Sliding into View
There aren’t too many athletes away from the Isle of Man TT paddock who could profess to have an inkling of how it feels to wrestle a Superbike down Bray Hill at 170mph - but Amy Williams has some idea. The Olympian, who will help present live TV coverage of the TT for the first time this summer, made her name and her living skimming face-first down ice tracks at speeds approaching 80mph as an elite skeleton racer.
Amy is also a motorcylist and something of a speed-junkie, yet, despite competing in what is perhaps the most dangerous and spectacular of winter sports, she still admits to being amazed by the spectacle served up by TT racers on her first visit to the island.
“My first reaction was just, wow! It’s gobsmacking. The way the riders are at one with the bike is phenomenal - these are unbelievable sportspeople. There are a lot of similarities for me in terms of how they approach the track and manage fear, but the TT is a unique experience and I can’t wait to get back out there.”
SLIDING INTO VIEW: HOW MOST SPORTS FANS REMEMBER AMY
Williams, 39, reached the zenith of her sport with Olympic gold in Vancouver in 2010, cementing her place in history as the first British woman to win individual gold at a Winter Games since 1952.
While taking on a lap of the mountain circuit may be beyond her as a relative motorcycling novice, she can appreciate how the riders deal with the daunting test from a psychological level – something she hopes to bring out when the TV cameras go live in May.
“There are certainly similarities to my sport, skeleton. That’s why the TV production company originally contacted me - they saw someone who understands speed and fear. I was at one with my sled and had to learn the track inside and out. Those fine margins can make the difference in each corner. It’s the same on the Isle of Man.
“I also love that the paddock is a whole giant family, which is very like the winter sliding sports. You understand the dangers, you support each other. I can totally relate to that.”
FEAR & DANGER: “YOU CAN’T DWELL ON WHAT MIGHT GO WRONG”
Anyone who has been fortunate enough to discuss the intricacies of the Mountain Course with a racer - past or present - or even sat, engrossed by an on-board lap on YouTube will no doubt have had their minds scrambled. Just how do they retain that information? How do you learn 37.7 miles of public roads, memorise every apex and braking point, all the while travelling at speeds of up to 200mph?
It’s an area of strength for Williams, who even now can visualise the sweeping turns of the Whistler Sliding Centre where she won gold.
“Mental imagery is a massive part of skeleton. You get six runs to learn every inch of the track, the profile of the ice, the textures, how the air temperature can affect the ice. That’s how I understand how the TT riders do it, how they can notice a gate alongside the course and know from which direction the wind may blow through it.
“I’m so impressed with how they maintain their concentration levels. I used to go down my course in 43 seconds, I had 19 corners to master – TT riders are flat out for 17 minutes. You have to really focus. I can understand that the smallest of margins can make a difference, could be fatal, even, but you can’t dwell on what might go wrong.”
GOLDEN GIRL: AMY CAN STILL VISUALISE THE COURSE WHERE SHE WON OLYMPIC GOLD
Unfortunately for Williams, there were times when skeleton racing did go wrong, as she recalled in her book, Talent to Triumph.
“My first injury resulted from a horrible crash on an infamous track in Germany called Altenberg, that we used to call ‘Alten-smash’. Let’s just say the air-med was busy there. I basically got spat out of a corner. My sled was at the wrong angle, I was inexperienced, I didn’t know how to correct my sled and then… smash. I hit the wall, my body twisted awkwardly and just like that, I was experiencing my first dose of injury (and fear).
“My instant reaction was that I ready to stop skeleton altogether. I felt horrendous, I was scared stiff. But I had something inside me that said no, I’m not going to let that corner get me again. I have to beat it ... I just had to get back on this track as soon as I possibly could.
“This was also where I benefitted from some tough-loving coaches. They weren’t overly dramatic. They encouraged me to study the video, find out where I went wrong, then go back down with a new focus. They taught me to think logically, not emotionally.”
UNDERSTANDING: AMY RELATES TO COMPETITORS LIKE JAMIE COWARD
Amy learned to control her emotions on her journey to becoming an Olympic champion, but believes the key to that is first accepting you will sometimes be fearful – and that fear is normal. She also believes its important to understand what you have no influence over – a mantra repeated over and over by coaches of Team GB.
“It’s rare in skeleton, but people do die. With dangerous sports you have to acknowledge you will have fear. Say to yourself, ‘I am scared of this track, so how do I deal with it?’ You can only control the controllables. You can’t control the weather, or what your competitors are doing, but you can control your own performance and know that you have prepared to the best of your ability.
