To hell and back: How Elise Christie revived her Olympic dream
Reigning triple world champion. World record holder. Elise Christie is at the top of her game. With as many as three gold medals in play, PyeongChang 2018 could see her become Britain’s greatest ever Winter Olympian. But Christie, perhaps more than any other athlete going to South Korea, knows only too well how the Olympics can destroy dreams as well as realise them.
It is the visceral power of short track that grabs you. The overwhelming feeling of speed and momentum propelling athletes round a 111-metre track on razor-sharp blades that are 46cm long and 1mm thick. Hurtling at precipitous angles round tight corners which make it seem almost impossible these sprinters of the ice are not only upright, but in total control. Mastering physics over distances of 500m, 1,000, and 1,500m is only half the battle, though. Mastering fortune is a far trickier task.
Towards the end of a practice session at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham, Elise Christie loses that precious balance. She slips slightly, tentative gasps are heard and then, as she stays on her feet, giggles from the coaches and athletes huddled together in the centre of the rink. “I’m not perfect!” says the current queen of short track and Britain’s best medal prospect in PyeongChang. It leaves her lips as a joke, but lingering in the air are memories of a time when that proposition was brutally broadcast to the world.
It was a trauma which almost convinced Christie to leave the sport entirely. A trauma which required her to rebuild her confidence and her whole tactical approach. A trauma which acts like an anchor in the present, inevitably dragging conversation back to it. A trauma which played out to millions on live television across three separate nights, and was amplified to millions more as it spread across social media amid an onslaught from trolls. A trauma which will be discussed now and every day until she takes to the ice in PyeongChang in search of her redemptive moment.
1. The Nightmare in Sochi
Elise Christie of Great Britain is consoled after the Short Track Speed Skating Ladies' 500 m Final on day 6 of the Sochi 2014 Winter OlympicsGetty Images
" After Sochi, I was in a very bad place for a while. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I was completely lost."
You have to start where everything starts for Elise Christie. The subject that every interview inexorably glides towards, like a blade cutting fresh lines in ice. The ground zero of her career. Vancouver 2010 may have been her first Winter Olympics – with an unremarkable set of results seeing her lose in the quarter-finals of the 500m, the heats of the 1,000m and the heats of the 1,500m – but Sochi was where the real story started.
Short track is by its very nature unpredictable. With the fastest athletes reaching speeds in excess of 30mph, their velocity far exceeds that of the fastest 100m runners in history. Usain Bolt’s world record for the 100m, set at the World Championships in Berlin in 2009, clocks in at an average of 23mph. But while sprinters have their own allocated lane, in short track the competitors all vie for the best line, jostling for position and invading personal spaces. It carries an extra level of complication, and jeopardy. Even by the standards of one of sport’s most perilous high-speed disciplines, though, what happened to Christie in Sochi four years ago was exceedingly cruel.
“I mean, what happened in Sochi, really changed my perspective on short track,” this engaging and open 27-year-old native of Livingston tells Eurosport in an interview in a café at the National Ice Centre. “Because I didn't believe that would happen ever, that you would get three penalties and out of every distance. You expect it to happen once at least, you know that you are the best in the world and you are fighting for the best position in a single-lane track. Racing each other. Mistakes happen; bumps happen. But to happen in all three distances changed my perspective on it.”
The gory details, then.
With a 1,000m bronze at the 2013 World Championships and the 1,000m overall World Cup title strengthening her credentials, Christie, then 23, went into Sochi with burgeoning hopes of winning Britain’s first Olympic medal in short track since Nicky Gooch, her long-time coach, claimed bronze in the 500m at Lillehammer 1994. “She could have gone out there and got three gold medals,” says Charlotte Gilmartin, Christie’s closest ally and team-mate, who roomed with her in Sochi and is also representing Team GB in PyeongChang. “She was that good and that strong at that point in the season.”
It was lunchtime on February 13, 2014, and Christie had reached the final of the 500m at Sochi’s Iceberg Skating Palace. Four racers: a 75% chance of a medal. Going hard from the start, she collided with Italy’s Arianna Fontana at the very first corner taken at pace. The two went down and smacked hard into the cushioned barrier around the perimeter of the track. Early race leader Park Seung-hi was also caught up in the chaos and as her skate bumped the ice she lost all balance and careered off too. China’s Li Jianrou, bringing up the rear, was left untouched and cruised through for gold. Christie and her fallen colleagues clambered to their feet and resumed racing, with Christie getting across the line in second. Phew, a first Olympic medal, silver. But when the result came up on the big screen hanging over the rink, her name had ‘PEN’ alongside it. Christie had been disqualified.
