By Callum Skinner’s own admission, he has come full circle. Having basked in the acclaim of an adoring Edinburgh crowd up on the podium in Festival Square last week, it was hard for the 24-year-old not to recollect memories of eight years earlier when he stood and watched his idol Sir Chris Hoy lap up the applause following the Beijing games.
Hoy would prove to be a central figure in Skinner’s development, and continues to be so as the cyclist revealed that he is always on the end of the phone offering advice and support. Moving to Edinburgh at the age of 12, it was watching Hoy’s heroics that inspired Skinner to take up track cycling – initially at the Meadowbank Velodrome. 12 years on, Skinner is an Olympic champion and silver medallist, and is undoubtedly playing a starring role in inspiring the next generation of Olympic hopefuls.
“It’s a funny one”, recalls Skinner as he reflects on similar festivities eight years earlier: “I was a part of these celebrations for the 2008 Olympics and I was on the back of the bus when Hoy and the rest of them were at the front. And even that was amazing. It’s a bit surreal that it’s come full circle and it’s been an amazing journey.”
Legacy is a word often associated with the Olympics, particularly in the aftermath of London 2012. But with Skinner and Team GB’s cycling set-up carrying the hopes of the nation, he admits the adulation is not something that you are exposed to within the Olympic Village; it is something that only becomes apparent when you return home.
His modesty is quickly in evidence when the topic of role models surfaces, but he hopes that GB’s success in Rio does rub off on those watching at home.
“It doesn’t really sink in because, when you’re in the village, you’re surrounded by people who are really successful at what they do in their sports,” said Skinner. “You’re like ‘there’s Novak Djokovic, there’s Usain Bolt and who am I with a gold and a silver medal because there’s Michael Phelps over there with 20 of them?’ It’s quite a surreal environment but when you come home you realise how much it’s sunk in and hopefully it does inspire people because I was inspired by Chris Hoy competing at the Commonwealth Games.”
Skinner was not a part of the London 2012 set-up, but thrived at his first Olympics in Rio, taking home gold in the Team Sprint and silver in the individual sprint, only pipped by his roommate Jason Kenny in the final, losing 2-0.
That display in the Team Sprint against New Zealand was especially memorable given Team GB smashed the Olympic record, riding home in a time of 42.440 in the final.
The negative press in the lead-up to Rio – from concerns about Zika to protests and security issues – overshadowed the beginning of the Olympics, but Skinner has nothing but good things to say about the whole Games. So how does the experience of riding for Team GB at an Olympics compare to his experiences at the Commonwealth Games with Scotland?
“It was incredible. I did the Commonwealth Games with the Scotland team twice but GB has got its own kind of unique atmosphere,” Skinner told me. “It’s really focused. Everyone there has probably got a realistic chance of winning and is desperate to win, it’s such a focused environment. It just had a bit of a different atmosphere [to the Commonwealth Games]. They call the Commonwealth Games the ‘friendly games’, whereas the Olympics for most people in this sport is the absolute pinnacle and the one we really want to win.”
It was not an easy situation for Skinner to find himself in, however. Emerging as a top prospect within the highly successful British cycling set-up, he is fully aware of the expectations that he and his teammates took to Rio, especially off the back of London. Replacing one of his heroes in Hoy, and proving to doubters that GB were still the team to beat, had the makings of a testing few weeks but, as it happens, Skinner and co thrived under the pressure to make it another games to remember.
“The day before we raced he [Chris Hoy] came into the village and said to us: ‘You know boys, I think you can do it, we’re going to do it again and other countries are going to be scratching their heads wondering how we managed it’ and he was right.
“Chris Boardman said to me afterwards that ‘there was nobody with more pressure in that velodrome than you’, and I think that was probably true,” Skinner continued: “We had won the last two Olympics in the Team Sprint and I wasn’t a part of that. I had to follow Jason [Kenny] and Phil [Hindes], who were Olympic champions, and I was trying to fill the boots of Chris Hoy, at the same time backing that up with results that hadn’t gone really well at the World Championships. So, yeah, there was a lot of pressure but it all makes it so special that it came together.”
It certainly raised a few eyebrows when Team GB, who regularly underperform at World Championships, came good on the biggest stage of all. But why are we surprised?
We have seen them do it time and again. It is well documented that a large proportion of the allotted lottery funding gets allocated to cycling, but what is the secret to the success on the track?
“I don’t know, it’s difficult to say what the other teams do, or rather do wrong, as we’re not part of that set-up. All I can say from our experience is that we focus on every minute detail if it will give us an edge”, said Skinner: “We have incredible people who are leaders in their field, whether it’s our aerodynamicists – we had Tony Purnell working for us, who used to lead Jaguar F1 – we have amazing physiologists, we’ve got a whole collection of really amazing staff.
“They’re so focused, they’re as focused as us, to make us go as fast as possible. Maybe that’s the secret to it. Nothing’s done without a rationale, there is no old-school training, it’s very scientific, very focused. We get specialists in to consult on some of the best ways to do things.”
Perhaps the most exciting thing is the fact that you get the feeling that there is more to come from Skinner. We have not even scratched the surface of his potential, or that of his teammates. Skinner is certainly on an upward trajectory. Given Team GB’s penchant for success both on the track and off it, Skinner is ideally placed to dominate the sport for years to come. At 24, and with plenty of opportunities ahead of him in the shape of future Olympics, competing in Tokyo in four years time is, perhaps unsurprisingly, his next focus.
“Tokyo 2020”, said Skinner without a moment’s hesitation: “My next target would be to try and emulate Hoy’s success at Beijing and go after three golds. To come away with a gold and a silver [at Rio] and whatever the result was in the keirin is great, but I’m out there to go and do better next time.”
Image courtesy of Matt Ford