The labyrinthine corridors of Nottingham’s National Ice Centre are hard to navigate at the best of times, let alone when a power cut has wiped out the lighting and reduced the building to a dimly lit maze. However, there is an unmistakable glint shining brightly above one seat in the changing rooms. It is the seat of Elise Christie and it is adorned with medals.
The 24-year-old short track speed skater has been racking up silverware for almost a decade, with National, European and World honours to her name, gathered since her move to join the Midlands-based national team from her native Scotland aged just 15.
That success meant she found herself as one of Great Britain’s highly touted medal favourites ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.
Despite racing through the early rounds with relative ease, Christie was ultimately penalised in every one of her events, leaving Sochi empty-handed and broken hearted.
“Sochi was a bit of a shock, I’d never really had any media attention so for it to pick up in the way it did was quite a big deal, it was a lot of pressure and I felt I had to perform for Britain. I probably wasn’t best prepared for that,” Christie concedes, her eyes dropping briefly as she recalls that time in her life.
However, she says the support she received in aftermath gave her the boost she needed to keep going, and helped her find the strength to claim a World Championship medal just one month later.
“The general public really helped me; the media also reacted well and were so supportive of me, going into the World Championships that motivated me to bring something home for them.
“I was at such a low point when I came back to training, but I wouldn’t be standing here without all of that support.”
Having suffered more distress following the sudden death of her maternal grandmother just ahead of this season’s World Championships, Christie once again showed her resilience to become the first Brit to win two medals at that level.
A diminutive 5”3 tall, without skates, Christie has a steely determination that belies her stature which becomes apparent when she recalls her bold decision to leave home while still a child.
“I was just about to turn 16 and it was either school and university, or choosing life as an athlete. It was a hard decision at such a young age, but you only get one shot at something like this in life.
“My family encouraged me, my mum was really into sport when she was younger, and I always knew I could come back to education later in life. I decided it was a risk worth taking, and if I didn’t, I knew I would live to regret it.”
It didn’t take long for that risk to pay off, with Christie reaching her first senior World Championships within eight months of joining the team. Yet she admits it took a while to adjust to her new life and the physical demands of training full-time.
“I was tired all the time, I wasn’t used to working my body that hard,” she explains with a smirk.
“But it was also a lot of fun, I’ve always been very active, I never wanted to sit in a classroom.”
Christie says she learnt a lot in those early days away from her family, during which time she was placed with a ‘host’ family who helped her settle in.
“I wasn’t ready to live on my own; I needed someone to guide me. They helped me with my cooking, shopping, and those important life skills. I couldn’t have come down here without them.
“Initially you’re worried about living with someone that isn’t your mum or dad, but my host was actually a skating coach, and we only lived a two minute walk away from the centre.
“It takes a few weeks to get used to but it was good for me, it prepared me for the next stage of my life.”
At that stage in her career, it was Christie’s ambition just to reach an Olympic Games, but after qualifying for Vancouver 2010, aged 19, she was given a wakeup call about what she could potentially achieve.
“Vancouver was massive and it was amazing to be part of, but when I got back, I thought, why can’t I go on and win medals? I decided if I was going to carry on, it would be to win an Olympic medal. That was a big turning point for me.”
Winning medals at the highest level doesn’t happen by accident and Christie realised that in order to become the best, she would have to adapt her lifestyle.
“It was the little 1% things that changed, you need to become aware of the limits that you’ve set yourself, because if those limits are there, you won’t ever get past them.
“Every day I was trying to reach a new limit, so everything from nutrition and keeping my body really healthy, to being really strict on bed times. It’s essentially becoming a different person, I needed to see myself as a speed skater, rather than just a person who speed skates.”
The following season Christie landed her first European medals. She also finished fourth over 1,000m at the World Championships. Her hard work was starting to pay off.
But it was 2013 that was Christie’s real breakthrough season, she won her first European titles, her first World Championship medal and was crowned overall World Cup champion over 1,000m.
Now, with the experience of two Olympic Games behind her, Christie is more determined than ever to right the wrongs of her past.
“A lot of things that went wrong in Sochi were beyond my control, but I was in control of some things, I want to be more ready for PyeongChang. Anything I can control, I want to make it better.”
As Christie skates away, you sense she leaves her worries behind, for to see her glide on the ice with her long, sweeping strides and her blue eyes staring intently ahead, you see an athlete at total ease and sense she will stop at nothing to complete that medal set on the back of her chair.
Find out more about Short Track Speed Skating >