Next month’s commentary stint for the BBC at the Winter Olympics will bring back memories for former skeleton champion Amy Williams. However, the whoosh and exhilaration of the descent on slippery slopes has given way to a fresh and calmer outlook on life following the arrival of son Oscar, as she tells The Mixed Zone’s Eleanore Kelly
If Amy Williams was to pen an autobiography, it would be a riveting read. After all, the former Olympic champion has packed a lot into her thirty-five years on Earth. Alas, in between being a full-time mother to eight-month-old Oscar, spells as a television presenter and commentator, as well as endeavouring to save the planet, there is precious little time to sit down and write her memoir.
A major highlight would be the chapter about the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver when, in winning the skeleton, she became Britain’s first individual gold medallist at the Games in 30 years and GB’s first female champion for 58 years.
Injuries forced Williams to give up competitive sport in 2014, but retirement has been far from dull. She has filled her time co-presenting Ski Sunday and will be commentating for the BBC at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in February. In addition, she did a stint presenting Channel 5’s The Gadget Show and works passionately as an ambassador for the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
Another chapter could be devoted to hanging out with the Royal Family. As a chum of Mike Tindall, Williams attended his wedding to Zara Phillips; collected an MBE from The Queen; and in 2012 was made a Team GB Ambassador where one of her roles was helping and hosting William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, at events. They would often go for lunch together.
Even her love life is entertaining. After returning from commentating at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Williams downloaded the dating app, Tinder. She swiped right when she saw the picture of a handsome Army officer and Craig Ham took her on a date the next day. They were engaged after just 12 weeks, married in August 2015 and last year the happy couple welcomed son Oscar into the world.
The three of them turned up at the British Indoor Rowing Championships at the Lea Valley Velo Park late last year and it quickly became apparent why any autobiography is very much on the backburner. Williams’s life is currently structured by nappy changes and feeding times. “Oh, and sleep deprivation,” she adds. “I would love a good night’s sleep.”
Even so, her love of sport and competitive drive remain vibrant. “I miss the dedication and passion that came with it. Sometimes I think if I wasn’t so broken because of my sport, I could be tempted to try a sport like rowing,” she says after trying out the ergo machines. Last year she took part in a TV programme called Tour de Celebre, where she joined the Tour de France and discovered what it was like to be a professional cyclist. “I literally fell in love with my bike. I totally got why people love cycling and had that love of being out on the roads. I tried the velodrome, too, and that feeling of power and speed. You get off and your legs are burning. I think if I had my time again, I would have loved to give something like that a go.”
Motherhood has brought a new meaning to the words ‘dedication’ and ‘passion’, and has changed her general view of life. “As an athlete, you become very selfish. Everything is about you getting the best nutrition, the best sleep, the best recovery, training 100 per cent. That was all you did and thought about every day. Having now retired, and as a new mum, all of a sudden you are at the bottom of the list. Keeping this little human happy all day long is your priority,” she says.
“I really miss doing exercise. I was doing yoga every day until the morning I went into labour and I miss that. I’ve only been twice in eight months because I don’t have the time, the energy or the help to look after him. I love being a mum, but just having a bath without disturbance would be nice.”
Williams has always been passionate about saving the planet and the arrival of Oscar has reinforced her outlook on environmental issues. “I am trying to use as eco-friendly items where possible,” she says. “I care deeply about wildlife. I want my son to grow up in a world that is looked after and protected, and has all the animals that I have seen in my life. We were such an active, outdoor family and nature and the environment have always been important. Even changing nappies, you are throwing seven or eight away a day. To think those nappies are going to be on our planet for 500 years before they biodegrade, it’s sickening. So I am using bamboo nappies, which within the life of my child will have disappeared.
“I try and live my life every day as healthily and as cleanly for the environment because I feel so strongly that we have to look after this planet. I pick up vegetables that aren’t in plastic wrappers, and it pains me to see all the plastic used to wrap food and everyday items, as well as water bottles everywhere. What is the point of being this healthy, clean athlete if we are destroying our planet?”
Sport is all part of that clean-living philosophy Williams advocates. It stems from her own upbringing in rural Avon. “Growing up we didn’t have a TV until I was 17. We were outside playing and doing all sort of sports. Or if we were indoors we were being creative with colouring in. I really want to bring him up being active and feeling healthy and fit. Hopefully he will like sport, too. We will certainly guide him in that direction. It’s about finding a passion in something because that is what drives you every day. If my son wanted to do professional sport, I would definitely encourage it. I didn’t do my sport to become a multi-millionaire, there is no money in my sport and I came out of it in debt. It was always about the passion and the love.”
Next month Williams heads out to South Korea to commentate at the Winter Olympics. They are a Games already tainted by the debacle involving Russian participation. Twenty-five Russian athletes tested positive for banned substances after the last Games in Sochi. In December, the IOC announced that those Russian athletes who had been cleared by an anti-doping panel would be allowed to compete. But they added that there would be no Russian flags or anthems in Pyeongchang.
“It’s a hard debate,” says Williams. “How do you teach a nation a lesson? If you’re an innocent athlete, why should you be penalised for the mistakes of a few people within your country? But then our bobsleigh boys didn’t get the glory they deserved. I look at Jacko [John Jackson], he’s missed his opportunity to stand on the podium and everything that comes with that, the media, press, the photos and the glory. Every memory with that medal around your neck is what your train your whole life for.
“I don’t really know what the answer is. If I was in their shoes, and an innocent athlete in Russia, I would want my flag around me because I’ve done it for my nation and for me. Standing on the podium for my country was actually the proudest moment of my life.”
Williams had no strong suspicion that her fellow athletes might have been taking drugs, yet in retrospect she says there may have been evidence. “Sometimes after summer training when you wouldn’t see an athlete for a while, they would come back and you would think, ‘Whoa, you’ve eaten your greens’. But I guess I never thought anyone would be so stupid. In Britain, we get drug-tested at any time, any day; you have to give an hour of every single day where you are going to be and the doorbell could go. So there was no way you couldn’t be clean. But not all other nations do that. We are very good in the UK, we want 100 per cent clean athletes, and that’s why they are so strict on the testing system. In fact that was one of the things I enjoyed about retiring, the fact I didn’t have to give an hour of my day.”
That commitment to sport allowed little time for finding love. “It is difficult to meet people because your lives are busy and you are focused on something else,” she says. On retiring, her friends suggested she try Tinder. “There is a stigma about dating apps,” Williams says, “but I don’t see how it’s any different to meeting a guy at a bar. You either want a relationship or you don’t. They are either a nice guy or they are not.
“He has never really asked too much about my previous life and that is why he got a date, and a second date, because he wasn’t bothered about who and what I was. We just clicked and got on. Actually, he only watched my race for the first time last week. I think he was impressed.”
Amy Williams was speaking on behalf of SAS – the leader in analytics software and services. SAS is the Official Analytics Partner of British Rowing. Further information at www.sas.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eleanore Kelly is a multi-media journalist who competed in three-day eventing at elite level. She runs an equestrian business in Hampshire and still has a burning ambition to compete around Badminton. At present her role as an assistant producer for the BBC has to suffice. Eleanore’s latest articles.