What is your current role?
I’m a PhD student at the University of Bath, investigating exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) in gasoline engines. EGR is a way of controlling combustion and also reduces the amount of environmental pollutants produced. I’m specifically looking at the effects of EGR after the exhaust gases have passed through a catalytic converter.
Alongside this, I compete for Great Britain in the winter sport of skeleton – I won the bronze medal at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. My years are split 50:50: I spend March to September in Bath, fitting in training around my research. Then in the winter season I’m away for most of the six months, training and competing – there are typically eight world cup races in a season.
How did you end up in your current role?
I’ve always been interested in taking things apart and putting them back together, figuring out how they work and how they could be made to work better. I’ve also had in interest in cars since an early age – I used to pore over the specs pages in car magazines when I was a child. And I’ve always been fascinated by Formula 1 cars – they look awesome, but their design is driven by function. That’s an aspect I really admire – the beauty is all functional.
Engineering looked like a perfect fit when I was thinking about university courses. I had an older friend who was doing sports engineering at Bath, and I followed in his footsteps but switched to mechanical engineering after a year as there were other aspects of engineering I was interested in.
I got into skeleton by chance. I was quite a decent athlete when I was young, and was training for the 400m when I started university. There was a guy who did skeleton for the British team who trained with my athletics group occasionally. I knew nothing about skeleton but he persuaded me and a few others to have a go on the push-track. I wasn’t convinced, but I was glad I tried it in the end. From the first moment I started doing it, it sparked something off; I just wanted to know more and more about the sport.
The push-track is only around 100 metres long – essentially it’s a wheeled sled on rails. My initial thought was ‘this is fun and I seem to be pretty good at it’. I had a session with the GB team where I pushed the fastest time, and that caught the attention of the British Skeleton Association. They took me out for some trials on ice in Norway. The first thing I saw was a luge guy crashing out at the bottom of the track, which was not the most encouraging introduction…<
It was a great experience. When you start sliding you’re not really sure what you're doing – it’s not a very intuitive feeling at first. We did our first runs from around halfway down the track, so we didn’t pick up too much speed, but we still hit 40–50 mph. After I’d had a taste on ice the obsessive side of my personality kicked in, and I just wanted to go faster and faster.
What’s the best thing about being an engineer?
I think it’s the solving of problems. When you find an elegant solution that works, it’s very satisfying.
I think my engineering background really helped me in my preparation for PyeongChang. Having the engineering skills that I applied to going faster down the track definitely gave me an edge that most of my competitors didn’t have.
Mental preparation is crucial in skeleton. As a nation without a home track, we don’t get many runs – usually around 150 during the entire season, each lasting less than a minute, so how we use our time off the sled is very important. I spent a lot of time studying the PyeongChang track to understand the dynamics of it, and figure out the most efficient path that I could take. Along with the analysis, mental imagery skills became very important in preparing for PyeongChang. After all my time developing those skills, I can create 3D models in my brain and move and alter them, a bit like having a CAD model in my imagination.
Technical developments in my equipment were also an important element of my performance. I worked closely with Kristan Bromley, who was Britain’s top male skeleton athlete for 20 years or so, and has been designing and building some of the best sleds in the world. The sleds are personalised to an athlete’s individual physique and sliding style, and we experimented with some innovations to improve efficiency down the track. A lot of the season involved testing of different concepts and developments whilst racing on the World Cup circuit, which proved quite challenging at times. We managed to zone into our preferred setup a month or so before the Games, allowing me to hit form just in time.
I also did a little engineering project of my own. I realised a while ago that the heavy spiked shoes we use for the push at the start of runs could be improved a lot.. And after having had ankle reconstruction surgery a few years ago, I’ve been looking for ways to recapture my speed at the start. So I designed some new soles and modified a top-of-the-range pair of sprint spikes to be suitable for sprinting on ice. The finished product was 30% lighter and much stiffer than the standard shoes – much better suited to fast starts.
Over two years I produced and tested different designs on the ice, making slight improvements each time and ended up with five or six pairs. I won an Olympic medal using shoes that I’d made in my living room.
Olympic races are held over four runs. On my first run I made a few errors – the effect of feeling the pressure and trying too hard – and finished the run in fifth position. The second and third runs went like a dream and I found myself in the bronze medal position. The last run was a bit of a rollercoaster. Luckily the Latvian competitor in second place struggled more than I had on the last run and dropped back behind me. Being a perfectionist I still find it hard to overlook the mistakes I made, but I’m still over the moon to have come away with a bronze medal. However, it’s made me realise that more is possible. My next goal is gold in Beijing. I just need to finish my PhD first…<
What should young people know about engineering?
One point that isn’t stressed enough is the importance of creativity. There are lots of technical aspects to engineering, but thinking up new designs and concepts is a hugely creative process. You think about what you know and how that can be used to solve your problem. It’s something that a lot of people don’t really see when they think of engineering – a lot of people think you’re a mechanic, but it’s so much more than that.