Short Track

Understanding Short Track

Great Britain Performance Director Stuart Horsepool talks to Sports Scholarships about the unpredictability of Short Track and the work required to compete with the world's top nations...

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Last Updated: 16/01/14 9:45am

Elise Christie is looking to seal qualification for Sochi 2014 in Kolomna this weekend

Stuart Horsepool: Has been involved with the Great Britain squad at all levels; from skater to Performance Director

Elise Christie: Favours racing from the front but is working on different tactics in preparation for the Winter Olympics

The ISU World Cup short track season is well under way after meets in Shanghai and Seoul in September and October, respectively, with the world's best skaters starting their preparations for the Winter Olympics in Sochi in earnest.

World Cup/ Olympic qualification

  • - The ISU World Cup is an annual event held where the leading skaters compete over a number of months and gain points from the various events across the globe.
  • - Victory in an event earns the skater 10,000 points with 8000 for second and 6400 for third. Points decrease all the way down to one point for finishing 44th or 45th.
  • - With the Sochi Winter Olympics taking place in February, the two World Cup events in November are being used as qualifiers for the Games.
  • - The meets in Torino and Kolomna will see countries competing in relays with only the top eight nations progressing to Sochi.

Things have now gone up a notch with last weekend's meet in Torino the first of two World Cup events in November doubling up as qualifying events for February's Games. Thursday sees the start of the World Cup in Kolomna and the final chance for teams to book their places in Sochi with every skater desperate to be a part of the sport's most prestigious event.

Amongst those skaters is Sky Academy Sports Scholar Elise Christie.

The Scot was ranked No.1 in the world over 1,000 metres last season and claimed bronze in the World Championships in March in the same discipline.

Christie heads into the new campaign as one of the favourites to land a medal in Sochi in February and her disappointment at 'only' taking bronze at the World Championships indicates exactly which colour she wants.

However, the challenge of trying to win Winter Olympic gold is just one that Christie has set herself in recent times.

The 23-year-old from Livingston has stated her desire to increase the popularity of the sport and get more youngsters involved.

One problem is a general lack of knowledge amongst the British public about what is undoubtedly a fast-paced and entertaining sport. Having someone such as Christie competing, and winning, on the world stage is the best way to draw people in but a basic understanding of the rules and regulations is also necessary.

Stuart Horsepool: Has been involved with the Great Britain squad at all levels; from skater to Performance Director

Great Britain's short track Performance Director Stuart Horsepool acknowledges that this is a significant problem but believes that the signs are positive with the sport gaining popularity at quite a rate around the world.

"Worldwide it's growing tremendously quickly," he said. "The investment that countries are making is going up equally as quickly."

In terms of the basics of the sport, Horsepool endeavoured to explain how the sport itself works and the format the major competitions use.

"The sport itself is a race, not a time trial like long track speed skating," he explained. "It's on a 111m track, which is an ordinary indoor ice-rink. There's barrier paddings round the outside for safety if the athletes fall, which does happen quite a lot.

"It's very, very, very unpredictable. Rarely do you get someone winning every time - it just doesn't happen in our sport. To give you some idea of the unpredictability, the first two World Cups were on back-to-back weekends in Asia.

"The men's 500m is a flat out sprint so you're more likely to get more people through of the same ilk. But of the top eight people in the men's 500m one week, only two got into the top sixty in the second week. The possibility of the same skater winning every week, well, it just doesn't happen because every race is so close.

"We race Olympic distances which is 500m, 1000m and 1500m," he continued. "Most winter sports have a World Cup circuit which in short track, we also have. We have eight events a year, plus the World and European Championships, so that makes ten major events a year.

"The World Cup circuit arguably is more difficult as its spread over the whole season and an accumulation of points across the whole year. Like with most winter sports, all the top nations go to all the World Cups.

Ranking

"Your ranking going into the World Championships, and the Olympic Games for that matter, is based on your World Cup ranking. So that makes it imperatively important that you go to each World Cup. It's like in Formula 1 where everyone turns up to every race, and no one would ever miss a round."

Elise Christie

Once at these highly competitive events, the unpredictability and gruelling nature of the sport becomes increasingly clear with a straight knock-out format meaning the slightest error can see a skater eliminated as early as the preliminary stage.

"The sport basically is about getting through rounds, but it's unlike, say athletics, where you have one round one day and then you have a couple of days to rest before the next round," Horsepool told Sky Sports. "In short track you basically go through the whole day, skating round after round. You can start off with say around 120 athletes in one distance, and then they are gradually cut down round by round first to around 85, and then 64 and so on and so on until you've got a final.

