Gold-winning sled designed by sailor

Yachtswoman Rachel Blackburn is the brains behind the sled which won athlete Amy Williams Britain’s first Gold Medal at a winter Olympics for 30 years.

Blackburn and fellow post-graduate  engineering student James Roche, from the University of Southampton, designed the sled as part of their doctoral thesis.

“The concept is mine but there’s a massive group of people that came together and expertise from everywhere,” said Blackburn, a who has a degree in ship science. “I knew nothing about the sport. I came at it purely from an engineering point of view. I thought what’s out there and how can we make it better. There were existing sleds that we could modify but there was too much to modify and we decided to start from scratch. It’s the balance between the stiffness of the chassis for speed versus the sensitivity for the control. If you can’t get the lines but you have the speed, then you’re going to crash. It’s achieving that fine balance for each individual.”

Williams has named her sled Arthur. “You name a boat, so why would I not name a sled?” she said of the 33kg contraption that carried her down the Whistler sliding track. “He comes around with me everywhere in winter, a lot of hassle at airports because he is so heavy. You have to bond with your sled, know how it works, its characteristics. Sometimes I don’t speak to him, other times I do. I always give him a pat at the end of my race. Yesterday I gave him a few pats.”

Blackburn and Roche, who have formed a company together, Blackroc, started work on the sled four years ago, backed with money from UK Sport and logistical and practical support from upwards of 20 UK companies, including BA Systems and the McLaren Formula One team. “Many a time I’ve had dreams, I’ve had nightmares, I’ve thought that’s a great idea and then it’s not worked,” said Blackburn.

“Then we came up with some concept designs and, before anything was made, we went and got approval and more suggestions from McLaren and they said, ‘Go for it.’ From that point on we had more belief. You can do drawings and you can try and perfect it but until you’ve actually made it and tried it, you don’t know.”

Once the sled was built, it was tweaked and tweaked again. Williams took a few bruises and some ice burns before the design team were happy. Their confidence was bolstered when the British slider came second at the world championships last year, although Blackburn and Roche arrived in Vancouver with hope more than expectation. “It is unbelievable that Amy won the gold. Realistically we didn’t talk about medals or pressure or any of that, we just wanted everyone to do the best they could,” Blackburn said.

In the end Williams’ best was good enough to beat the rest of the world. But will it be good enough to earn the design team of Blackburn and Roche the doctorate degrees from the University of Southampton? They will find out for sure in September, when their studies officially end, but the answer is already clear. Passed. And with honours.