Elise Christie received soul-destroying abuse on social media that almost caused her to quit speed skating in 2014 when she was disqualified from all three races at the Olympic Games. But she changed her approach to the sport, mentally and tactically, and reaped the rewards by becoming world short-track champion this month. Catherine Smith hears Christie’s story
Elise Christie is a thoughtful and reflective woman on solid ground and a fearsome racer on ice. Yet she returned home from the Sochi Olympics in 2014 a mere shadow of herself after facing multiple disqualifications and a torrent of abuse from an army of online trolls. However, those nightmares were finally put to rest last week at the Short Track Speed Skating World Championships, where she became the first European woman to claim a world title.
And not just one, but two. Racing ferociously across the weekend in Rotterdam, she secured gold medals in both the 1,500 and 1,000 metres to be crowned overall champion. “I couldn’t believe it when I won the 1,500 metres,” she said, “because I hadn’t raced a 1,500 metres in a year. So to go out and win one was insane to me.”
In her typically humble manner, she described how the racing began with disappointment in the 500 metres. “It’s the one I’ve got the world record in,” she said. “I was in third place and I tried to make the move into first but ended up losing my speed and going into the back and coming fourth. My physio turned to me afterwards and said the result would be the same if I’d come third but didn’t try to get the win. So I moved on from it and then won two more golds the next day. I just remember screaming when I was winning and being insanely happy.”
Now a vindicated, record-breaking world champion, the 26-year-old still vividly recalls the long and painful road to recovery after the cyber-abuse in the wake of her Sochi disappointments. It forced her to delete her social media accounts, and she admits: “I was very close to retirement. Not so much because of the outcome, but because of the backlash from the outcome.”
Christie was heartbroken after being disqualified in all three of her events at the Games, but it was the tirade of threats and accusations on social media that crushed her spirit. It transpired the abuse was coming mostly from South Korean skating fans, who blamed Christie for their national favourite, Park Seung-hi, crashing in the 500 metres. Unsurprisingly, Christie admits the frustrating outcome of other skaters’ decisions in the race is her “least favourite part of the sport”.
The Scot’s self-confidence was slowly patched back together with the help of her Sky Sports Scholar mentor, Will Greenwood, a member of England’s 2003 World Cup-winning rugby union squad who knows more than most about the mental battle that sport entails. “He taught me a lot about not dwelling on bad things and the uncontrollables, and focusing on the future and what you can do. This year it kind of clicked and all came together, and for some reason I knew how to get over it. I somehow decided, as Will had always said, failure is fine and accepting failure is what frees you up to win.”
Her success at the 2017 World Championships was a product of Christie’s new racing philosophy: win-or-bust. “This year the only big change I’ve made is that I’ve chosen that I don’t mind failing. I don’t want medals, I want to win. So I’m risking to win and racing more aggressively. In front you’re more likely to be attacked and lose a medal, but I wasn’t bothered about that anymore.”
This risk-taking attitude and front-skating tactics signal a new-found maturity in an athlete who has always competed against her own self-doubt. “Your physical ability comes from how mentally tough you are to deal with pushing yourself every day,” Christie reflects. “The physical side is always what I’ve been good at, but I wasn’t so confident and I didn’t have much self-belief.”
Not that the physical side of short track skating should be taken lightly. Christie trains between three and four times a day, six days a week. She competes on skates that have a blade less than 1mm thick, yet still self-generates speeds of 30mph around tight turns. However, for Christie, it has been the marriage of both exceptional physical form and mental control that has been the key to her recent success.
Now, in a strange cyclical narrative, the pioneer who is upsetting years of Asian dominance in the sport, will venture to South Korea for next year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Is she nervous? “Firstly I’m much more confident [after the World Championships] and have a belief that I can go there and challenge. But I went to the test event in Pyeongchang in December, and the crowd were insane. They were chanting my name. A lot of people in South Korea support me now, which is really nice.”
Away from the ice, Christie wants to encourage other women to seek inspiration inside themselves and not bow down to keyboard warriors. “These people wouldn’t say this to your face. A lot of it they do to just get a reaction. So just don’t react. They do it because they want to upset you and it makes them feel better. But you don’t need to make them feel better; just focus on making yourself better and the people who actually care about you.” Coming from a world champion, that is a good piece of advice to trust.
Elise Christie is a current Sky Sports Scholar. The Sky Academy Sports Scholarship Scheme is now open for applications from sporting stars aged 16 to 25. Applications close at midnight on Sunday March 26, via http://www.skysports.com/scholarships
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Katie Smith. Katie’s latest articles.