Interview and article by Donald McRae, The Guardian, 1 January 2018
Elise Christie: 'It seems dramatic but after Sochi I thought people wanted to kill me'
The speed skating world champion will be among the favourites for Winter Olympic gold and memories of her anxious first visit to South Korea fill her with hope for PyeongChang.
Elise Christie, the world champion short-track speed-skater, has bounced back after the traumas of Sochi. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian
“Ineeded to face up to what was killing me,” Elise Christie says as, before looking ahead to the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month, she remembers the lowest point of her life. Four years ago Christie was persuaded to head for the country that seemed intent on destroying her. Only a few months had passed since her Sochi Olympics ended in disaster with three disqualifications being followed by hundreds of death threats from Koreans, who believed she had cost one of their speed skating stars a gold medal.
“The way the Koreans responded had made me scared of living,” Christie says. “I couldn’t sleep. I was worried. I know it seems so dramatic. But I thought people actually did want to kill me. So my coach [Nicky Gooch] decided to hit it head on. He made me go out there to train but I didn’t want to go. I was dreading going especially because they were sending me to work with the Korean coach.”
Christie is a warm and humorous 27-year-old, whose three golds at last year’s world championships suggest she will be an Olympic favourite in Pyeongchang. The irony is not lost on her that she will return to South Korea after all she endured in the traumatic wake of Sochi – but memories of her anxious first visit fill her with hope rather than dread.
“It really helped me because everyone was really nice,” she says of training in Korea. “All their skaters really wanted to train with me and it was one of the best experiences of my life so far.
“Before I arrived I was pretty low. And in the first two weeks in Korea I didn’t speak. It was military-style training and if you didn’t hit a lap time you’d be made to keep skating. You would do laps and laps – no one could do it because they were too tired. Then you’d get taken off the ice and made to run laps on the track. And in the morning you would see 12-year-olds doing skate squats with heavy bags on their back. They were doing a thousand every day. It was insane and they were crying. So it was an eye-opener and I could see why they have so many successful athletes.
“But I made a lot of good friends out there – who I still see when I’m in Korea. They are among the nicest people I’ve met and so willing to help. But it was tough, too, and one day their coach was so angry we didn’t hit the lap time he threw his stopwatch at a skater.”
Elise Christie crashes out of the 1,000m semi-finals in Sochi. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images
Christie is able to laugh now and steel herself for the testing ordeal that awaits her as a lone GB skater against the Korean and Chinese teams in Pyeongchang. “With it being a home games for the Koreans they’re going to be feisty – and I’m definitely one of their main targets. I’m doing the 500m, 1,000m and 1500m. In the 500 China will have to be watched. But in the other two Korea will be my main threat. The Koreans are strong and work very fluently together. But the Chinese are scary because they’re aggressive. And they’re good. I’ve got to beat three people in the same team trying to outrace me and that’s mental. I have to be physically so much better than anyone because I’ve got to take them on as a team.”
Adversity has long been the norm for Christie. She grew up in Livingston, near Edinburgh, and she talks openly about being bullied as a girl. “There were two separate times. I was very young the first time I was bullied and it was physical abuse. I actually left school and didn’t go back for six months. I was about eight. I then went back later that year. I was quite intelligent then so I knew how to escape it when I came back.
“High school was more bearable but it started there later on because I didn’t wear makeup and was quite tomboyish. I was also really pale, skinny and so tiny that people called me ‘skeleton’. I was doing something different to most normal people, with my skating, and they took the mick out me. The bullying both scarred and shaped me. I still sometimes feel in a social situation that maybe I’m below a lot of people there. I also always judge my appearance. Everyone is like: ‘Why do you wear makeup for training?’ It’s partly because of what happened. But at the same time it made me fight for things. Maybe that part of my life helped me make it in sport.”
Christie was then primarily a figure skater – who hated the fake smiles and frilly costumes she was compelled to wear. She preferred the much more intense world of speed skating. “Yeah, figure skating didn’t suit me and I didn’t get any brownie points for appearance. Even when I put the effort in I seemed scruffy.”
She was 15 when she decided to switch to speed skating and had to leave home to train at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham. We sit in the café overlooking the ice rink and it seems hard to believe she has been based here for 12 years. “Yeah, and I wouldn’t even have passed for 15 because I was very shy and withdrawn. I hadn’t experienced life.
“For the first two years I lived with a host family and I was homesick all the time. Then, when I was 17, I got my own tiny apartment. It was good but [she laughs] I owe my mum a lot of money. The first six months I didn’t even get paid and we have to buy our own equipment. And then I remember being on £120 a month. We’re much better off now but I didn’t get on to the top card of UK Sport until four years ago.”
