Winter Olympic medals of the gold variety amongst Team GB athletes are as rare as a good hair day for Donald Trump. It takes a special kind of talent, in a very particular set of circumstances, for our national team to triumph on snow.
Amy Williams became the poster girl for winter sports at the 2010 Vancouver Games, yet she doesn’t ski or snowboard. Instead, she launches herself, head first, face down, on a frozen track using what looks like, to the untrained eye, a tea tray, reaching forces of up to 5g and speeds of over 130km/h. Skeleton racing is not for the faint-hearted, but becoming Team GB’s first gold medalist in an individual event for 30 years was Amy’s reward.
Now Amy has an even bigger achievement; her son Oscar is just five weeks old when we meet to talk Tour de Celeb, wellness, PyeongChang and the future.
The Channel 5 show Tour de Celeb was a reality-based series featuring celebrities (Amy Williams, Louie Spence, Hugo Taylor, Austin Healey, Darren Gough, Jodie Kidd, Lucy Mecklenburgh and Angelical Bell since you asked), all tasked with riding l’Etape du Tour, a notoriously difficult 146km stage of the Tour de France, which arrived in Morzine from Megève during Summer 2016. The series covered their grueling training sessions and the thrills and spills of cycling downhill, at speed, on a road. Hats off to you all, I’d have bailed at the first climb.
“I missed having a purpose to train” Amy explains when I ask her why she decided to take part in Tour de Celeb. She’d recently undergone major knee surgery; “I had just three months to go from zero fitness to the top of a mountain on a bike. I did it for the challenge – I’d barely cycled before!” As is the mindset of a super-successful Olympian, Amy doesn’t do things by halves. “I had a wicked coach and I wanted to complete l’Etape to the absolute best of my ability. I gave it 100%, I joined Bath Cycling Club, I set up a turbo trainer in my garage and watched endless episodes of Sex and the City. There was lots of falling off, those cleats take some getting used to! But there were lots of mini-achievements along the way – conquering a 15% climb for the first time and then an 18% climb.”
It was 38 degrees in Megève on Saturday 23rd July as Amy climbed onto the saddle, 3,335 metres of vertical climbing across the Alps ahead of her. “Yes, it was harder than I’d expected. In fact it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done” Amy told me. “All around me there were hundreds of professional looking cyclists and even the first hill – which didn’t even register as a climb on the route map – was harder than anything I’d done before.” Over 11,000 cyclists took part in the event; “there were tires blowing out, cyclists crashing right in front of me, incredibly fit looking people walking their bikes up the mountains. I was able to stay in the saddle as I’d planned my feeding right.”
“Yes, I would do it again” is a bold statement but I really believe that Amy means it. “With a solid amount of proper training under my belt, I’d give it another go. I didn’t know until shortly after the race that I’d been four or five weeks pregnant when I took part in l’Etape du Tour. So Oscar was right there at the top of the Col du Joux Plane with me!”
By now I think we’ve established that l’Etape du Tour isn’t something that anyone can jump on a bike and have a go at. I asked Amy for some tips for other keen road cyclists considering the challenge. “Be realistic in your goals. If you have a full time job, you’ll need to plan your training carefully. Join a local cycling club and collect tips and advice from others to help improve your confidence. A really good trainer will help you plan a programme and provide support, while having a turbo trainer means you’ve no excuse not to cycle, whatever the weather. For me, the key thing was getting my nutrition right. I ate every 20-30 minutes during the race – a piece of banana or a cereal bar, just to keep the energy levels flowing.”
I feel almost sad that Amy’s first glimpse of Morzine came at the end of this super-human slog across the mountains on a bike. The view from the top of the Col du Joux Plane is something else, and the descent into the village is unmissable. “I was trying so hard to concentrate as I had tears in my eyes! I was literally crying at the top! There were so many locals lining the route, the support was incredible. At the end we sat on the grass, the finish line on one side of us, a lovely stream on the other. Then we found a bar!”
Wellness isn’t something that you think about everyday as a professional athlete. It’s who you are, it’s what you do, but how does that change once you’ve retired? “Social media has changed the concept of wellness over the last five years I think. I was just an athlete doing a job to win a race, but since retiring and going through the transition to normal life, I’ve discovered that I can’t eat all the food I want!” Amy explains. “Being pregnant with Oscar taught me to moderate – cake is fine in moderation, so is ice cream. I was jogging until my 29th week and did a yoga session on the morning I went into labour. My approach to wellness is more wholesome now. I like to do a bit of everything and now I build fitness into my everyday life.”
For someone with a media personality and a strong work ethic, I can imagine these first few months of motherhood are a juggle. “I’m not sure we’ve struck the work-life balance yet. Some weeks are busy, some are quiet, but I still say yes to everything!” Amy still speaks in schools, at corporate events and is currently lining up new TV projects, especially in the run-up to PyeongChang 2018.
Which brings me nicely back to the Olympics at a time when our Team GB winter athletes have never been so well funded. Amy is a Team GB ambassador and hopes to be heavily involved in the build-up TV coverage and then commentary of the Games, which take place between 9th and 25th February in South Korea. “The Vancouver Games were the big breakthrough games for Team GB. We returned home with a gold medal, which raised the profile of our winter athletes. Sochi in 2014 had more funding and more coverage and there’ll be even more interest in PyeongChang” Amy believes. But who does she have her eye on for success? “There’s absolutely no reason why Lizzy Yarnold won’t get a medal in skeleton at these games, and she’s a strong contender for the gold. Skier Dave Ryding matched Britain’s best ever World Cup finish in Kitzbuhel this winter and the women’s curling team have already established themselves as world class. It’s exciting to see how the freestyle skiers and snowboarders will do; James Woods, Billy Morgan have stacks of potential. And then there’s short-track speed skater Elise Christie who missed out in Sochi but has won everything since!”
The Olympic anticipation is something Amy remembers well. At the end of the first day of competition in Vancouver she had a significant time advantage over other competitors and went on to break the track record not once, but twice. How did it feel to become Team GB’s first winter gold medalist in 30 years? “I always knew I could stand on a podium at this level of competition, but it was always a silver or a bronze. My coach would joke that I was always the champion in training, but I could never quite get there in competitions. I knew I could do it in Vancouver and my immediate feeling was one of relief. Finally! And then immense pride, happiness and exhaustion. Shortly after I did an interview with Claire Balding, she quoted all these stats and I hadn’t released the significance until it actually happened!”
In the years that have followed, Amy has joined the Ski Sunday team, taking on in-depth interviews with winter athletes that have really demonstrated her own passion for sport. “I love following the athletes and getting under their skin. I have that ‘behind the scenes’ knowledge and they open up to me. I’m hoping to do more of this in the lead up to PyeongChang.” It might come as a surprise to learn that Amy doesn’t ski or snowboard. Graham Bell once tried to teach her on Ski Sunday and future winter holidays are on the cards after a few more lessons. You never know, you might end up sharing a Pleney bubble with her this winter.
You can check out Amy’s website and find out about all the interesting things she does HERE.