“He couldn’t get the needle in so was just jabbing at my arm,” says GB short-track speed skater Elise Christie, as weird an explanation as you’ll get as to why our interview has been delayed slightly.
The needle is in reference to drug testers who had arrived at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham paying a random visit to the world number one.
“Because I’ve been training on the ice, I’m so cold so your veins don’t pop up and you can’t get the needle in very easily,” explains the 23-year-old, rubbing her arm at the memory.
It’s bizarre that this nondescript “leisure centre” in a middle-England city centre should house a world-beater.
Yes it’s promoted as “a centre of excellence in ice sports” but training still has to fit around the figure skaters and ice hockey team – each sport requiring a different ice temperature.
Christie has nevertheless managed to establish herself as the world’s best in her favoured 1,000m distance.
Short-track speed skating is basically skating round and round in circles for a specified distance, trying not to get wiped out by fellow competitors who are all also trying to get to the line first. Christie is pretty good at it.
Last year Christie became the first Brit to win a World Cup short-track speed skating series and, presuming she qualifies for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics through a rather convoluted process, could be one of the Brits we’ll be dusting off our GB flags to cheer on to a medal come February.
Other athletes talk of pleasant-sounding warm-weather training sessions, but Christie, I point out, skates round and round in circles in an ice rink, come rain or shine. Christie laughs when I point this out.
“Some sports would have been an easier choice,” she concedes, “there’s bigger sports in Britain, but there’s a few medal hopes in Sochi – one of us has got to pull it through.”
Christie’s Olympic ambitions now are very different to her debut Games in Vancouver 2010.
By her own admission she was just happy to be a part of the experience but afterwards had a change of heart.
“I came out of Vancouver thinking, ‘I don’t want to do that again, just skate’.
“I felt like – no disrespect to anyone – but coming from Great Britain’s winter sport programme, winning a medal was never going to happen.
“But then I thought, ‘That’s not the attitude, there’s no reason why anyone should be better than you’.
“I’m going to do everything I can to try and get that medal because in eight years’ time, when I finish my career, I’ll know I’ve done my best and I can be happy with that.”
At this point I sense the influence of a certain Dr Steve Peters, the renowned sports psychiatrist who helps the likes of cyclists Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton to become world and Olympic champions via his Chimp Paradox theory.
“I have done a lot of work with the chimp,” confirms Christie. “It’s about bringing in logic rather than getting emotional.”
Once she had made the decision to go for it, the minor changes brought about the biggest difference.
“Instead of going round a friend’s house a couple of nights a week I’d just stay at home and recover,” Christie reveals.
“I speak to Nick [Gooch], the coach, a lot more about recovery strategies and setting goals every day so I’ve got something that’s a challenge to aim for.”
Since Vancouver Christie has become World Cup series champion in the 1,000m and bronze medallist in the World Championships but proof of the change in mindset comes when she expresses disappointment with the third place, despite it being the first time a GB woman had won a world championship medal.
“I got into the final and I got into third place and I stayed in third place.
“I held on to that medal but I got off the ice devastated with myself.
“It sounds really bad but I came off thinking I tried to win a medal and I did myself proud but I could have done more.”
Perhaps the attitude is an example of why the coaches describe the Gossip Girl-fan as “very tough”, prompting her to comment: “I’m not tough in general, I’m quite wet but when it comes to skating.
“My coach always says that I can generally choose whether I’m going to be able to do something or not.
“He says that I seem to be able to keep going and going and going but then I get myself in these holes where I’ve trained that hard that I do crash, but it’s after a long time.”
Training with male skaters no doubt adds to Christie’s robustness on the ice but it’s not always a constructive environment: “I train with boys every day, which can get demoralising.
“I’m very thankful because that is what’s made me stronger over the past few years, but it is hard pushing yourself to the limit every day – I don’t ever skate comfortably within myself, it’s always, ‘Right, let’s go hard again’.”
A potential benefit of a Sky Academy Sports scholarship could be for Christie to train with female competitors in other countries for a few months, an idea gleaned from the South Korean skater Min-Jung Kim.
“Min trained here for maybe two months and it was helpful because you see where you are compared to the rest of the world instead of training for six months and you don’t have a clue where you are, and then you have to go and compete.”
Kim also reminded Christie how brutal sporting life can be. The 28-year-old should have been a major rival to Christie at next year’s Games.
“Unfortunately,” says Christie, “she fell twice in her Olympic trials and didn’t make the team so she’s not going to Sochi.
“She’s had a terrible time – she broke her back a few years ago and in Vancouver she skated the relay and South Korea won but then got disqualified, and she won’t get another chance.”
The Scottish native will inevitably have to learn how to deal with increasing pressure leading up to the Games as one of a handful of potential GB medallists.
In Vancouver there was a dearth of hardware, Amy Williams’ skeleton run bringing a solitary gold.
During last year’s summer London Olympic Games, Christie had her eye on one particular athlete.
“Jessica Ennis was the face of the Games and I wanted to see how she dealt with it. She was put through a lot and came out the other end and she won. She just looked so composed the whole time.”
Another summer athlete with whom she feels an affinity is a former GB track cyclist and three-time Olympic medalist.
“I’ve always liked Victoria Pendleton – she’s quite similar to me as a lot of people say she’s really driven and doesn’t hide how she feels from the media.
“She actually sent me her book for free, which was nice, and wrote a little message in it.”
Skate cycle combo
Both speed skaters and track cyclists spend an inordinate amount of time going round in circles, using similar muscle groups, so it’s no surprise that the speed skaters occasionally hook up with British Cycling from time to time.
They also both share a lot of time indoors either training or in their recovery period at home, which presumably is not altogether healthy.
“I just had my vitamin D results back for the year,” says Christie, “and they were 40 and they’re supposed to be 100. We take vitamin D supplements every six months but we’re probably going to do it every couple of weeks now.
“It’s hard in the winter – you get up and it’s dark, you come to the rink and you look out those windows and it’s dark and you’ve got to skate.
“You come out at the end of the day and it’s dark and you’re like, ‘Where’s the day gone?’, but I do love being on the ice so I wouldn’t be able to not skate.”
An illness at the beginning of the year resulting in enforced time off only to reaffirm Christie’s passion for the sport.
“I had mumps badly, was off for a few weeks and I was like, ‘Can I come back yet?’ and the coaches were like, ‘No, you’re not coming in the rink like that’.”
There’s not much that can stop the ice Queen, just mumps.
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