Elise Christie of Great Britain (C) falls and collides with Seung-Hi Park of South Korea (L) and Arianna Fontana of Italy (R)Getty Images
An animated Gooch tried to argue the case with the officials but Christie was left battling back tears as her medal, a first for Britain in short track for 20 years, was ripped away from her. A blow, but not a fatal one. The 500m would have been an unlikely bonus for Christie and the 1,000m was her favourited event, with the 1,500m tucked in between. Two days later, Christie was back on the ice. Two days later, the nightmare deepened. Going all out to win her heat and secure a more favourable position in the 1,500m semi-final, Christie took the inside line in the final straight in an attempt to beat Fontana to the line. The photo finish revealed she had narrowly achieved her aim. It also revealed that she had gone wide of the line by 1cm. Up came the finishing graphic. ‘PEN’. Again.
“If it hadn't have been a photo finish - because they both lunged for the line - if the photo finish didn't happen, they wouldn't have noticed,” Gilmartin reflects. “Literally so many things played out which meant it was so unlucky for her, and again just heartbreaking… It's always hard to watch someone you are so close to go through what she went through.”
That heart would be broken one final time. On February 21, it was time for the semi-final of the 1,000m. As the reigning World Cup champion, this was her big shot at redemption, but another collision - this time with Li, the winner of the 500m, on the final corner - resulted in another agonising wait. “You are kind of in limbo, you don't know what's going to happen,” says Gooch of those moments when your fate is in the balance. “You know there has been an incident, you don't know which way the referees are going to go.” And then you do. ‘PEN’.
A potentially brilliant Olympic Games had been transformed into an unremitting tale of despair. But the torment had not been restricted to the rink.
2. The Trolling
" Death threats. No-one really prepares themselves for that, or how they will feel when that happens"
One of the more pernicious implications of the internet was in fact foretold around two-and-a-half thousand years ago. Plato’s Republic - a giant tome in the history of philosophy and political theory, published around 381 BC - contains within it the story of the Ring of Gyges. A shepherd stumbles across a ring which gives him the power of invisibility. Abusing this power for his own dastardly ends, Gyges sets about seducing the queen and slaying the king, becoming the ruler of Lydia. Plato’s intent was to explore how morality can be fatally compromised by anonymity, and by extension unaccountability.
In early 2007, when Goleman’s article was published, Twitter had around 50,000 active monthly users. By the start of 2014, that number had shot up to 255 million. And any issues with social interactions over email had been dwarfed by the problem posed by a platform which offered the ability to purvey instant poison. Seduce the Queen, kill the King, unleash the troll. That February, Elise Christie found herself at the centre of one such onslaught.
At her first event in Sochi, Christie had unwittingly helped bring down Korean athlete Park Seung-hi. A good contingent of Park’s fans back home were enraged. Staring into the blue glow emitted by their phone or laptop screen, emboldened by their physical separation from the person in question and empowered by a platform which gave them immediate access, they quickly sought out Christie for abuse. “F*** you!” “Get lost m***** f****” “I hate you!” “Scum”. Even death threats.
She was forced to delete her account. “I’ve had quite a lot of abuse over the internet to deal with, it’s been tough as well. I’ve had a few people threatening me, cyber-bullying basically, so it’s been a tough few days,” she said after her second disqualification in Sochi. For a girl who suffered two bouts of bullying at school, the first of which resulted in her being taken out of school for six months, it was too much to bear.
Speaking nearly four years on, Gilmartin reveals the extent of her friend’s struggles. “There was so much to go through,” she says. “I think she was trying to have a bit of a social media blackout, but it still meant that people were like, 'oh, are you okay, this is happening?', so then she has to come back to this whole bombardment of stuff as severe as death threats. No-one really prepares themselves for that, or how they will feel when that happens.”
