Skeleton athlete design wins triple Olympic gold

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In February 2018, Lizzy Yarnold sped to gold medal success in the skeleton event at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics – repeating her triumph four years earlier at the Sochi games in Russia. But her double achievement was not just a reward for her dedication and athleticism, it was also a triumph for UK engineering design.

  • EPSRC-supported doctoral students designed triple-Olympic gold medal-winning sled
  • Research involved cutting-edge computer modelling and wind tunnel testing
  • After receiving their Engineering Doctorates both designers were employed by Formula 1 legend McLaren 

Yarnold’s victories were achieved on a skeleton sled co-designed by Rachel Blackburn and James Roche, former EPSRC doctoral students at the University of Southampton. In addition to designing Yarnold’s double-gold-winning sled, nicknamed Mervyn, Blackburn and Roche were responsible for Amy Williams’ gold medal-winning sled ‘Arther’ at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Although constantly updated with the latest technology, the core design for Mervyn has remained the same since it was built in 2009.

The design emerged after a four-year project at the university’s Performance Sports Engineering Lab, which combined experimental work with the latest computational analysis techniques. The sled was tested in the university’s R J Mitchell wind tunnel with the aim of improving understanding of skeleton performance.

In 2010 Rachel and James joined McLaren Applied Technologies, an offshoot of the Formula One company based in Woking, Surrey. This enabled them to bring further improvements to the design of the sled.

James has since joined INEOS TeamUK the British yacht racing team led by Sir Ben Ainslie, where he is Performance & Data Analysis Team Leader. In 2021 the team will be challenging to win the 36th America’s Cup.

Rachel, who was design engineer for the British Skeleton in PyeongChang, says: “The skills we learned from the Engineering Doctorate programme at Southampton, coupled with the ideas and knowledge of the British Skeleton and UKSport support staff, gave us a good grounding for implementing engineering solutions. Working with the athletes themselves helped us put our ideas into practice.

“The project also allowed us to develop new skills – from track testing, data analysis and prototyping through to full roll-out production of the sled.”

James says: “It was a fantastic honour to work with British Skeleton, supporting Amy, Lizzy and their fellow athletes in their respective successes.

EPSRC funding was the catalyst that allowed Rachel and myself to pursue an academic and latterly engineering career in such a unique and challenging field.”

Picture courtesy UK Sport.