Amy Williams has far more than just an Olympic gold medal to help her recall the great deal of sacrifice, commitment and dedication she showed to reach the pinnacle of her sport in Vancouver eight years ago. The 35-year-old’s exploits in skeleton opened doors for her upon retirement, with television presenting, public speaking and ambassadorial roles all part of her working life.
Yet it’s the toll skeleton took on her body which acts as the clearest reminder on a daily basis. She still feels she had unfinished business as those aches and pains prevented her from having the chance to retain her Olympic title. Nevertheless, Amy will be full of excitement in PyeongChang, reporting live track-side for the BBC, as reigning champion Lizzy Yarnold and debutant Laura Deas get ready to slide for Team GB.
“I think I’ll always miss it,” admitted Amy. “It was time to stop but that athlete is always inside of you. Different injuries and politics – I knew I had no choice. It was my decision so I don’t regret it or anything. You just have to move on and find other things. I’m sure I’ll watch and I’ll be slightly jealous! I really believed that if I kept going, as I’d cracked my winning code, that I knew how to get more medals.
“I really wanted to be the first person to get two [Olympic titles] but it was a case of being in pain every day, going to the physio every day. I’m even in pain now with my knees. I’ve had two further knee operations since retiring. My back still causes me pain and my neck too because of my damaged disc. It’s not like I’ve suddenly stopped and I’m not in pain. Every day I have a reminder that I damaged my body.”
Amy’s success in Vancouver saw her catapulted into the public eye as she became the first British athlete to win individual gold at the Winter Olympics for three decades. Of course, this was no overnight success. Many years of blood, sweat and tears had led to Amy standing on top of the most prestigious of sporting podiums. Her journey into skeleton began in Bath, completely by chance, just before she turned 18.
“I was part of an athletics club and always trained up at the University,” said Amy. “I was just using the gym one day and then happened to see a few bobsleigh and skeleton athletes and I joined in with one of their training sessions on the push track. I gave it a go and I was like ‘oh, I’m actually quite quick at this’. They were all about to go out to Holland for the World Push Championships and I entered as a guest.
“I got the train across to this little town called Groningen. They used to do it each summer and it was a huge event for skeleton and bobsleigh. It was just a start of 30 metres set up on this massive scaffolding structure. I won my guest category and came second overall. Simon Timson, who was the performance director at the time, was like ‘look, why don’t you have a go on the real ice, see if you like it?’.”
Amy accepted Simon’s offer and went to an army ice camp to continue her education in skeleton before making the decision to go to the University of Bath and balance studying with her new sporting ambitions. Her initial intention had been to undertake a degree in art - with the University of Edinburgh her preferred destination - but the skeleton set-up was based in her home city and provided the greatest draw.
Amy studied Coach Education and Sports Development for a year before deciding she wanted to fully turn her attention to skeleton. She had been living in halls, but due to her being away from home for such long periods during the winter, plus the expense of the sport, chose to move back in with her parents and get a full-time job. This allowed her to save money and build a more manageable routine.
“I was lucky that I could do that but I worked full-time,” revealed Amy. “I’d go to the gym at 6am when it first opened and then be back again for 5pm after work to do my next session before going home to eat and sleep. To study on top of that and earn money would have been tricky. With skeleton you’d almost have a summer life and a winter life, and that was pretty much the other way round to a university degree.”
Amy returned to the University of Bath in 2004, the year the Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS) was formed, to undertake a foundation degree in Sports Performance which she completed in 2007. Over this period, she was helped by TASS, a programme managed by SportsAid, to provide her with the support services she required to get the best results in both her education and sport.
The Turin Winter Olympics, where Amy had travelled as a reserve, saw fellow TASS beneficiary Shelley Rudman claim silver in 2006. There was a burning desire within Amy to make her mark in Vancouver. She had largely flown under the radar in the build-up to the race, even though she’d won World Championships silver the year before, and she was aware of the wider impact winning a medal could have.
“I knew I’d missed out four years previously and I really believed I could have got a medal there,” said Amy. “You do have an outside pressure but it shouldn’t be any more than what you place on yourself. All I kept thinking was ‘I’m going to get a medal’. For four years I’d been training my butt off and become obsessive about it. We also knew the team had to get a medal because of funding from UK Sport.
“They had brought out a medal target and it was about keeping the sport alive. We had to justify the money for research and development by winning one in Vancouver. It wasn’t just about the athletes but those behind the scenes - the coaches, the physios. There were members of the team who came up to me after I’d won gold saying ‘thank goodness you’ve done it, it takes the pressure off us now’.”
Amy had a long wait before being able to celebrate her victory with her parents and team. She made her way through the huge amount of press interviews before being brought back down to earth with a trip to the anti-doping test centre. As Amy passed through the mixed zone, where she’ll now be based as a reporter for the second consecutive Games, she can recall being interviewed by the BBC’s Clare Balding.
“It was pretty crazy,” said Amy. “As soon as you step off the track, whether you’ve won or not, you have to step through the mixed zone so you’re wiggling your way through the world’s press. I remember Clare Balding saying ‘you’ve won and it’s the first in 30 years and 58 for a woman’ and I was like ‘oh, really?!’ because you obviously don’t think about the history and the true magnitude of it right there.
“Now I’m on the other side of it working alongside Clare! You do feel that slight pressure of performing. When you’re interviewing an athlete live, with a person in your ear saying ‘you’ve got two minutes’, you have to be on it. There is that competitive edge where you think ‘I’ve got to do a really good job here’. You’ve got to do it in that moment when it really matters so there are similarities there.”
Since retirement, Amy’s transition has been eased by remaining open to the opportunities which have come her way. She has enjoyed her commitments with the BBC, in addition to presenting duties with the Gadget Show on Channel 5 until last year. Her Team GB ambassadorial role has continued from London 2012 and she also speaks regularly at corporate and business events across the country.
“I never had any plans or ideas for when I stopped competing,” said Amy. “If I did, it was just to give everything a go. That’s what I still do to this day. You’re very lucky that medals open doors and give you opportunities. It does put you out there for people to see. If something tickles my fancy, or I get asked to do something, I’ll go for it unless my gut really tells me ‘Amy, that’s not for you’. I still do that now.
“Maybe there are a few decisions I regret that I should have said yes to when looking back on it. But I’ve been lucky and I guess like anyone in the same boat you become a self-employed person and you’re still looking for jobs and work. Sometimes you don’t really have anything for a few weeks, a month or two, and then suddenly you might have lots. You have highs and lows but you’re just trying to stay constant.”
Amy is a big supporter of SportsAid and joins guests at the charity’s regional Lunch Clubs to speak to them about stories from her skeleton career and beyond. Her time being helped by TASS allows her to have a true appreciation of the difference the support means to young athletes, and the Lunch Clubs evoke memories of the backing she was given by kind-hearted people within her own local community.
“You do really see the importance of the support they’re given,” said Amy. “The athletes are young and for them to be given the recognition and that pat on the back that we believe in you, you’ve got good results and we recognise that, it gives them that extra confidence that they could really go forward. £1,000 is a big sum of money when you’re that age and I think the psychological benefit of that is huge.
“I will always remember this elderly lady in the village where I grew up, and am now back living in, giving me money for my first really good skeleton helmet.
They brought out these new designs and I didn’t have the money for them. Bless, through the grapevine in the village, people heard and I remember her giving me that money to be able to get that helmet. The boost that can give you means a lot.”