SOCHI, Russia -- The record shows that Elise Christie defeated three people in her short-track speedskating 1000-meter heat Tuesday. Christie knows better.
Earlier this week, Christie crashed in the 500-meter final (which happens in short-track) and took out Korean star Park Seung-hi (which also happens in short-track). She says she received “a couple of thousand messages that were negative” on social media, mostly from Korea. Some were threatening. All were disturbing. It was another chapter in the ongoing saga known as: What on Earth is wrong with people?
“I spent the last few days feeling quite down and struggling psychologically,” Christie said. “I came in yesterday and was quite emotional.”
How would you like to train for years in anonymity, stumble in the Olympics, and then have thousands of people call you a horrible person and worse? Christie was a wreck. What a week. She lost her chance at gold in the 500, got disqualified in the 1500 heats for a technicality that her coach, Nick Gooch, calls “a s--- thing,” and had complete strangers angrily question her right to exist.
Vicious personal attacks are tough for most athletes to handle -- we saw how Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart reacted earlier this month -- but they were especially rough for Christie, who is not a professional in any conventional sense. She is a 23-year-old speedskater who lives with her boyfriend, fellow British speedskater Jack Whelbourne, and their two dogs: J.J. (his, a Chihuahua and miniature pinscher mix) and Benji (hers, a Jack Russell-Pomeranian mix).
“The fact is, if there was 30,000 people that were interested in this sport, it wouldn’t happen every four years,” Whelbourne says, “and we would be more used to this.”
Whelbourne and Christie went for walks and tried to forget people were saying about her. She suspended her Twitter account. But Twitter is very good at making you think there is no world outside of Twitter, and Christie was worried. These Olympics seemed hopeless -- she wanted to pull out, but she knew she could never bring herself to do it. The next Olympics, in 2018, will be in Pyeongchang, South Korea. What would people do to here there?
“She doesn’t realize, it’s just now,” Gooch says. “These people aren’t going to be at the games in Korea. It got inside her … In Britain, footballers and cricket, it’s their job every weekend, they’re in the press. For our guys, it’s once every four years. It did get into her head, the things people were saying to her.”
Then something incredible happened. Her story got out in Britain, and thousands of Brits tweeted their support to Whelbourne and her other teammates. The speed-skating community backed her, including the Koreans. Crashes are part of short-track speed-skating. The skaters all know it. If they don’t like it, they can go try long-track.
“Me and the girl that was involved in the crash, we get along very well,” she said. “She hugged me and she went to the media and said, ‘I don’t blame Elise.’ People that don’t understand the sport are going to be horrible about it, I guess.”
Christie had a lousy day of training Monday, with her mind elsewhere but she says before the 1000 heat Tuesday, “I thought of all the support I had back home. I smiled for the first time in a while.” Whelbourne said Christie was “the most calm” he had ever seen her before a race.
Short-track speedskating is an underrated spectator sport because there is so much action in a short time frame. Speed alone does not win a race. The best skaters can execute multiple strategies.
Christie rose to No. 1 in the world last year primarily by racing from the front: sprinting to an early lead and holding it. She decided she needed more options in the Olympics. She has worked hard on racing from the back: lagging at the beginning, then passing everybody late.
That was her strategy Tuesday. She was dead last for the first few laps, sometimes a distant last. With three laps to go, she made her move, and it was breathtaking. She won by more than two seconds to earn a spot in Friday’s quarterfinal -- surprising even her boyfriend, who worried she was still too upset to skate that well. It was a heck of a lesson about what can happen when you learn to race from the back.