Monday 21 January 2019

How 'our Clifton' became an Olympic hero

Sinead Grennan

The sixth Lord Wrottesley's background is the stuff of legends, says Sinead Grennan

THE love of speed that almost won Lord Clifton Wrottesley an Olympic medal for Ireland also left him fatherless and his mother nearly penniless when he was just two. He supposes that risk-taking is in his genes. His father, the honourable Richard Wrottesley, died in a high speed car crash in 1970 as he travelled home to Co Galway from Dublin Airport.

Richard Wrottesley had allegedly placed a bet with a friend earlier that day that he could make the trip in under two hours. His e-type Jaguar crashed into Ballinamore Bridge, about 24 miles from home. Unfortunately for his young widow and son, he hadn't left any will, so they were forced to leave Abbeyknockmoy for a new life in Spain.

That was the last that anyone in Abbeyknockmoy heard of Clifton Wrottesley until last Wednesday when he shot down an icy slide into fourth place in the Olympics. He had been in Ireland last November to promote the winter games, but no one had really taken much notice. He and a teammate had also sought commercial sponsorship from a clatter of Irish companies for the Irish bobsleigh team, to no avail.

So who is Lord Clifton Wrottesley? Ask Louis Kilcoyne of the Olympic Sports Council of Ireland and he'll say: "a stockbroker type in London". The 33-year-old Lord is a fund manager in London who spends his winters in St Moritz training on the skeleton, as his father did before him.

His full name is Lord Clifton Hugh Lancelot de Verdon Wrottesley, the sixth Lord Wrottesley, but "call me Clifton". He has all the badges of aristocracy: Eton, Sandhurst, the Grenadier Guards and a romantic family history to match.

His parents, Lord Richard John Wrottesley and Georgina Anne Clifton, eloped to Las Vegas in 1967 and got married in a railway carriage because both their families had been against the match. Georgina was just 18 at the time, her father a British army colonel and a member of the Queen's bodyguard. "Old Rotters," on the other hand, was older and had "built up a swashbuckling playboy image for himself over the years", according to an article written at the time. The couple moved to Newtown House, a large stately home in Abbeyknockmoy, Co Galway on their return from Las Vegas.

Although they were to live there for just three years, the Wrottesley name is the stuff of legend in Abbeyknockmoy, mostly because of the exuberant parties in Newtown House where locals mingled with aristocrats and free food and drink flowed until the early hours. Many speak of a wedding in 1969 to which they were all invited.

Others remember differently: "The Wrottesleys threw parties on occasions like New Year and bonfire night and invited all the local people but not to that wedding," said one. "Only a few people had been given invitations, but everybody gatecrashed it with their families and friends and got wild drunk. The honourable Richard had to get out a shotgun out to get rid of them."

The couple brought glamour and excitement to Abbeyknockmoy. Brendan Geraghty, who lived close to Newtown House, said the village was "stirred up when they arrived".

"To us, Lord Richard dressed funny. He used to wear a leather jacket, coloured shirts and coloured hairbands for his outings in the open-topped jeep. She was a bit quieter," he said. "Some neighbours kept their distance, thought they were the jet set and half mad."

Georgina was described by many as tall and gracious, "a real lady". There were rumours that she was to inherit a fortune on her thirtieth birthday, but that she had been disinherited because of the marriage.

The couple's first and only son was born on 10 August, 1968 in a nursing home in Hatch Street, Dublin. They called him Clifton partly because it was his mother's maiden name, but also because of its similarity to Clifden. According to local legend, the tree-lined avenue leading into the house was planted to mark his birth.

The curly-haired little boy became a familiar sight, whether running barefoot around the courtyard of Newtown House, sitting in the wicker basket of his mother's bike or in the back of one of his father's cars.

"As soon as I heard his name on the news, I said that must be our Clifton Wrottesley. It couldn't be anyone else," said Eithne O'Donohoe, proprietor of O'Donohoe's pub in Abbeyknockmoy. She said that Abbeyknockmoy is proud of him and looking forward to a return visit so they can throw a party for him.

Clifton remembers very little of his time in Abbeyknockmoy but said his father's death was very traumatic for his mother. "It's a big shock to lose a husband at 20 and have a two-year-old kid to take care of," he said. "My dad died without a will and that left us in a bad state. We moved to Spain because the climate's more agreeable and you could live cheaply."

His mother worked full time to support herself and her son. Then grandfather Wrottesley died, leaving money for Clifton's education in his will and they moved back to England. Clifton attended Eton and studied politics and sociology in Edinburgh University. He went on to Sandhurst and spent two years in the regiment.

He visited St Moritz 12 years ago "out of curiousity". His mother had never spoken much about his father and he wanted to find out for himself. He knew that his father used to spend about three months every year in St Moritz doing the bobsleigh and cresta (the amateur version of the skeleton). What started as a curiosity became "an interest, a passion and then an obsession".

A sport that demands the participant to slide headfirst down an almost vertical ice slide on a steel tray at speeds of more than 80 miles an hour demands obsessive devotion. Clifton says it's not as dangerous as it looks, "as long as you know what you're doing". In fact, his wife Sascha, whom he married last year, has tried it once herself and "enjoyed the experience". Clifton only took up the skeleton two years ago, but he had already proved his worth on the cresta, in which he was overall champion for three consecutive years.

One British commentator suggested that Clifton only wore the tricolour because he knew he wouldn't get on the British team. Another nudged him after the race and joked that they would "poach you back". Clifton says Ireland was "a natural choice". His own father had been trying to get an Irish bobsleigh team together around the time of his death.

Ireland finally got its bobsleigh team in 1992, but the sport survives on very little funding. Clifton and his skeleton teammate Tim Cassin mostly self-financed their sporting endeavours, with a little help from the Olympic Council of Ireland and Chateau de Sours, the Bordeaux vineyard of Clifton's uncle, Esme Johnstone.

Clifton says it's now time the sport got more recognition and, more importantly, funding.

"I'm not a natural athlete," he said. "We need to find some young girls and guys and teach them the skills. I'd love to be able to say four years down the line that the proper support and funding is there, not just for the skeleton, but for wider winter sports."

The Irish people will have a chance to meet the sixth Lord Wrottesley next week when he comes for a short trip.

Determined, accomplished, yet unassuming, he is as charming and charismatic as his legendary father. He's also a world class skeleton rider and a true Olympic hero.

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