The life and times of Clifton Hugh Lancelot de Verdon Wrottesley
How a St Moritz playboy and winter sports obsessive very nearly won an Olympic medal
Lord Wrottesley takes to the ice in the the skeleton event during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games in 2002 at the Peaks Ice Arena in Provo, Utah. photograph: donald miralle/getty images
The night before the oddest day of an odd and varied life, Clifton Wrottesley was both angrier and more delighted than he could ever remember. Sitting on his bed in the athlete’s village in Salt Lake City, he had just been informed that the American skeleton team had lodged an objection against him. Or more accurately, against his helmet.
On the face of it, this was potentially terrible news. For the previous two years, he had left everyday life behind in order to see could he compete in skeleton at the Winter Olympics. He had learned a new sport more or less from scratch, left his job, spent far too much time away from his new bride, sold his house and damn near gone bankrupt along the way. And now, with less than 12 hours to go, there was a chance it could all melt away like midday snow.
Worse almost was the nature of the American objection. It wasn’t that so much they thought he was gaining a major advantage from the helmet, more that they had safety concerns. The implication was that he didn’t fully know what he was doing.
But of course he knew. And of course they knew he knew. The peerage and the back story would make for excellent colour once the press got hold of him later on but anyone who’d been inside skeleton’s small circle for the previous two years could see that the improvements he’d made were no accident. He was no Olympic tourist. He certainly wasn’t a danger to himself.
There was no issue with his helmet. He knew. They knew it. When the initial flurry of activity passed and his sled engineer went off to smooth things out with the IOC, he tried to reason it out. What was their problem?
Eventually it began to make sense. There were three American riders in the 25-man field, all of them pretty much guaranteed to make the top 10. In practice that week, Wrottesley had been posting times that would place him somewhere around seventh to ninth if he was able to replicate it in competition. These times don’t always translate but clearly somebody somewhere in the American set-up was starting to feel like the top 10 looked a little crowded.
The more he thought about it, the more he came to see what it meant. In a weird kind of way, it was a compliment. There was no objection lodged against the Greek slider or the Mexican slider or the Argentine. No apparently fatherly concerns for their safety. But then, they weren’t coming anywhere near the top 10.
“In the end, it was a sort of speed bump more than anything else. But it certainly didn’t help my preparation. What it did more than anything was make me angry. I got really pissed off at it. It took me a good three or four hours to get my head right. It wasn’t so much that I calmed down, more that I rationalised it. And I came to realise that the only reason they were doing it was because they saw me as a threat.
“What I needed to do was channel that anger into aggression that I would then incorporate into my start the next day. And to a certain extent it worked. The next day – in snow – I pushed a PB by about five hundredths. That was probably the equivalent to 15 hundredths on clean ice. In a way, it was a sort of happy accident.”
After two years of striving, Wrottesley had finally gained the respect of the best sliders in the world. And all it did was make him want to tell them where they could shove it.
Born in Dublin
Before we go anywhere, a potted history of Clifton Hugh Lancelot de Verdon Wrottesley – pronounced ‘Rottsley’, by the by. Born in Hatch Street, Dublin, just around the corner from what these days stands as the National Concert Hall. Spent the first two years of his life in Abbyknockmoy, Co Galway, son to a gadabout British Army colonel who was famous in St Moritz for his derring-do on the Cresta Run. Sadly, Old Rotters would come to a grim end when crashing his E-Type Jaguar as he sped home from Dublin Airport to Galway one night in 1970.
He left behind a young wife and a two-year-old son and no will. They moved to Spain where the weather was warmer and the living was cheaper. When Clifton’s grandfather died in 1977, thus passing the peerage onto the then nine-year-old and with it an inheritance to pay for his education, the boy was brought back to England and placed on what was considered the proper course for the sixth Baron Wrottesley. Eton, Edinburgh University, Sandhurst, the Grenadier Guards.
When he was 22 he went to St Moritz, Switzerland, essentially in search of his father’s ghost. He found it on the Cresta Run, a head-first downhill thrill ride that tested skill, strength and daring over a course that drops 157 metres in three-quarters of a mile. Not quite the skeleton but not quite not the skeleton either. Both times skeleton had made it into the Winter Olympics, it was held on the Cresta Run.
Cresta Run winner
So that’s where he started. He became one of the most feted Cresta riders around, winning the competition known as the Cresta Run Grand National a record eight times. When it emerged that skeleton was coming back onto the Olympic programme for Salt Lake City in 2002, he took aim and fired himself at it.
“I was very much a curiosity when I started off. There was certainly a sense among the skeleton fraternity that here was this playboy, for want of a better term, coming down from St Moritz and what’s he doing coming into our sport where we’re all super professional and supremely focused and talented?
“But once they established that I was serious about this, that I was qualified to compete in the World Cup and that I wasn’t just messing about, their attitude did change. And it wasn’t just a matter of going from being curious to being indifferent, it was, ‘Well what can we do to help this fellow out?’
“I think, honestly, they didn’t perceive me as a threat. Ironically, the three guys who helped me most were the three who would go on to finish ahead of me on the podium in Salt Lake. Jimmy Shea, Martin Rettl and particularly Gregor Staehli who got the bronze – they all went out of their way to show me the ropes.”