Elise Christie of Great Britain looks on prior to the Short Track Speed Skating Ladies' 500 m Final on day 6 of the Sochi 2014 Winter OlympicsGetty Images
Short track is a national obsession in South Korea and a Winter Olympics in PyeongChang could in theory present a problem. But Christie’s relationship with Korean fans was quickly rebuilt when she competed in Seoul in a World Cup event in December 2014. No doubt chastened by the behaviour of some of their compatriots, she received a warm welcome from the crowd. “The Koreans are really supportive now,” she says. “I have got super fans out there, it's almost like being part of a girl band or something! You go out there and they are really happy to see you and cheer you on - so it really has turned around, which is nice because I wouldn't have wanted to be going to an Olympics where I wasn't liked. That would have been horrible.”
Social media has certainly not lost its ability to open individuals up to abuse. But any vitriol directed at Christie now lands wide of the mark. “Of course I have problems on social media at times. There are people who are way more in the limelight than me, and they are getting way worse. There are people who say things, I think I was compared to Donald Trump recently, which I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, I'm not taking sides, it's just a strange comparison. Nowadays, I am more focused on who is being nice and who is saying good things because they are the only people I am interested in being part of my career - the people who want me to do well. So I just take it with a bit of a brush of the shoulder I guess. It's always going to happen.”
3. The Journey Back
Elise Christie tries on her uniform during the Team GB Kitting Out Ahead Of Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic GamesGetty Images
" I was learning to lose"
By her own account, the recovery from Sochi has been “a four-year process”, and the Christie of 2018 is far removed from the Christie of 2014. She has reassessed all aspects of her performance and emerged a far more complete competitor. At one stage, though, her very future in the sport was in doubt. A specialist in explosive speed, Christie would naturally suit the demands of track cycling and she freely admits her mind did wander.
“Switching sports was always in my head,” Christie says. “I always thought it would be a great idea. For me it is always something I want to do, it is just when I want to do it, and obviously with the heartbreak of Sochi, that was a time when I nearly did switch.” But the backing offered to her by GB Short Track, UK Sport and her wider support network convinced her otherwise. “I owed it to them,” she reflects now, “and I’d really be letting myself down if I didn’t give this one more try.”
Christie was back on the ice for the World Championships in March 2014, just one month after Sochi, and picked up a silver medal in the 500m. This resilience impressed her closest confidantes. “Elise is phenomenal,” says Gilmartin. “And the fact that she was able to turn it around the next season, which was only a couple of months after, and race again, I think a lot of athletes would have taken more time out, would have needed more time out, just to be hung up on that.”
Marianne St Gelais of Canada with the silver medal, Elise Christie of Great Britain with the gold medal and Shim Suk Hee of Korea with the bronze medal celebrate after the Ladies overall ceremony during day two of ISU World Short Track Championships at RoGetty Images
With the assistance of a psychologist, Christie began to banish the mental demons of Sochi. She worked hard to remove the fear of losing which had taken hold of her. The instinct after what happened at the last Winter Olympics might have been to cultivate a more conservative approach. To curtail her instincts to attack and be content with a bronze if she was sitting in third place. But, eventually, she resisted such impulses. She used the pain of Sochi to strengthen her mental state. She stared the possibility of defeat in the face and embraced it. “It is having the mechanism to cope with the fact that you are not always going to win,” as Gooch, her coach, explains.
Christie takes up the theme. “What happened in Sochi definitely has made me stronger in many ways. Even as a person. Now I feel like, what is the worst that can happen? It's not going to be worse than that… Nothing seems like a big deal now. So for me, it really has changed everything... it has been a positive in the long run.”
A key moment came in January 2016 when the European Championships brought her back to Sochi. She swept the board with golds in the 500m, 1,000m and 1,500m. “That was a really big turning point for me, the Europeans that year. I remember feeling strange when I went there. But I think overcoming the biggest demon from Sochi was done there. To come back as overall European champion for the second time, I knew I was ready to move on from there.”
Twelve months later came the crowning moment of her career to date: the 2017 World Championships in Rotterdam. Christie won gold in the 1,000m, gold in the 1,500m and bronze in the 3,000m. It gave her the crown of overall world champion, the first European woman to achieve the honour. Christie hadn’t even raced the 1,500m distance for a year. By her own account, “it was a crazy World Championships.”
