“This doesn’t feel different to a death,” Elise Christie says as she tries to build a new world without speed skating, the sport that has consumed half her life. Christie, a three-time world champion who also won 10 European titles, announced her retirement last month after a year which nearly took her life. Christie had been hoping to compete in her fourth Winter Olympics next month but, feeling let down by the sport and struggling with injury and her mental health, she says: “It’s like you’ve lost the most important thing in your life and the thing that you gave everything up for.”
Christie sits on a sofa at home in Nottingham and rubs her face gently. Earlier this evening she had broken the news to me, in a revelation she has not discussed publicly before, that loss and trauma drove her into a depression where she attempted to take her own life last April. We have also discussed how she is now trying to summon the resilience that usually defines her.
“I spent 16 years hammering away, trying to win constantly and it’s taken its toll,” the 31-year-old Scot says softly. Over the past year, because none of her world or European titles made any money, Christie had been working at Pizza Hut while chasing her Olympic dream. But last week, adjusting to her skating retirement, Christie started a different job. She now works part-time behind the till at a Shell garage as she considers two offers to transition to a different Winter Olympic sport.
It means that, while still hurting after everything she has been through, she is defiant and hopeful. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to leave everyone behind and create pain for them. I want to carry on. Sport has improved vastly with mental health the last four years, and so has the world, but it wasn’t enough for what I had to deal with [last] year. I don’t blame anyone. I’m not angry at anyone. I was at one point, like anyone would be, but I’m not now.”
A few months ago Christie released her autobiography, the powerful and aptly named Resilience, in which she described 2018 as the hardest year of her life. She entered the Winter Olympics that year as a multiple world champion, but Christie had been persuaded to skate when she was injured in an effort to win more places for her team. Catastrophe struck at the Games in South Korea when she was disqualified controversially, twice, and taken out on the ice and penalised in her final attempt at winning a medal. Christie’s tears went viral but, months later, the devastation ran far deeper.
Her long-standing coach, Nick Gooch, was made redundant, her Olympic gold medal-winning boyfriend, the Hungarian skater Shaolin Sandor Liu, left her by text and Christie’s self-harming escalated. A few days after Christmas in 2018 she was so distressed that, in the midst of self-harming, she injured herself so seriously that she feared her life was in danger. In shock, Christie suddenly did not want to die. A friend rushed her to hospital where she was told how lucky she had been.
Three years have passed since then. Before Christie discusses the future she revisits the fresh turbulence of 2021 in a typically raw and open way. She remembers that last April, after terrible pain in her personal life, “I spiralled quite badly and I had an attempt [to take her life]. It was very difficult … I would never class myself as suicidal because I don’t think I’ve ever felt I want to die. But I was in too much pain. A friend sent me a message that night. He said: ‘Are you OK?’ I was like: ‘Not really.’ I don’t know how he knew, because I didn’t say [she had just attempted to take her life], but he had a feeling. He patched me up and helped me.”
What would have happened if he hadn’t rescued her that night? Christie shakes her head. Was it worse than her hospitalisation in 2018? “A lot worse. But I thought it wouldn’t be good for all the people who follow me for mental health if I just gave up like that.”
Christie looks up. “Since then, I’ve not self-harmed. It’s been steady progress but I wasn’t supported very well through it in terms of skating. I was lucky to have my family around me. They live in Scotland but they came to see me. I had my job at Pizza Hut and they were really good with me, giving me time off, and being understanding. So it was a very difficult period and there were points where I didn’t know if I’d be able to function again. But I was like: ‘Nah, we need to change this.’ That’s why spreading awareness about mental health has become such a purpose for me. What happened with skating this year is crap but I’ve still got something else I’m focused on. I’m working towards helping lots of people.”
Now, after almost an hour of talking about 2021, which also included a car accident and the recent death of her grandfather, Christie smiles grimly when I say it sounds like an even harder year than 2018. “It’s hands down topped it,” she says wryly. “It’s been a lot worse. But it taught me so much because if I had been unlucky and gone that day [when she tried to take her life eight months ago], I’d have left so many people in pain. I’d have also given up the legacy I believe in, which is to help people with their mental health, and show them you can get through this stuff.
