Engineering helps win Olympic gold

Engineers at BAE Systems, Southampton University and Sheffield Hallam University were vital parts of the team behind Britain’s only medal in the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Amy Williams, who won gold in bob skeleton - an individual toboggan event - said a big thank you today to the scientists, sports staff and engineers who helped her to Olympic victory when she returned to her Bath University training ground.

She revealed some of the precision thinking which came good high on the slopes of Canada's Whistler Mountains. Everything from the technology in her trusty sled, affectionately called Arthur, through to her thoughts in the last 20 minutes of preparation before a run was strategically planned.

"It gives you such confidence going to a major competition knowing that your equipment is world class and your preparation methods are at the cutting edge of your sport," she said. "All you need to worry about is delivering on the day."

The 27-year-old was Britain's only medallist in Vancouver when she slid to gold in the skeleton to become Britain's first solo Winter Olympic champion in 30 years.

Engineers from BAE Systems, who normally make defence and aerospace equipment, helped bring the winning partnership of Williams and Arthur together.

Williams said: "I'm really grateful to all the scientists and engineers at the University of Southampton and BAE Systems who helped make me and Arthur such a successful team."

Arthur was originally codenamed Blackroc, when it was being dreamt up as a secret sled design complete with never-seen-before features, such as adjustable components and interchangeable structural parts.

These world-firsts make the sled more responsive, giving Williams greater steering control and also mean it is a bespoke design to fit the sliders size and moving style.

The sled also features a ratchet mechanism to facilitate fast, precise and repeatable set up of the runners, allowing for the changing condition of the ice.

A rig was developed for the skeleton team by sports engineers at the Sheffield Hallam University, to ensure accurate and repeatable sled set up, which is crucial for efficient runs on each day of competition.

Williams and Adam Pengilly both came away with silver medals at the 2009 World Championships when they tested the sled out in competition for the first time.

BAE Systems made the prototype, while the design was the brainchild of Rachel Blackburn and James Roche, two EPSRC-funded engineering doctorate students at Southampton University.

But it was not just engineering that was behind the medal winning success which has made skeleton the powerhouse of British winter sports.

British Skeleton's performance director Andi Schmid, himself a former world champion, has "masterfully guided" the training programme, according to Simon Timson, who was British Skeleton's performance director at the Turin 2006 Games.

Schmid predicted that taking an innovative approach to training, preparation, kit and equipment could give that little something extra needed to take on and beat the world's best winter sport nations.

More than 200 hours of wind tunnel testing plus novel training and preparation methods help Williams strike gold in Vancouver. It meant that Williams's body position, kit and equipment were primed to cut through the chilly winter air in Whistler at high speed - which in her case meant reaching over 143kph.

Williams, a former 400m sprinter, went under five seconds in three out of her four sprint starts in Vancouver making her one of the top four fastest starters in each run. The sprint start is crucial in bob skeleton.

Her speed and consistency in the start were driven by novel training methods throughout the summer, led by the English Institute of Sport's science and conditioning practitioner Danny Holdcroft.

She was also taught how to optimise race preparation strategies in the final 20 minutes before a run, which helped with the sprint start.

Industry and academia, who brought different types of expertise to elite sport, all played a part in British skeleton's growing success, according to Dr Scott Drawer, UK Sport's head of research and innovation.

He said: "Our job is to seek out that extra tiny drop of performance from Britain's best athletes as we aim to help them be among the best prepared, and most feared by their competitors, when they reach the start line.

"We couldn't do this without input from our partners in industry and academia who can apply their varied knowledge and expertise to the increasingly sophisticated world of high performance sport."

Transferring its engineering knowledge gained from creating anything from complex fighter jets and submarines to bob skeleton design has been an interesting challenge, according to James Baker, BAE Systems director of technology & engineering services.

He said: "This project has demonstrated how valuable both innovative engineering and new technologies can be in making those vital fractions of seconds difference on the track. We are immensely proud to have played a part in Amy's success."

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