By Tom Degun
When I met the woman currently ranked the second best female skeleton athlete on the planet in Bath not too long ago, my immediate thought was that Shelley Rudman is far too intelligent and attractive to be involved in such a ludicrously dangerous sport.
Tall and slender in build with long dark hair, a friendly smile and incredibly articulate, Rudman is not what I believed an elite skeleton rider would look like. However, once we began to talk about her beloved sport, a fierce determination in her demeanour becomes quickly apparent and one glance in to her unusually focused eyes informs me that I am in the company of a truly tenacious competitor.
My assumptions about Rudman are reinforced by her already outstanding feats.
At just 28-years-old - and having only taken up the sport in 2002 after watching that year’s Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City on television - Rudman has won Olympic silver at the Turin 2006 Games, which was Britain’s only medal in Turin, and has claimed victory at the 2009 European Bob Skeleton Championship among a host of other prizes.
Heading into the Vancouver Olympics, which begin on February 12, Rudman appears to be in the form of her life.
After recently securing her first World Cup gold medal of the season with a stunning run down the Cesena track in Italy, Rudman is currently second in the world rankings, having earlier topped the rankings this season, behind Canadian Mellisa Hollingsworth. Her form was underlined in Germany last Friday when she won a bronze medal in Königssee.
Not bad for a girl from England; a country so unpronounced for their love of winter sport that recent recommendations have ridiculously suggested that the Winter Olympics be taken off free-to-air television in Britain all together.
But ever the athlete, Rudman’s primary focus is on Vancouver and winter sport is in her blood.
Not long ago, Rudman gave birth to her first child, Ella, in October 2007 with Britain’s best male bob skeleton rider Kristan Bromley - himself a two-time Olympian and the 2008 world champion.
In fact, in 2008, Bromley also won the European Championships and World Cup series making him the first man in the 100 year history of the sport to win the "Triple Crown" and like Rudman, Bromley will be a strong medal contender in Vancouver.
So for those who think that the Britons cannot compete with the world’s best at the Winter Olympics, you might want to take a closer look at Ella's parents when the Games get underway in Canada. "What a lot of people don’t realise is that we here in Britain are actually not too bad when it comes to winter sport," Rudman said. "We don’t bring all that many competitors to the Winter Olympics, especially when you compare us with the likes of the predominantly winter sport nations like Canada but the people we do bring are definite medal contenders."
A fair point perhaps as the British skeleton team, led by Rudman, will expect at least one medal in Vancouver, Nicola Minichiello and Gillian Cooke are definite medal contenders in the women’s bobsleigh event as world champions, Scotland’s male curling team – led by David Murdoch – are the current world champions and Scottish siblings Sinead and John Kerr are quietly tipped to become the first British figure skating Olympic medallists since the legendary Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.
Rudman is far too modest to admit that she is perhaps Britain’s greatest medal prospect but knows it will be an uphill battle for her to beat her Canadian rivals who will have the huge advantage of having been able to practice regularly on their home track: the notorious Whistler Track; one of the fastest tracks ever built where speeds will approach 80 miles per hour.
While the Canadian team will have been down the track around 600 times prior to the Games, Rudman, Bromley and the rest of the British team will have only had a maximum of 30-40 runs down the track. "We know that the Canadians are going to have a big advantage over everyone else, but for us it’s a lot about mental preparation, rehearsing the track through video analysis and really trying to figure out the driving lines during training," said Rudman. "A lot of hard work goes on behind the scenes so it’s really going to have to be all about the analysis for us."
Rudman admits that having a daughter has really been a help to the mental side of things for her and though I suggest to her that skeleton is perhaps a dangerous sport for a mother to be doing, she simply smiles at my apparent naivety of the sport. "To be honest, I don’t see skeleton as a very dangerous sport," she replied to my utter disbelief. "No really. You have the odd accident like you do in most other sports - less so than in other sport in fact - as accidents in skeleton are very rare.
"Once I broke my finger and another time my helmet nearly came off while I was racing but apart from that, it’s been nothing more than bumps and bruises. And as far as having had Ella goes, it hasn’t changed how I look at the track but it has definitely changed my life off-the-track. It’s great to come home and see Ella there as it makes me switch off because I’m a mum as well as an athlete now and that gives you a different perspective on things which is great. Where as before I gave birth to Ella, everything was purely about skeleton; it’s nice to be able to chill out and have something else to focus on."
Rudman also says that her relationship with Kristan Bromley (pictured here with Ella) is a real help to her. "Obviously, because we are both so involved in the sport, we do spend a lot of time talking about skeleton which is great in one sense because we understand what each other is going through and what the other is feeling like.
"It’s a very intricate sport so if you were with someone that didn’t understand it at all, it would be very difficult to explain.
"Plus we do a lot of travelling during training and competition periods so it’s nice to do that together."
Bromley agrees implicitly with his partner and stated that he is glad that the pair have proved critics wrong who said they were making a mistake in having a child together.
"Two years ago, a lot of people wrote us off with the thinking that two athletes, trying to compete with a child, just couldn’t happen," he said.
"Well those two years have been the best of both of our careers. We've both hit personal bests across the board and though it has meant both of us having to be a lot more organised with our time, Ella has been fantastic in giving us a focus away from our sport which all athletes need."
Bromley, who holds a PhD gained, partly, thanks to a a thesis he wrote entitled "Factors affecting the performance of skeleton bobsleds" and manages Bromley Technologies Ltd who provide world class equipment for elite British skeleton riders, says he has a fantastic, yet slightly competitive relationship with Rudman.
"We are two naturally competitive people so whether it is who can get up the stairs the quickest or anything silly like that we always seem to compete," he said. "But that’s only for fun and when it comes to skeleton, we are just hugely supportive of each other."
With that perfect balance off-the-track, Rudman allows herself to think ahead to success at Vancouver on it. "I haven’t necessarily got gold in my head at this stage” she said. "I'd like to be on the podium but I don’t think anyone could predict gold at the Olympics because the Olympics is a whole different ball-game to every other event and is an event where you never know what is going to happen.
"I obviously want to do as well as I can but it’s a different Olympics to the last one so while people will put pressure on me after I claimed silver at the last Games, in my own mind, I know that anything can happen."
Britain's Olympic bob skeleton campaign has been boosted by the technology partnership between BAE Systems - where Bromley worked for 12 years - and UK Sport. They help support Rudman and Bromley's team-mates, including rising star Amy Williams, with cutting-edge technology that makes Britain one of the strongest bob skeleton nations in the world.
There are few doubts that Rudman (pictured) in full flow will be hard to stop in Vancouver and with any luck, a great performance from her and from Britain will get the British public fully behind winter sport and persuade a re-think of possibly taking the Winter Olympics off the free-to-air "Crown Jewels" of British television.
"The decision - if it happens - would be truly detrimental to winter sport in our country," warned Rudman. "We must remember that it is mainly only the UK where winter sports are viewed differently to the summer Olympics. In Canada, North America and alpine countries, winter sports are huge and there is a lot of support and respect for the athletes.
"To remove the Winter Olympics from the 'Crown Jewels' would simply ruin the progress and respect we are steadily gaining. I was so proud to win a silver medal at the last Winter Games, however without the support of our country the meaning and achievement would be lost and I believe all athletes would feel this way.”
But there are few doubts that the British public will be fully behind Rudman when she takes to the Whistler Track next month. The Canadians may have home advantage and will know the track far better than any other nation but you would be either very brave or very foolish to bet against the girl from Wiltshire bringing Winter Olympic gold back to Britain.
Tom Degun is a reporter for insidethegames. To read about his own attempt at bob skeleton click here.