Ice Novice to Winter Olympian in 14 Months

Friday, May 21st, 2021

In August 2004, the Australian Institute for Sport, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), had a year and a half to try to qualify a woman for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, in the sport of skeleton:

The Aussie scientists had never even seen the sport, but they had learned that the beginning sprint accounts for about half of the variation in total race time. So they announced a nationwide call for women who could fit snugly on a tiny sled and who could sprint.


The women came from track, gymnastics, water skiing, and surf lifesaving, a popular sport in Australia that mixes open-water rowing and kayaking, surf paddling, swimming, and footraces in the sand. Not one woman had heard of skeleton, much less tried it.

Five of the ten spots were filled solely based on the 30-meter sprint, the other five by consensus of the scientists and AIS coaches, based on how well the athletes did in a dry land test during which they had to jump on a sled fitted with wheels.


Within three slides, the newbies were recording the fastest runs in Australian history, faster than the previous national record holder, who had had years of training. “That first week on the track, it was all over,” says Gulbin. “The writing was on the wall.”


Ten weeks after she first set foot on ice, Melissa Hoar bested about half the field at the world under-twenty-three skeleton championships. (She won the title in her next try.) And beach sprinter Michelle Steele made it all the way to the Winter Olympics in Italy.

The AIS titled their paper on the project “Ice Novice to Winter Olympian in 14 Months.”

Australia, a world sports powerhouse, has thrived off talent identification and “talent transfer,” the switching of athletes between sports. In 1994, as part of the run-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the country launched its National Talent Search program. Children ages fourteen to sixteen were examined in school for body size and tested for general athleticism. Australia, home to 19.1 million people at the time, won 58 medals in Sydney. That’s 3.03 medals for every million citizens, nearly ten times the relative haul of the United States, which took home 0.33 medals per million Americans.


  1. Pelekesi says:

    Some types of physical performance respond well to training. Sprint speed ain’t one of them.

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