"You can race six, seven times in a day quite easily. As you go through the rounds it's usually the first two who qualify for the next round, but depending on the numbers, the fastest third place finishers could also go through, which highlights the speed of the races if you like. That means that it can be an advantage if you go at a stronger pace in a round."

To consistently reach the latter stages as Christie did last season then is incredibly difficult and Horsepool is wary that as a result of her performances during 2012-13 people may expect similar or better finishes as a matter of course this time out.

"That's one of my fears - that people think that because Elise was world number one last year, that it will give her a massive advantage this year, but that's not the case," he said.

For Christie this season will provide a new test in that she may find herself targeted in certain races, according to Horsepool.

The fact she was ranked second in the world overall last season means that there will be no surprise element this time around to her bold style of taking an early lead and backing herself to hold on until the finish line.

Elise Christie: Favours racing from the front but is working on different tactics in preparation for the Winter Olympics

Implementing new tactics will be key for Christie and, indeed, all British skaters and it was something they started working on in Shanghai.

"There will be a lot of tactics involved so one of the key things for our athletes to take from this event is to learn as much about how others are skating this year," said Horsepool.

"Elise, for example, could be a target for some nations seeing as she was ranked world number one in the 1000m last season, and her characteristic style of skating, leading from the front of the pack, has become a trademark.

"It has been important for all the athletes, including Elise, to work on different styles of racing and it's something we have been looking at since the World Championships in March."

The development of the sport in the UK is vital for Horsepool as other nations throughout the world plough more and more money into a sport that offers eight medals opportunities at the Winter Olympics. However, keeping the standard of the skaters as high as at present is just as important given the levels needed to make the sports major events.

The levels required to even reach the British team are incredibly high. Horsepool admits that whilst it does mean more will miss out, it ensures that the resources at his disposal are used to help the absolute best the country has to offer in terms of short track skaters.

"I think from a performance point of view, development is a key focus of ours because we need to ensure that we've got skaters coming through at a lower level that can then be developed into world class athletes."

"To give you a figure, 62% of people who've come on our programme since 2000 have made the top 10 in an Olympic Games. It's not like we take nobodies, they have to be within 6%, or be on a path to be within 6% of the world record before they can even train at the national performance centre at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham. That's the standard we set for the national team.

Standard

"To go to the Olympics they have to reach the gold standard which is within 2% of the world record, or 4% if it's your first Games. By selecting athletes who are at this standard means they are likely to be reaching semi-finals, or the equivalent of top eight in the world - that's where we start. That's our standard.

"One of my goals is to make the short track team is the strongest we can possibly make it, and by doing that you've got to have very high standards. But by having high standards you're going to have people who are disappointed because they don't make those standards. My job and that of the support services around me, is to try and help those skaters, and to make them as good as they can be. That 's led to 22 top eights on the world circuit last year."

To achieve such success despite coming up against the likes of Russia who boast 40,000 short trackers, Horsepool has had to build a support team capable of getting every last drop of potential out of Britain's skaters and it is these people who he sees as key to gaining the best possible results both at present and in the coming years.

"I think the unsung heroes of our success, of the sports development, are the team behind our support services," Horsepool said. "We've got the best sites, the physiologists, the best strength and conditioning advisers. Nicky Gooch our head coach is an Olympic medallist himself in short track. He brings a belief within the group. He was my understudy before he took over so there's a consistency, a continuity there that's important.

"Our nutritionist is Kevin Currell who the head of the EIS for nutrition; our top psychologist is Mark Bawden who is the head psychology for the EIS, he's also the England first team cricket psychologist. We've got a local GP who is now a sports consultant. In strength and conditioning we've got Tom Yorn who's head of weightlifting, and we've got Scott Gardner, who's just become the sprint canoe boss.

"It's a bit like if you look at the Dave Brailsford model, my job is decide how much of one thing, and how little of another, add everything to the pot and know that everybody within it is working up to a level. If everyone is working well and at an optimum level then you've got a successful programme."

Despite the development plans and the success, maintaining and building on the achievements of the past few years, in particular, remains an enormous task with short track's extreme unpredictability meaning even the countries with the biggest talent pool and funding are unable to guarantee victory.

With Horsepool at the helm and supremely talented skaters such as Christie on the track, Britain are moving in the right direction. Their funding may be dwarfed by that of other leading short track nations but when Sochi comes around, Britain will be in the mix for medals and another victory for David over Goliath should not be ruled out.