With an MBE and Olympic gold medal under her belt, retired athlete turned TV presenter Amy Williams has raised the stakes for women in sport.
How you discover the thrill of the skeleton track? It’s quite an unusual sport - you probably wouldn’t try it in your school PE lessons! What was that first time like?
For me, it was a case of living in the right place, at the right time. The right place was Bath. I was at University, and they had built a skeleton track so the athletes could practise for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
I was doing athletics at the time, I wanted to do the 400m but I knew I wasn’t quite good enough (I kept having issues with shin splints), and I was already searching for something else I could do. I was at the gym and someone mentioned the skeleton and bobsleigh track and I barged in on one of their sessions. I loved it instantly, so I paid to join an Army Ice Camp for two weeks as a civilian. I was shoved down the track, I was bruised all over and black and blue. You just plonk yourself on and go: it was terrifying and exhilarating!
And when did you realise ‘hey, I could actually be rather brilliant at this’?
It was a gradual thing. The more I trained, the more I realised. I loved the getting stronger and faster as the weeks went by. You’re constantly competing against others and yourself to push your boundaries: top ten in the world, top five, top three – that’s how you get to be the fastest in the world. In 2009 I won the silver medal at the World Cup race on the track at Whistler. I knew I liked the track; I knew I was good at it; I knew I could beat every athlete on every track – it just had to happen on race day.
What does it take to be world-class (and world-beating)? Is it innate?
It’s another version of the old nature-nuture. You have to be in the right sport for your body – for instance, if you’re 6ft 4” you’re probably never going to be a world-class gymnast - but there’s also hard work, dedication, never, ever giving up. People come into sport who have natural ability and have had everything handed to them on a golden platter, but they will never make it because they don’t have the mental strength. You can’t be ‘good enough’, you can’t quit when your body’s exhausted – you do one more. When you’ve had a bad day and crashed and your body aches everywhere; tomorrow you get up and do the same thing again.
And what does it take to get to the Olympics? You only just missed out on going to Turin Olympics in 2006 [Britain was only allowed to send one female skeleton slider. Shelley Rudman went and won silver. Amy was reserve] – did that sharpen your focus?
From 2006 I became obsessed. The blinkers were on. Every single decision of every day – from training to what I ate - was about ‘will this help me get to the Olympics?’ I kept thinking, ‘I could have been the one at Turin’. The die was cast and the fire was in my belly!
The moment you’re representing your country it’s addictive. Your first race for GB you’re like. “Wow! I am the best in my country and representing my nation.” Every day you want to get better: one tenth of a second quicker. You’re driven to be the best possible version of yourself. You’re constantly having to race and if you don’t perform and get the result, it could be over. You’re only as a good as your last race. Even when you’re the champion, you can come back the next year and no one cares because so much can shift and change.
What was your mindset as you went to Vancouver?
Oh, I wanted a medal, and yes, you have a moment of thinking, ’I’m at the Olympics’ – but then you tell yourself it’s your job and just another competition. I prepared myself, mentally and physically, in the same way I would have done on any other race day. It’s all about consistency: the same breakfast, getting up at the same time, the same preparation. But at the back of my head there was a voice saying “I’ve worked my whole life for this.”
And what was it like when you won the gold medal? Britian’s first gold in 30 years and the first gold won by a woman for 58 years.
Honestly, I didn’t really process any of it until I went into the media zone, and Clare Balding told me. Only then does the realisation that your name is in the history books dawn on you – and it is massive and daunting. During the process of trying to win, you’re never focussing on the ultimate outcome goal – you just do the basics every day, working towards the goals on the way there.
Do you ever think, “oh, I’ll just hop on the track for old time’s sake”?
I don’t even have a sled any more! I physically had to break up Arthur (my sled). I don’t even own a plastic sledge!
What obstacles do you think face women in sport?
My sport is a minority sport, so I didn’t really notice anything (although my Austrian coach would only ask the boys for their opinion, not the girls…but let’s not go there). Now I notice it in terms of coverage: if the England rugby girls are winning, why isn’t it all over the media? The cricket girls win all the time, but it’s not out there. Our national teams are our national teams – and that’s not just teams made up of men.
There’s also the issue of funding: when I started out, there wasn’t any structure or money or coaching. “Sure”, they said, “you can do this for your country. Get yourself to Germany. Get your own old banger sled.” I did a full-time job on top of my training! In those terms, I think what my generation of athletes did paved the way for future sportspeople. Those medals count because they bring money to your sport. The medal in Canada enabled Lizzie Yarnols and Laura Deas to progress. Without that medal, they wouldn’t exist.
Was it odd when you retired and started commentating on ‘your’ sport?
That first time in Sochi it was really weird because it dawned on me that I had that medal and they all wanted the same – and it was really emotional. But in terms of the commentary, it’s just like the pressure of performing all over again. I’m not fussed about having someone talking in my ear or a camera in my face.
How do you divide your time now?
The Olympics had a massive build-up – I was constantly writing or commenting. Before that, I did The Gadget Show for three years. Now it’s a real mix of the odd TV show, motivational talks at dinners or schools, awards ceremonies. I also like to take on other challenges: I'm an ambassador for Ride the Night, a 100k bike ride through the streets of London for three cancer charities – so I need to get on a bike and train for that!
Three words that describe you…
Thoughtful, kind, brave. Funnily enough, I asked my husband what he thought and he came up with the same three words!
When are you happiest?
Definitely at home with my husband and baby, with a cup of tea and the cat on my lap.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Always treat others as you’d wish to be treated.
We think female friendships are to be celebrated and treasured – what one quality do your friends share?
They’re all strong women who’ve pushed themselves to the limits.
You can pick six women – dead or alive/famous or not – to spend the evening with. Who? And where do you go?
Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn – because they’re iconic; Elle Degeneres – because she’s hilarious; the Queen (I’ve been watching Victoria), my twin sister (I don’t see enough of her), and Serena Williams – she’s such a strong, inspiring woman. We’d sit under the stars around a campfire with blankets and hot chocolate. I think it would bring out everyone’s stories.
Book you wish you’d written?
The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters.
Your favourite holiday destination?
Bath – it always has been.
Over or under dressed?
Lark or owl?
I’m kind of both.
Sunrise or sunset?
Sunrise to get things done. Sunset on holiday to put my feet up and drink a nice cocktail.
Spring or winter?
Word you over-use?
Mince pies. I absolutely love them.
Last time you laughed out loud?
At something little Oscar did.
One thing you can’t live without?
My little one and my husband.
Motto for life?
Try everything at least once. And always listen to your gut feeling.
The one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
That I really love art and being creative.
Follow Amy on Instagram @amyjoywilliams, and visit nightrider.org.uk for more information on Ride the Night!