Lillehammer 2016: Pittaway and Rukosuev reign supreme in the skeleton
Ashleigh Pittaway became the new heroine of British skeleton, while Evgenii Rukosuev kept up Russia’s tradition of excellence in the sport with the two fastest runs of the men’s competition.
Although there are actually no skeleton tracks in Great Britain, the country continues to produce a remarkable number of champions in the discipline, such as Ashleigh Pittaway, who claimed a gold medal at the Olympic Sliding Centre during the Winter Youth Olympic Games Lillehammer 2016.
British teams that compete at the senior Olympic Winter Games do not generally pick up a large number of medals; in fact, they have secured just 10 titles since 1924. In women’s skeleton, however, they have dominated for a good decade: Amy Williams and Lizzy Arnold both landed gold medals, at Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014 respectively, while Shelley Rudman paved the way for those triumphs with a silver at Turin 2006.
Pittaway, born on 23 May 2000 in Munich (GER) to a German mother and British father, followed in those illustrious footsteps by finishing ahead of her rival and best friend, Hannah Niese (GER), and Agathe Bessard (FRA) on 19 February 2016.
Hannah Neise GER (Silver), Ashleigh Fay Pittaway GBR (Gold) and Agathe Bessard FRA (Bronze) © Al Tielemans for YIS/IOC
Rudman, in Lillehammer in her capacity as Athlete Role Model, was on hand to offer invaluable advice to her young protégée – who had recorded a disappointing seventh-fastest time in her final training run – the night before the skeleton competition.
“I told her to stay calm and to stick to her usual routine,” explained Rudman. “Training is training, racing is racing. But she’s an athlete who knows how to keep her cool during the actual event, and she seems to have a natural driving instinct, which is a huge bonus. The fact that she started so young and came through the German system are also big feathers in her cap.”
Having arrived in Lillehammer with the status of favourite, the talented 15-year-old shrugged off doubts about her substandard training sessions to produce the fastest first run (55.08) and take a solid lead of 00.35 seconds over Neise into the second, decisive run, where she registered an equally impressive 55.15.
Hannah Niese GER © Al Tielemans for YIS/IOC
“I was really nervous at the start of the first run,” admitted the British gold medallist. “But the gap of 00.35 seconds calmed me down, and I always slide a lot better when I’m happy!”
Rudman added: “There are going to be ups and downs, but I hope that she keeps up with the sport and qualifies for the Olympic Games.”
Rukosuev rides high for Russia
In the men’s competition, 16-year-old Evgenii Rukosuev (RUS) set out his stall in training, logging the fastest time in four out of six practice runs, without even taking part in the last one.
On the day of the competition proper, under the watchful eye of former IOC President Jacques Rogge (2001-2013), who was instrumental in the creation of the Youth Olympic Games, Rukosuev, wearing bib number one, was first to set off at the Olympic Sliding Centre.
The Russian teenager set a blistering pace from the outset, posting a sub-54 second run (53.92) that none of his 19 opponents was able to surpass, although Alexander Hestengen (NOR) did also manage to break the 54-second barrier, coming within 0.07 seconds of Rukosuev’s benchmark. Germany’s Robin Schneider slotted into third position with 54.02.
Alexander Tsatalios Hestengen NOR (Silver), Evgenii Rukosuev RUS (Gold) and Robin Schneider GER (Bronze) © Al Tielemans for YIS/IOC
A suspenseful second run awaited; Schneider, the first of the leading trio to push off, provisionally moved into first place with a time that was almost identical (54.08) to his initial effort, giving him a total of 1:48.10. Backed by a raucous partisan crowd, Hestengen again dipped under 54 seconds for a formidable combined time of 1:47.94.
Finally, Rukosuev put the result beyond any doubt by clocking the fastest time of the entire event (53.38) and clinching a well-deserved gold medal with more than a half-second advantage over Hestengen.
“It was really difficult. I’ve been preparing for this for a year and half, particularly over the summer, so that I could come here to the YOG in great form,” explained the joyful Siberian.
Alexander Hestengen, meanwhile, was simply delighted to have won Norway’s first-ever Olympic medal in a sliding sport. “It was really cool! When I finished my second run, I was top of the leaderboard, but it’s OK. To get a silver medal in front of so many people and with the support of the Norwegian public is incredible!”