Elise Christie suffers fresh Winter Olympics heartbreak with final crash

After Elise Christie’s heart was ripped apart three times at the Winter Olympics in Sochi four years ago it took her more than 18 months to stop torturing herself about missing out on a medal. This time, however, she has only four days.

And while Britain’s best hope for gold in Pyeongchang desperately tried to sound upbeat about finishing fourth in the women’s 500m short track final, and her prospects in the 1500m and 1000m to come, the swollen lump in her throat and tears offered a worrying prognosis. “I have got a few days to reset and it is still almost a week until my best distance,” insisted Christie, before giving full expression to the pain she was suffering. “But right now I just can’t see myself living with this feeling.”

As she spoke she looked almost spectral in shock. It was as if she had been visited by the ghosts of Winter Olympics past. After all, it was precisely four years ago to the day that Christie had a silver medal in the 500m taken from her after she was ruled to have brought down two of her competitors.

This time, however, tragedy came with a savage twist. Initially a daring inside move on the penultimate lap looked to have taken her from fourth to third. However, when Christie failed to maintain her balance after the briefest of contacts from Holland’s Yara van Kerkhof her body and medal hopes were sent spinning along the floor and into the crash barriers.

It was impossible not to feel for her as the Italian Arianna Fontana sped to an unexpected gold medal, with Van Kerkhof taking silver and the Canadian Kim Boutin bronze after Choi Min-jeong, the favourite from South Korea, was disqualified for an infringement after initially finishing second.

In reality Christie could hardly claim to be a wholly innocent victim. In short track speed skating, where riders ping around at 20mph, jostling and bumping for position as they do so, the gap between glory and failure is often as thin as the one-millimetre blades on their skates. As Christie knows all too well.

“There was three of us in a line, and I saw the Korean and the Canadian bump so I thought it’s time to move now,” said Christie. “So I’ve still got a lap and a half to try and win and that was when winning was on my mind. But then I was knocked over.”

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The frustrating thing for the 27-year-old from Livingston was that she had looked in sensational form in her heat and quarter-final, breaking the Olympic record on both occasions. But she only just scrapped a second in a messy semi-final, which meant that she started in lane four of five while her challengers for the gold were on the better inside lanes. Perhaps, in hindsight, Christie should have set her sights on a medal of any colour. Because when your tactic is gold or bust, you will often come away with nothing, no matter how good you are.

“It is so tough,” admitted Christie, once more fighting back the tears. “I have worked so hard for the 500m. It has been taken away from me. I know it is short track and I am supposed to be prepared for this but it still hurts.”

On Wednesday the rebuilding process starts with a visit to her sport psychologist. At the forefront of Team GB minds will be the need to avoid a repeat of Sochi when disaster in the 500m was followed by Christie being disqualified in the 1000m and 1500m.

As Stewart Laing, the performance director for short track speed skating, explained: “We have brought our sports psychologist out and we have had this planned just in case. We will regroup and refocus. We will give her time to digest but then help her cope with what’s happened. Unfortunately she finishes in that soul-destroying fourth place. But we will go back to some of the processes we put in place. Crucially, Elise is in a much stronger place. She is far more robust than in Sochi.”

Minjeong Choi races past as Christie goes out.
Minjeong Choi races past as Christie goes out. Photograph: Harry How/Getty Images

“We look at her and she has speed and she has talent. The 1500m and 1000m are her favourite events so we will sit down and focus on them.” Meanwhile, as Fontana celebrated her medal she offered encouragement of sorts to her British rival. “This is short track, it’s part of the game,” she explained. “I’m sure Elise will use this, I don’t want to call it failure exactly, but this feeling to perform better in her next races.”

The British team in Pyeongchang will certainly hope that is the case given their medal count currently stands at zero. And as Team GB chef de mission Mike Hay reminded journalists, she has the pedigree to bounce back. “She’s double world champion,” he said. “She’s got a great support staff around her. She’s got two of her favourite events coming up now, the 1000m and the 1500m, so there’s still a lot left in the tank here. That’s a disappointment, no getting away from it, but she’ll get herself back up.”

For much of the past year Christie has insisted that she is far stronger, both physically and mentally, than she was in Sochi. Over the next few days, however, that statement will undergo the most vigorous of stress tests.


Sean Ingle in Pyeongchang

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