The fact that few people took him particularly seriously helped immeasurably. At the Park City track in Utah where the Olympics were to take place, they did little more than shrug when he turned up 18 months out from the games looking to have a practice run. While a more established slider would have been told where to go, Wrottesley was allowed to slide away to his heart’s content.
He reckons he had 60 runs on the track before the games, three times as many as the sliders from the bigger nations. Most importantly, nobody paid any attention on one of his earlier runs to the camera mounted on his helmet.
“Because I was an absolute beginner, I was allowed as much ice time as I wanted. The thinking there essentially was that it was unsafe otherwise. The more practice I got, the less chance there was of me hurting myself.
“But because I was from a smaller nation, there wasn’t as much scrutiny of when I was on these runs. If it was somebody from one of the bigger nations, they would have been watched every step of the way. But because I was this nobody from Ireland, it never occurred to anyone to check whether or not I had a camera on my head.”
Hundreds of times The footage he shot helped in two ways. First it meant that on days when he was anywhere in the world he could pop his sled on a table in front of the TV, lie on it face down and press play. He went down that track hundreds upon hundreds of times before the games came around. The second way it helped was cannier still.
“In the build-up to an Olympics, a POV tape of the track is currency. So I copied what I shot onto a load of tapes and basically used them to barter for knowledge and expertise from the rest of the guys I would be competing against. I got track notes, I got tips on why my starts were so much slower than theirs, I got insider tips on every aspect of the sport. So those tapes were key, they really were.”
In skeleton, time is the foe and every tiny sliver you can slice off it is a huge leap forward. And as with all sledding sports, the start is the thing. Start well, slide well, post a time. The margins are measured in places after the decimal point.
“The start is about strength, speed and technique and I didn’t have any of those. My one advantage was that I had spent so much time on the Cresta over the previous decade and so I knew how to drive. In the two years I gave myself, I was able to use the driving ability to get myself up to a world-class level overall. But the one thing that I never achieved were world-class starts.
“In theory, if I’d been training for three or four years prior to the games, then maybe I would have been able to improve those starts enough to get that little bit closer. But in the end, I missed out on a medal by a few tenths of a second and there’s no doubt they were lost on my starts. If I’d had a decent start in me, I’d have won a medal.”
Run of a lifetime
When the day came, it dawned grey and snowy. The Americans’ objection thrown out, Wrottesley took to the ice and nailed the run of a lifetime. To astonishment all round the track, he sat in third spot at the end of the first run. And in 90 minutes before the second run, nobody was having more trouble getting their head around it than him.
“I have to admit that I hadn’t prepared for that. I hadn’t thought about it as a possibility. I was prepared for just about everything that an Olympics might throw at me except this. And in that hour and a half, I really didn’t know what to think.
“If I’d been better prepared, I would have been a little bit more focused. I possibly could have replicated my first run. It’s all hypothetical of course. And when I’ve sat down to rationalise it since, there’s actually very little I could have done. The three guys who beat me all had stellar second runs and because they had quicker starts than me, I almost had too much to make up in that second run.
“There’s a multiplier effect of around two or just over it because it takes you that fraction longer to get up to speed. So if we say that I lost three tenths at the start, that generally translated to six tenths at the finish. I missed out on a medal by 0.42 seconds so it’s a simple enough equation.”
He wasn’t crushed or crestfallen. Skeleton wasn’t his life and a medal was never the point anyway. He had set out to compete at the Olympics and be the best he could be. He didn’t need a medal to tell him what he’d achieved.
“When I look back on it, fun is all I think of. I had an absolute hoot of a time. I really had such a good time. For those two years, culminating in the Olympics, I’ve never had better experiences outside of getting married and having children. I learned so much about myself, about the world, about other people, about sport. It was the sort of thing that I could never have forgiven myself for if I hadn’t tried it.”
And so he went back to his life. Started working again, started making money again. It was badly needed to – he’d poured huge amounts of his own personal cash into getting to Salt Lake. Indeed the very fact that he came carrying a Lordship counted against him when it came to raising money.
“There’s an assumption that goes with the title that assumes that you’re minted. I’m not! I have to earn money in the same way that everyone else does. I mean I’m lucky in all sorts of ways but I certainly was not flush when I was doing this.
“Funny enough, when we approached some of the big players in Ireland – both private and corporate – to see could we get a contribution to help with the costs, that was always the first thing that came back. It was: ‘Why are you coming to us for money, we should be coming to you! You have your own.’ And I couldn’t turn around and say, ‘Well actually I haven’t got my own’, because they just wouldn’t have believed me. So in the end I just had to bite the bullet and do it myself.”
After Salt Lake, he went to the OCI and said he wanted to secure a future for skeleton in Ireland. He took four Irish kids out to an athletics track in Dublin that summer and told them they were going to be Olympians. Since then, Aoife Hoey, Dave Connolly and Pat Shannon have all made good on his promise. When Seán Greenwood slides for Ireland in Sochi on Friday week, it will be because his greatest support has come from British Skeleton, of which Wrottesley is now the chairman.
It will mean that Ireland have had a skeleton representative in every Olympics since 2002. Some achievement for a St Moritz playboy with a funny name. Old Rotters would surely have approved.