Elise Christie collects her gold medal in the 1,000m at the world championships in Rotterdam, where she also won gold in the 1500m and the overall title. Photograph: Jerry Lampen/AFP/Getty Images
Sochi was Christie’s second Olympics but her belief she had won a silver medal was ruined when she was deemed responsible for a crash involving the Korean Park Seung-hi and was disqualified, before further catastrophe in the 1500m heats and 1000m semi-finals. Her distress was made far worse by the reaction on social media in the wake of the 500m and Christie stresses now that it took her years to recover. “I remember refusing help for a year and a half because I got through Sochi so I thought I was fine. But until six months ago I didn’t realise how bad it had been. I won world championship medals every year but I just wasn’t myself. I felt like a hideous human being. I didn’t like myself at all and I felt the world was out to get me.”
Christie is very different today, and so cheerful and likeable, but she needed a sports psychologist to help her recover. “Even now I get abuse on Twitter but I focus on the people that have supported me. I was thrilled to make the Spoty shortlist and I’m thrilled UK Sport is funding me. The media has just been so positive about me as well. So I focus on that and it allowed me to open up. I also changed because I decided that failure was OK.”
In a 1,000m world championship final in 2016, Christie should have overtaken her Korean opponent and won gold. But she hung back and settled for second. “It was the year my boyfriend got to be world champion,” she says with a muffled laugh, having already spoken about how she has been going out for two years with the Hungarian speed skater, Liu (Sandor) Shaolin. “We had three laps to go, and had dropped everyone, so I was safely in second. I almost went to move but something stopped me. I thought: ‘What if this doesn’t work?’ It was stupid because I already had a world championship medal from that weekend, a bronze in the 1500, which we needed for funding.
“Shaolin shouted at me: ‘You didn’t even try to win.’ He was right and I was so disappointed. I sat down with my coach and said: ‘I didn’t come here to medal.’ Of course if I go to the Olympics and win a medal I will be bloody happy – but I will be trying to win gold. If I get a DQ then that’s better than just accepting the safe option.”
Does her boyfriend understand how much she suffered after Sochi? “No. I obviously wasn’t dating him then and he struggles to understand it. But he’s a few years younger. He’s 22 and he’s got a bit to learn. I also had to learn. I remember reading about Beth Tweddle getting abused online and thinking: ‘She’s tougher than that. She won all those medals and must know she’s amazing, so ignore them.’ But it’s different when it happens to you. That’s why it’s important to talk about it. If I can help just one person that’s good enough for me.”
Christie’s new confidence is rooted in her extraordinary performance at last year’s world championships in Rotterdam. She won gold in the 1,000m and 1500m and became overall world champion – breaking 23 years of Asian dominance in world short-track speed skating. Christie also overcame a concentrated Korean team-effort to block her in the 1500m.
Elise Christie at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show. ‘I was thrilled to be on the shortlist,’ she says. Photograph: David Davies/PA
“I was leading and we had three laps to go. We’re skating fast, over 30mph. There were three Korean girls in the race, one had fallen and we came around to lap her. I heard the Korean coach shout and all of a sudden she’s come back on to the track and that’s against the rules. We were catching her with ridiculous speed. If I went inside and she blocked me they’d skate outside and I’d lose gold. If I went outside and she blocked me, one of her team-mates would win. They were trying to get a Korean win so I pushed her out of the way because she’s not in the race any more. When I actually crossed the line and still won I was like: ‘Thank God. I would have blooming killed her if they DQ-ed me.’ She did apologise because we’re friends. She said: ‘It’s our culture to do what you’re told.’ I get that.”
Will the threat of more disqualifications play on her mind in Pyeongchang? “Of course. I’d be lying if I said no. But if it happens again it can’t be worse. I just want to enjoy it because I was a miserable person after Sochi. I don’t want to be that person.”
Christie breaks into a sunny smile again. It seems as if all the demons of her past, from being bullied as a girl to being abused after Sochi, have melted away. She explains the advantage she will take on her return to Korea.
“I’m the world champion,” she says, shrugging off the kids who taunted her as ‘skeleton’ and the trolls who threatened to kill her. “If you ask most top skaters to identify the pinnacle of our careers they would say becoming world champion. It’s way more respected to be the overall world champion than an Olympic medallist. I’ve achieved my dream. Of course an Olympic medal will be amazing but I can’t describe how beautiful it felt to cross that line as overall world champion. It’s why I’m super-excited now. I know what I’m capable of and what could happen. I feel ready.”
Thank you to Donald McRae from The Guardian for his kind permission to publish this article.