Shelley Rudman apparently came from nowhere to win an Olympic silver medal and has subsequently gone on to become a European Champion and World Cup event winner. She’s now firmly installed as a favourite for Olympic gold. And yet she is not a household name in Britain.
Be that as it may Shelley-Marie Rudman is certainly better known today than she was four years ago when, over the course of a series of nail-biting runs, she picked up a superb silver medal at the Turin Winter Olympics.
It is a shame for Shelley that, although very popular, the Winter Olympics do not resonate in Britain in the same way as its’ Summer cousin. And not only that but Shelley excels in the bob skeleton event, which is an unknown quantity to most Brits. However she is certainly responsible for bringing it to the attention of a wider public and introducing us to a thrilling winter pursuit.
The sport involves a white-knuckle ride down super-fast ice runs head first on a high-tech ‘tray’ like sled. And it isn’t simply a case of lying down and hoping – the sliders have to drive the sled with immense precision at high speeds (exceeding 80mph at times!). And fractions of seconds can be lost and gained in the blink of an eye with only the slightest adjustment.
Because her home country has little heritage in the sport Shelley’s journey into it inevitably depended on a series of quirky circumstances and unforeseen opportunities.
A chance introcution to bob skeleton altered the path of her sporting life
A keen athlete who had studied sports science at Bath University, she had been a promising track athlete specialising in the 400m hurdles. She was also a useful gymnast and judo player. But injury curtailed her plans to pursue track to a higher level.
It was this setback and a chance introduction to bob skeleton that altered the path of her sporting life. Her basic sprint speed, honed over several years on the track, lent itself to the allimportant start and she picked up the technical basics of driving very quickly. In fact her very first run registered an impressive time!
“Very early on I knew, I had found something I felt I could excel at. I’d love to have a been a 400m hurdler, but would I have been world class or just pretty good at national level? I really don’t know and injury and fate means I’ll never know. But Bob Skeleton felt like something that I could take to the highest level and really compete at”, recalls Shelley.
Her belief and ambitions were quickly backed up by achievement. She secured British Skeleton Championship wins in 2004 and 2005, won the Europa Cup in 2004 and became World Student Champion in 2005.
But it was her exploits in Turin during the winter Olympics of 2006 that created the buzz and brought her to the attention of the British sporting public for the first time.
The girl from Pewsey in Wiltshire was competing in a thrilling winter sport few of us knew anything about and she was taking on and beating the very best in the world. National news images of ecstatic celebrations in her local village pub – where regulars had helped her raise money for her sled – live long in the memory.
However, her Olympic adventure was certainly no flash in the pan or sporting anomaly. It established her as a top name in the sport and her achievements since have continued to earn her the support and admiration of a growing national and international fan base.
Although she might not have forced the ubiquitous football off the back pages between winter Olympiads, she has traveled the world and continued to put in winning performances and break track records. In 2009 she became European Champion and picked up a brilliant silver in the 2008/9 World Cup. A feat she has just replicated for the 2009/10 series.
The season operates in much the same way as the Formula 1 Championship, with the athletes traveling from venue to venue and race to race over the course of eight rounds. They have to put in one top performance after another to challenge for the title.
It is a grueling schedule throughout the winter months of training, traveling and competing. Being in the best possible condition and as well prepared as possible to compete is key to sustaining optimum performance over a number of weeks.
Practice runs on the track (which like motor racing circuits vary in length and shape) are followed by competition runs for honours on the day and an accumulation of points for overall title standings.
Leading into Christmas 2009 and after five rounds 29-year-old Shelley was very much in the running for the overall title. However with three rounds to go she suffered debilitating illness, injury and a horrifying 60mph crash at Konigssee – her worst ever.
The fact she still fought her way to an overall second place says much for her fortitude, resilience, conditioning and talent. All of which are attributes that see her regarded as a serious Olympic Gold medal contender. An achievement that will see her take a well deserved place amongst the ranks of great British Olympians.
To the uninitiated a track descent on a bob skeleton might look like a lot of lying down and placing faith in luck and gravity. However nothing could be further from the truth! Of course the start is critical and valuable time is gained and lost before the slider is even on the sled. “Because of this not too surprisingly a lot of sliders have a track sprint background”, explained Shelley. “It is only the beginning of discipline but it’s the area where you can establish the basis of a very quick run or you can mess it up almost before you start”.
Shelley’s own hurdling background gave her good basic speed from the outset but she works very hard in training to ensure that she has the explosive power off the line and pushing technique required to compete at the very highest level.
“Being able to sprint in a conventional sense is one thing, but doing so whilst bending down, pushing a sled and preparing to launch yourself onto it with absolute precision is very different indeed!”
Sprinting work and push training are key elements of Shelley’s preparation. Strength and conditioning work in the gym with Olympic weights including squats and lunges as well as core strengthening plays a major part, as do short explosive sprint sessions on the track. These are generally sustained bursts over 50m.
She works very hard in training to ensure that she has the explosive power off the line and pushing technique
Another reason why strength and conditioning work is key to Shelley is that her diminutive stature does not necessarily work in her favour. “At the end of a run we all have to weigh 92kg with our sled and kit.
I am only 54kg and however hard I try to add weight I just can’t seem to do so! This means I have to use a full weight sled which is 35kg, whilst a lot of the other girls are using a 29kg sled which can obviously be easier to shift and around a track”.
The ability to manoeuvre the sled even fractionally at great speeds is critical to a successful run. “As much as the start is vital and the foundation of a great or a disastrous run, it counts for little if the subsequent driving is poor. An average start can be somewhat rescued through great driving, but a brilliant start can be dismantled by ordinary driving.
You have to be amongst the top 10 starters and then put in a great drive to put yourself into contention. If I were being self-critical I would say that I’m a better driver than starter but I am always trying to improve both elements. And sometimes she nails it – like at St Moritz in January when she touched 86mph and set the fastest speed of the day for the women and men!
Away from the ice Shelley’s life has changed significantly since Turin. She and her fiancé Kristan Bromley – who is also a bob skeleton champion – introduced baby Ella to the world. She and Kristan have made Ella a central part of their training and traveling routine and it has been working very well and not hampered their increasingly impressive results.
“Ella travels with us and seems to have become accustomed to everything so well, she just takes it all in her stride these days. And we do get fantastic support to from our respective parents which is invaluable”. And Shelley – who competed in TV’s Superstars only months after giving birth – pointed out there has actually been a positive impact on her training since Ella’s arrival.
“Training for me used to be five days a week and pretty intense. There was that feeling that if I was training I was doing myself some good. Since falling pregnant and subsequently having Ella things had to change and my time is more restricted. So these days my training tends to be three or four days a week and has actually been far more effective.
When it comes to quality training and getting levels of frequency and intensity right, it is often about knowing when to stop rather than when to start. Quality is always better than quantity and training smarter will always beat training longer”.
As I wrote this article Shelley and Kristan were in their Calgary holding camp prior to departing for Vancouver. Whatever happens at the Olympics Shelley has shown she is at the top of the tree in her sport. Her dedication, talent and application point the way to continued success and perhaps a golden future. And if that does happen Shelley will deserve the wider recognition that will inevitably follow.