersavvyme.co.uk/tag/sochi-olympics