Having reached a state where she had taught herself to accept the possibility of defeat, Christie was liberated. Conservatism was banished and instead of settling for bronze she went all out for gold. A transformation in mindset and strategy. It paid off handsomely in Rotterdam’s Ahoy Arena.
“I was learning to lose, almost,” she says. “I didn't want to come second or third any more. I just wanted to win, and you have to be willing to lose to do that, because it is a very different style of racing. A lot of last year was around me coping with the fact that I might actually lose now. You can safely win a second-place medal and race quite within yourself, but when you are actually trying to win… My 1,000m at worlds on my last half-lap I overtook to the front, and that is something that the year before I wouldn't have done because I've got second. Let's just stay in second - that's a safe medal. Now I'm like, 'I don't want second! I want to go out and win!' So it has been a gradual approach, especially from in Sochi I was in bronze medal position and tried to move up and lost the medal, but now I'm willing to accept that.”
Christie has passed some important milestones on the journey back, removed some significant barriers to success. But what of the tactical and strategic reinventions which have worked in parallel to this mental recovery?
4. Building a Path to Success
The National Ice Centre is an unprepossessing construction which in 2000 sprung up on the site of the Nottingham Ice Stadium, the venue where two local residents by the name of Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean began training together in the late 1970s. The modern building has the appearance of a bloated multiplex cinema but history hangs around the place still. Its location, Bolero Square, is a nod to the routine which delivered perfect 6.0 scores and a gold medal at the 1984 Winter Games, and the outfits Torvill and Dean wore on the Sarajevo ice are proudly on display in the new building.
Burrow your way through the tunnels of the same arena and you can find the National Performance Centre for GB Short Track, a team hoping to decorate the arena’s walls with their own historic artefacts. There is not only hope, but expectation too. Despite Christie’s travails in Sochi, it was clear that the programme was capable of delivering medals and funding from UK Sport has increased from £2,953,400 for the Sochi Games, to £4,764,006 for 2018. It is here in Nottingham where the blueprint for Christie’s PyeongChang campaign is being designed.
Stewart Laing was appointed performance director in December 2015 with a brief to focus on success in PyeongChang. “There's been a number (of changes),” he tells Eurosport. “So we have had physical, geographic relocations; we have changed our athlete lounges, our offices; we've looked at enhancing our training environment here at the rink. There has been staffing and support changes, so we have increased the number of different roles. We have brought in a performance engineer and a performance scientist role to support the athletes and coaches on a day to day basis.”
As well as these structural changes, Christie has been busy reconstructing her own approach since the last Olympics. “The first year you try to have a more relaxed year, not take it so seriously. Because we are one of the sports which has a World Championship every year, you do have to always peak, but you don't take it quite as seriously. First I was focused on the physical - what can I physically improve? - and then it was around about the technique, and then [in 2016-17] I was very based on improving my tactical side.”
To achieve something extraordinary in PyeongChang, Christie has been employing some extraordinary methods. The most counter-intuitive of which has been actively holding back in certain races.
Winning a heat in short track affords you the advantage of starting the next round in the best position on the ice. If you can sustain that success then pride of place will be yours in the final. For a distance as short as 500m, it can be a considerable advantage. But sometimes plans go awry. Sometimes you might qualify fourth for a final. Christie is an athlete with the power and pace to be able to lead a race from the front. It’s how she first forged her reputation in the sport. But her team wanted her to be more flexible, more streetwise. They wanted to ensure her competitive knowledge extended to every single scenario.
“Elise is never happy and we are always trying to make improvements, but tactically has obviously been the big one,” says her coach, Nicky Gooch. “We have been strong enough and fast enough to win for a few years, so we have just been working on different strategies and basically understanding racing better so we make better choices. Sometimes it's also about putting yourself in a situation and finding the solutions to actually win a race and not just be at the front of a race and win from the front.”
Laing takes up the theme: “We can do simulations in training but it never really mirrors or replicates the real pressures that come with racing, so for us that was an ethos this season. We know we have the physical capabilities, we know Elise has the ability to multi-medal and medal on the international scene - but how do we put her into environments which really get her to learn to race? That was the ethos. Elise is never going to be satisfied with the second place, so for her she talked last season about winning or losing and giving it her all, knowing that sometimes those will pay off, and sometimes those won't. But that was part of the process of actually going out there and feeling secure to explore different tactics in racing.”