“So I’m not sitting here having not qualified [for the Olympics] and losing my career, and going: ‘I’m better off dead.’ I’m trying to show people something different, Yes, I’m struggling. I’m gutted. But I don’t want to be in that dark place again. I’m working on other things now, progressing my life in other ways, focusing on sorting myself out.”
The saga of her non-qualification for the Olympics is complicated but, until she slipped into the depression that nearly ended her life, Christie had been skating effectively. “I’d been keeping up with the boys and racing them really well. But after I had some time off [in April] I’d asked for a clinical psychologist and wasn’t given one. I was then told that until the clinical psychologist was involved, I can’t train. It ended up being four weeks. Eventually I spoke to my sports psychologist who I’ve known for years. He is ace and I said: ‘We need to do something because I’m missing too much.’ So he and the doctor helped get me back on the ice. I still didn’t have a clinical psychologist but I said: ‘I’ll push all this to the side and get stuck into training.’ It was going really well up to August.”
Christie then began cramping in her legs and feet and “it was like I was seizing up while skating. The problem was we had three weeks until the qualifiers. So there was no time really to sort anything. Mentally I’ve pushed something to the side. I’ve now got this physical illness pushed to the side and I’ve been made to skate through the qualifiers. The national trials were in September and I got really sick. I should have pulled out of trials but I was told if I did I won’t get selected for the Olympic qualifiers. I had to race very unwell and got my arse kicked at the trials.
“Between the trials and [Olympic] qualifiers someone above me decided I had to have a psychological evaluation. I don’t know if it came from a good or a bad place. I just know I’ve asked for a clinical psychologist all year. I’m now being doubted. Is my physical illness actually in my head? I’ve got 10 days to get this done or I don’t go. So I didn’t train during that time because I was so stressed.”
Christie passed the evaluation but she was still battling injury. “I didn’t skate the last week [of the qualifiers] as there was no point. I felt gutted, because I was thinking: ‘Why is my own country stopping me going to the Olympics when I’m racing on a badly sprained ankle after being ill all year?’”
In her book Christie writes of how, before the 2018 Olympics, she was doubted when she complained of an injury. She was finally given a scan and Christie was elated when it was proved she had torn a tendon. “I was injured but I wasn’t insane,” she says.
She saw herself as being a “medal machine” that needed to race to secure funding for her sport. “If you look at Arianna Fontana [the Italian speed skater who won eight Olympic medals], she’s had a much longer and much more successful Olympic career than me. But she did not achieve some of the other stuff I’ve done and she was never put under the same level of pressure. She could take time out, reduce her training load and still have income. But every year I had to be the one that kept the programme funded – or that’s how it felt to me.
“It was the same at every world championships. I didn’t enjoy my medals. It was like: ‘I’ve got to medal to keep my funding.’ When I got that injury in 2018 the best thing would have been not to send me to the next two qualifiers, because I was already qualified. But instead it was another five weeks’ training on a leg that had a significant tear. It meant I was in agony at the Olympics.”
Christie has suffered extensively and, having been bullied as a schoolgirl, she was raped at the age of 19. She did not feel strong enough to report the crime, even after the man who assaulted her apologised much later. Christie spoke about the rape for the first time in her book and she says: “I wasn’t speaking about it to get a conviction. I spoke up to create awareness.”
The conviction rate of rapists is shockingly low and Christie shakes her head again when asked if she believes this will soon change. “No. Even if I went through it again today I couldn’t honestly say I’d do anything about it – not when people accused me of lying after I spoke about it.”
It’s difficult for Christie in the wake of her retirement but, with fresh hope and light in her voice, she says: “I still feel passionate about sports and training. I’ve been offered three options. One of them isn’t an Olympic sport, and two are. I’d still love to have the Olympic medal, though, because that’s my passion. But if I can help one person with mental health issues that would mean more than any medal. So I’d rather take my time now to heal and look after myself and help others with their mental health.”
Resilience by Elise Christie is published by Reach Sport
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support for rape and sexual abuse on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, or 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html
You can contact the UK mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk