Reuters - Sun, 21 Feb 23:26:00 2010
It says something about Britain's winter sports pedigree when a bespectacled and slightly eccentric failed ski jumper known as Eddie the Eagle still crops up in conversation at every Olympics.
Amy Williams maybe changed all that on Friday by blasting down Whistler's now infamous sliding track at 90mph to win her country's first individual gold at a Winter Games for 30 years.
To triumph she not only tamed the fastest and most challenging track in the world, she also left athletes from traditional sliding powers like Germany and Canada a distant second and others vainly questioning the legality of her helmet.
That a curly-haired 27-year-old from Bath, a city more famous for Roman heating systems than snow and ice, should produce such sustained excellence over four runs may surprise some but not the man who began the British skeleton programme.
Bryn Vale, president of British Skeleton, knows a thing or two about what makes a champion having won a sailing gold medal in 1988 and he said Williams' triumph was the culmination of a 10-year programme that is now the envy of the world.
"We have delivered over a number of seasons," Vale said. "Britain is in the top four in both men's and women's in the world rankings and two years ago the men were the top men's nation in the world.
"We are constantly being challenged by people who want to poach our staff, the Australians, the Germans, the Swiss have all been trying to take staff from us because they know that our programme is so successful and they want to buy into that.
"I think three medals for our team from the last three Games, all different colours, shows that Amy didn't just come out of nowhere.
"At this Games we sent four athletes, one wins gold and the other two were in the top six. That's a great performance on an Olympic stage."
Shelley Rudman, who won the silver medal in Turin, was sixth while her partner, 2008 world champion Kristan Bromley, missed a men's medal by just one tenth of a second and Vale said the team in Sochi could be even stronger.
"We have a reserve out here called Donna Creighton who is the fastest starter in the world, she is faster than Amy," Vale said.
"We brought her out as a reserve because we only had two women's places so in four years time when she goes to Sochi the Olympic experience will be familiar to her."
Britain may not have an ice track of its own, but British Skeleton's close ties with Bath University and the English Institute of Sport means it can tap into the best there is in terms of sports science and sled technology.
It also boasts a state-of-the-art start track at Bath University and in Andi Schmid, a former Austrian skeleton world champion, and Michael Gruenberger, has two of the world's best coaches on board.
"We are on a par with other successful British Olympic sports like cycling, sailing and rowing in terms of how professional we are -- but on a quarter the budget," Yale said.
"We've had 77 medals from international competitions from 13 athletes in four years. That's an amazing return."
Yale's mission to transform British winter sports may not stop at skeleton. "I would love a challenge again. I would love to try to help British Alpine skiing," he said.