- Champion Williams thanks British engineers and scientists for their assistance
- World first “Arthur” one of a number of factors that contributed to Britain’s first individual Winter Games gold in over 30 years
- More than 200 hours of wind tunnel testing plus novel training and preparation methods help Amy strike gold
Following Amy Williams’ magnificent performance in the bob skeleton competition at the Vancouver Games, UK Sport and British Skeleton have today revealed some of the secrets behind the win, which was the culmination of a four year innovation project designed to ensure British sliders were at the cutting edge of the sport.
An exceptionally talented and dedicated athlete like Amy combined with world class coaching, sports science and medical support are, of course, the key ingredients in any gold medal winning performance. But British Skeleton’s Performance Director Andreas Schmid recognised that taking an innovative approach to training, preparation, kit and equipment could be the icing on the cake when attempting to take on and beat the world’s best winter sport nations.
One fundamental element of the programme that Schmid, a former world champion slider himself, was keen to perfect was the sled. Now affectionately known as ‘Arthur’, the sled was originally known by codename ‘Blackroc’ after its co-designers, University of Southampton students Rachel Blackburn and James Roche. Rachel and James were supported in the design and prototyping of the sled by UK Sport Podium Innovation Partner, BAE Systems.
The world-first design features on the Blackroc sled include adjustable components as well as interchangeable structural parts, allowing bespoke design to the individual athlete’s size and sliding style. This makes the sled more responsive to the athlete’s direction and gives them greater steering control. Blackroc also features a ratchet mechanism to facilitate fast, precise and repeatable setup of the runners, allowing for the changing condition of the ice. A rig was also developed for the team by sports engineers at the Sheffield Hallam University, to ensure accurate and repeatable sled set up, which is crucial for efficient runs on each day of competition.
The prototype sleds were constructed and assembled by engineers who are usually responsible for manufacturing defence and aerospace equipment working at BAE Systems’ Advanced Technology Centres in Great Baddow and Bristol, and were first used in competition in 2009 when both Amy Williams and Adam Pengilly won silver medals at the World Championships.
A comprehensive aerodynamics assessment programme was also put in place. In total over 200 hours of testing over the four year period were carried out in the R.J.Mitchell wind tunnel at the University of Southampton, supported by computational fluid dynamics techniques led by Sheffield Hallam University. This element of the programme ensured that Amy’s body position, kit and equipment were primed to cut through the chilly winter air in Whistler at optimum speed – which in Amy’s case meant reaching over 143 km/h.
An area in which Amy excelled in Vancouver was the sprint start, a crucial factor in bob skeleton performance, and the reason why so many athletes (including Amy and Britain’s Turin silver medalist Shelley Rudman) transfer their talents from sprinting to sliding. Amy achieved sub-five second times over the sprint start in three out of her four runs and was one of the top four fastest starters each time. Her speed and consistency in the start were driven by novel training methods throughout the summer months, led by English Institute of Sport Science and Conditioning practitioner Danny Holdcroft, and also through optimizing race preparation strategies in the final twenty minutes prior to a run.
Dr Scott Drawer, Head of Research and Innovation at UK Sport, said: “Our job is to seek out that extra tiny drop of performance from Britain’s best athletes as we aim to help them be among the best prepared, and most feared by their competitors, when they reach the start line. We couldn’t do this without input from our partners in industry and academia who can apply their varied knowledge and expertise to the increasingly sophisticated world of high performance sport.”
Amy Williams said: “It gives you such confidence going to a major competition knowing that your equipment is world class and your preparation methods are at the cutting edge of your sport. All you need to worry about is delivering on the day. I’m really grateful to all the scientists and engineers at the University of Southampton and BAE Systems who helped make me and ‘Arthur’ such a successful team.”
James Baker, Director of Technology & Engineering Services at BAE Systems, said: "Every day, BAE Systems develops and delivers some of the world's most complex and challenging engineering projects, from fighter jets to submarines. Working in partnership with the University of Southampton, we were able to apply many of the same engineering principles and processes to the design and manufacture of the bob skeleton.
"This project has demonstrated how valuable both innovative engineering and new technologies can be in making those vital fractions of seconds' difference on the track. We are immensely proud to have played a part in Amy’s success."
Dr Stephen Turnock, from the University of Southampton's School of Engineering Sciences and EngD supervisor to James Roche and Rachel Blackburn said: "I am delighted with the vindication of James and Rachel’s research and proud of how well they have worked as an integral part of the partnership that supported British Skeleton. They have demonstrated that engineering excellence can be delivered by a small dedicated team with a clear vision.”
UK Sport would also like to thank the following other organisations for their contributions: EPSRC, British Olympic Medical Institute, University College London, Loughbororugh Sports Technology Institute, RJF Design, Swansea University, Imperial College, Blizzard Survival.