Thursday 20 June 2019

Skeleton dash was making of an unlikely Irish hero

An Eton-educated British aristo holds a special place in Ireland's history at the Winter Olympics, writes Alan O'Keeffe

May the fourth be with you: Clifton Wrottesley has his big moment in the Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City.
May the fourth be with you: Clifton Wrottesley has his big moment in the Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City.

Alan O'Keeffe

Clifton Hugh Lancelot de Verdon Wrottesley, the 14th Baronet, 6th Baron Wrottesley, educated at Eton and later a Grenadier Guard, was an unlikely Irish hero.

Yet this Dublin-born scion of British aristocracy, who spent his infancy in the Galway GAA heartland of Abbeyknockmoy, is deeply proud of his Irish birthright and his contribution to our Olympic history.

Clifton Wrottesley with his wife Sascha, his aunt, his mother and his cousin Tamara.
Clifton Wrottesley with his wife Sascha, his aunt, his mother and his cousin Tamara.

If the five Irish athletes at the Winter Olympics in South Korea are seeking inspiration, they need look no further than Clifton Wrottesley.

He competed for Ireland in the Winter Olympics of 2002 in Salt Lake City. He shocked the world by coming within less than half a second of winning the first Winter Olympics medal for Ireland.

He competed in the Olympic Skeleton event which consists of riding on top of a tiny sleigh the size of a tea tray at speeds of more than 90mph down an ice chute.

And, remarkably, 16 years after his Olympic heroics he is still competing.

His wife Sascha watches the start of the race.
His wife Sascha watches the start of the race.

While crouching bobsleigh teams in their Kevlar and carbon fibre sleds are admired for their bravery as they barrel down the slopes of icy tubes against the clock, the individual skeleton competitors cover the same course at breakneck speeds lying down head-first with only a helmet for protection.

Clifton, besides having the longest ever name for an Irish Olympian, won the hearts of the sporting world when he came fourth in Salt Lake City. He was a throwback, a true Corinthian who embodied the Olympic ideal.

His performance remains the best result of any Irish athlete in Winter Olympics history. How did he nearly cause such a huge upset in the winter sports world? He trained hard and prepared well with a small dedicated team with no official funding.

His friendly personality also helped win vital tips from his fellow competitors. "The guys at the top gave me tips and track notes and did track walks with me. They saw me as this affable playboy… No threat at all," he recalled.

His initial decision to take up winter sports was partly due to his desire to forge a link with a father he could not remember.

His father Richard 'Rotters' Wrottesley and his mother Georgina were English-born. Richard's grandmother was Irish and the family bought a farm for the young couple in Abbeyknockmoy in County Galway. Their son Clifton was born in Dublin in 1968 and they lived for the next two years in Abbeyknockmoy.

But Richard was killed aged 27 when his E-Type Jaguar crashed on a switchback bridge near Tuam when Clifton was two years old and Georgina was only 20. The young widow moved to Spain with her son.

Clifton was nine when he inherited the title 6th Baron Wrottesley on the death of his grandfather. He was sent to Eton boarding school and grew up to become a captain in the Grenadier Guards before leaving the army.

At the age of 20, he visited St Moritz in Switzerland to learn more about his father. His father had a reputation for high-speed winter sports in St Moritz and Clifton met many of his father's friends.

"They showed me cine films and I saw my father in them. I had never seen a moving image of him," he said. He developed his father's passion for winter sports and "my passion became an obsession" and he became a consistently victorious competitor in the Cresta Run events in St Moritz which involved high speeds on small sleighs. It's similar to Olympic Skeleton but with some slight technical differences.

As a young man in St Moritz, he fell in love with Sascha Schwarzenbach, the daughter of a Swiss billionaire financier.

They married and have four children. They have homes in St Moritz and in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire.

When he asked the Irish Olympic authorities if he could compete for Ireland when the hair-raising skeleton sport was made an Olympic event, he was told he could have a go but he would have to self-finance.

With an expert back-up team, he prepared meticulously and managed to train with a POV (point of view) camera on his helmet on the icy course where the Olympics would be held in 2002. His wife Sascha thought it "a bit barmy" that Clifton would hunker down on his little sleigh in front of a television at home as he replayed the video of the icy route over and over again.

This video footage was enormously helpful and he sportingly shared it with his international rivals in return for tips and advice.

He said it was "a surreal moment" when he achieved third place out of 26 competitors in one of his runs before finally ending in fourth place in the final, just 0.42 seconds behind the bronze medal winner.

It was his last appearance as an Irish Olympic athlete though four years later he was chef de mission for the Irish team at the Winter Olympics in Turin.

Clifton will be cheering for Ireland's five Olympic athletes on television in the coming days - Seamus O'Connor, Patrick McMillan, Tess Arbez, Thomas Westgard and Bubba Newby.

"The Olympics are enormously inspiring for young and old. I've had wonderful experiences," he said. His main business involvements are now the fine wine markets and the development of natural burial grounds in England. This involves turning derelict woodlands and meadow lands into places of beauty where people can bury their loved ones and remember them by planting trees instead of erecting headstones.

But the 49-year-old sportsman is still king of the ice chutes as he continues to score record-breaking victories in the Cresta Run and Skeleton events in St Moritz. Younger male competitors have been unable to dethrone him.

Recently, his mother asked him : "When will the king make way for the princes?"

He replied: "When the king is dead."

Sunday Independent

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