Sliding solo: skeleton as an independent athlete

Madelaine Smith. Photograph: Viesturs Lācis | IBSF

British skeleton slider Madelaine Smith was deselected from the Great Britain (GB) team in March 2020 and decided to continue her career as an independent athlete.

She was deselected despite being the highest ranked female GB athlete at the time and training with the GB team since the start of her skeleton career 6 years ago.

Skeleton sliders must fulfil two annual criteria – the sliding criteria and the pushing criteria. Smith was the best slider in her team and was ranked as one of the top 15 female athletes worldwide. All but one of the girls in her team failed to meet the pushing criteria, Smith included, yet she was the only one deselected. “The rationale they gave for deselecting me didn’t really add up,” says Smith.

She has since been in an 11 month long legal battle, including two successful appeals on her deselection, and is now waiting on a decision after her last hearing a few days ago. Until a final verdict is made, she decided to keep training as an independent athlete to avoid falling behind in the sport.

The decision to train independently was not an easy one. The biggest difficulty is the lack of resources – after a short notice invitation to a few international races in November 2020, Smith had to purchase a sled and full set of gear within two weeks. The sled came to a total of £11,000 (€12,550), while expenses for the rest of the gear and travel came to £7,500 (€8,558). “I was doing everything by myself which was a challenge,” said Smith, “I was extremely worried to slide on a new sled because it’s like driving a car, they all respond differently.”

Madelaine Smith. Photograph: Viesturs Lācis | IBSF

Smith had a lot of hurdles in her way, but she got strength from the support of her friends and family. “I believe in her,” says her partner Olly Biddulph, who has been with her every step of the way. “I think that she was unfairly treated. But I think she’s done well to stick by her roots and her beliefs, and I think she did the right thing.”

Another big shock was Smith’s old team’s reaction to her being deselected. “They pretty much made it as if I didn’t exist anymore,” she says. “None of my friends spoke to me, they were told not to contact me because of the legal matters.” This outcasting was made worse by the Covid-19 restrictions, which meant Smith, as an independent athlete, was not allowed any guests or supporters to join her at the races.

Looking for support, she reached out to some of her old coaches. One of them put her in touch with the head coach of the Austrian skeleton team, who agreed to coach her at the races. “Now that I’m on my own and I’m asking for help and people are willing to give it, that’s something I really didn’t think would happen,” says Smith. She said teams from small nations like the Netherlands, Belgium, and Austria were quick to offer support, such as use of their gyms; “I was so lucky that they were all so lovely and willing to help.”

While her legal battle with the British Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association is still ongoing, Madelaine Smith is continuing her independent training and hopes to compete in the 2022 Winter Olympics.

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