For Christie, the fruits of this approach were seen in Rotterdam: “I wanted to develop another side to myself, so no-one knew what I was going to do. If you look at my World Championship 1,000m, every race was raced differently. So I did the quarter-final at the front, the semi-final from the back, the final I was just in the pack. It's so that no-one can judge what you are going to do and guess. People will still try, but I needed to be more adaptable, because I was physically capable of winning, but I [sometimes] have to beat three people from the same team to win, and that is very difficult if they all know what you are going to do all the time. For me it was a no-brainer: I had to become more adaptable.”
The process of fine-tuning her competitive edge has also seen Christie swap her training partners. In 2016 she started doing more work with the British men and then it became a more permanent arrangement. It allows her to do more volume, to hone her power as well as her prodigious speed. To become a more formidable athlete, Christie has thrown herself into more exacting scenarios, where she has been confronted with the spectre of defeat. But always with the intent that when it really matters, she wins.
5. What If?
Elise Christie's Olympic journey began in Vanouver, 2010. Just 19, she made little impression but gained invaluable experience.Getty Images
" Obviously Olympic champion is my goal"
Christie’s response to the worst week of her career has been a serious, studious four-year affair. Bravery and determination have been required in spades. But no amount of training and mental recalibration will make the topic vanish. It is the question which cannot be avoided. The topic which will inform every interview she gives ahead of PyeongChang and lead every feature screened about her. “It does play on my mind a bit,” Christie admits. “What if that happened again? It's possible.”
The 2017-18 season has not been without its complications, either. After a strong summer’s training, Christie sustained an injury in September in the opening Olympic qualifier in Budapest as she tore the TFL muscle in her thigh. “I was in a lot of pain and was very weak compared to before,” she laments. Although by November, in a World Cup event in Seoul, she was back in the gold medals in the 500m. It is the distance in which she holds the world record – 42.335 seconds, set in Salt Lake City in November 2016 – and the first event the fastest woman on ice will tackle in PyeongChang.
So much seems to rest on that first event. A trouble-free 500m, with the qualifiers on February 10 and the final three days later, could set up the greatest Winter Olympic campaign of any British athlete in history. But what if? What if something goes wrong again? There will be a whirlwind of emotions running through the Scot at the Gangneung Ice Arena. What will it feel like when she is on the start line of one of the biggest races of her life?
“You can't hear anything. You stand there and there is so much noise around you but you are not taking any of it in. I generally think about my breathing. I'm thinking, 'ooh, I'm a bit out of breath'. I guess it's the adrenalin but I am scared, I guess! But then you go to the start and then everything comes down. I'm like, 'it's just skating, this is what I do every day and I am ready'. It's weird. It's a lot of different emotions, confidence and doubt, everything is going through your head at the same time.”
But now, after that long recovery process, which demanded that she confront her doubts, look within herself and unearth the mental fortitude to not only return to the ice, but return a much improved proposition, Christie feels she has the tools to prevent a repeat. “I believe now that I have got myself to a place where that wouldn't happen,” she says. “I'm not going out there and saying I won't make any mistakes, but I believe that I am strong enough and smart enough and skilled enough now to overcome that and for that not to happen. It's in the past now.”
Only one thing matters for Christie now. She believes she can win all three distances in PyeongChang but has set a target of two golds. Becoming Olympic champion is everything to her. “It's literally the only thing missing from my career... You can lose an edge, you can get knocked over three times, but for me I am definitely going out there with the goal of winning the last medal that is missing.”
And what of the thought that disaster could be lurking around every one of those painfully tight corners? “At times it is hard to accept the unpredictability. It's not going to work out for you every time and you have to accept that, to move forward. I have had so many World Championships where I have been close to being the world champion and I haven't done it. But if I hadn't stuck at it, I wouldn't be world champion now. You just have to accept it and move on. Control the controllables, as they say. That's all you can do.”
After sinking to precipitous depths and climbing back to soaring heights, no one has worked as hard at controlling those controllables - reshaping her mentality, preparation and strategy in a near total rebuild - as Elise Christie. But when the pulse quickens, the music stops and the lights focus, everything will be decided on that treacherous ice.