“I’m often asked if competing in skeleton makes me fearless. The short answer to that is no, absolutely not. I think athletes in any kind of high-risk sport experience fear just like anyone else, we just learn to control it. You learn how to crash. You learn what it feels like when you are about to. You learn to save it…”
Amy returned to the theme of danger in her book, Talent to Triumph. In seeking out a fellow sportsperson who would really understand the need to control fear, the skeleton ace turned to TT racer, Maria Costello MBE. Maria’s contribution got to the truth of the matter: that the will to succeed can help you overcome most obstacles, outweighing the pain and sacrifice.
EMOTIONAL: AMY AND CARL IMMERSING THEMSELVES IN TT HISTORY
Amy, too, is quick to admit that the competitive spirit can quickly return following accidents and injury. Altenberg was a shock – the first big test – but Amy soon learned to live with crashing, growing ever more used to the comeback trail.
“It’s true that you can’t actually remember physical pain and once the pain of broken bones has left the body, my want to race floods back almost stronger than before. I kept my thoughts focussed on the big end goal and what I knew I could achieve. If I get this corner right, and shave a second off my time, I can get a top ten finish. This was always in the back of my mind…”
One other thing Amy has in common with many road racers is the need to live with old injuries. She still has to manage the pain resulting from historic injuries and has even moved into a bungalow to combat the after-effects of her sport.
“I have many degenerative and some bulging discs in my back from that first crash in Altenberg. I had to undergo loads of work to keep my back as pain-free as possible even though it’s never been pain-free and isn’t to this day. Since retiring I’ve also undergone a further two major knee operations. One from snapping most of the ligaments, one because my kneecap was falling to one side.”
NO REGRETS: AMY HAS LEARNED TO LIVE WITH THE PAIN OF OLD INJURIES
As much as Amy would prefer not to have to manage pain, she never gives the impression there are any regrets. After all, skeleton and Olympic Gold catapulted the Bath flyer into the public consciousness, bringing recognition and opportunity.
In 2010, following the Vancouver Olympics, Amy was awarded the MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. She also become the first-ever female Freeman of the City of Bath and rounded off a golden year with a nomination for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
Amy would later help present the BBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics, showcasing some of the sports for which she’s most associated, but it was her appearance on another BBC programme, Top Gear, that gave a clue to her other passion: speed.
In fact, it was former Top Gear personality, Tony Jardine, whom she would buddy up with to take on the famous RAC Rally in a Mitsubishi Lancer; Amy reading the notes. Her need for speed also led the sliding champion to take up dirt-biking and, having passed her motorcycling test, saw her set foot (finally) on the Isle of Man – this historic crucible of motorsport.
‘THERE’S NOTHING LIKE LIVE SPORT, IT JUST BRINGS THAT EXTRA LEVEL OF EMOTION …”
Immersed in the world of road racing, Amy discovered a visceral sport and a group of sportspeople she could relate to. But her journey with the TT was only getting started; highlights of classic racing just a pre-amble for the big test: the Isle of Man TT Races and live broadcast.
“I’ve been really lucky to work these past few years on the Classic TT, but there’s nothing like live TV or live sport, it just brings that extra level of emotion, that thrill. I think it will help show that there is a real risk and a pressure to perform – there certainly is in the Winter sports I’ve commentated on, and those sports aren’t quite as raw or emotional or spectacular as the TT.
“I’ve mainly done the Winter Olympics, that’s quite unique live, standing at the side of a bobsleigh track and having to think off the top of your head how to convey the speed and thrill, so there’s a lovely cross over with the TT. If we're successful in conveying everything that makes TT racing so incredible, I'm sure we'll have something really very special."
Travelling the world with the BBC, Amy has seen first-hand how sport can engage global audience. It’s something that excites her when she considers how many people haven’t yet had access to the world’s greatest road race – and how easily they can fall in love with the fabled event, just as she has.
“Sport can be such a powerful thing, engaging millions of people and dominating our lives, especially when it comes to the biggest stories like the Olympics and the World Cup. There are millions of sports fans out there – millions of motorsport fans, even – who are yet to discover the TT, or know very little about it. It’s exciting to take the TT to these people because it really does deserve to be seen by millions of people all around the world.”
With thanks to Tom Rostance