Jackie Narracott's winding journey to skeleton podium

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

For 54 years, the sport of skeleton didn't run at the Winter Olympics. Between 1948 and 2002 it was deemed too dangerous.

It's not hard to see the risk. Hurtling head first down a track made out of ice on a small sled, reaching speeds of 130 kilometres per hour -- faster than you can legally drive in most countries -- seems crazy.

Then there's the 5 Gs of pressure pushing down on your neck -- a feeling like the beginning of a rollercoaster where take off catches you by surprise and pins your head to the back of the seat, but instead it's pushing downwards, ferociously, into the ice.

Like any sport, safety is paramount but it comes with inherent risk. It's certainly not for the faint-hearted.

"If you're scared, it's probably not the sport for you."

That's the honest admission from Australia's first-ever sliding medallist at a Winter Olympics, skeleton athlete Jackie Narracott.

But how does a kid from sunny Queensland end up on the podium in snowy Beijing?

That story begins with her uncle, Paul Naracott.

"I was a sprinter and long jumper growing up, I had dreams of going to the summer Olympics like my uncle Paul. He was the first Aussie to go to both the summer and the Winter Olympics. So there was that in my head," Narracott told ESPN's Beyond The Lead podcast.

"And then having uncle Paul be a bobsledder, so the Winter Olympics was always kind of in the back of my head as like, one day I'll try bobsled."

After trying bobsled in November 2011, being told she was too small but still making a go of it around Europe for a few months, she eventually made the switch to skeleton in March 2012.

With a taste for skeleton, Narracott began racing. But the path to Olympic glory was by no means straightforward and smooth.

Australia isn't well-known for its Winter Olympic exploits. The Winter Games conjure up visions of Steven Bradbury's literally unbelievable gold medal in the speed skating. As such, Narracott entered the sport at a trying time.

From 2006 to 2014, there was a sliding program in place. But results in Sochi in 2014 didn't go to plan. That was Naracott's second season on ice.

"So I had a couple of seasons with a bit of a program around me. And then we lost everything: so that is all the funding, all of the coaching, all the support just ripped out from underneath me which, as a second year slider, was good timing," Narracott said with a sarcastic laugh.

"I went on to the World Cup tour as my third season on ice without a coach and without any funding. So it was a great idea. The lack of funding has been an issue but thankfully since 2018, the Olympic Winter Institute has come on board so they've given me a bit more funding. But the bank of mum and dad have been awesome."

Chasing winter meant spending part of the year in Australia and then heading abroad, away from family and friends, in pursuit of her sporting dreams.

In between all of this she was trying to hold down a part-time job to help fund everything. The key word being trying.

"There's that balance between trying to be a full-time athlete and working in retail or working hospitality, which is not great for someone who spends a lot of time sprinting."

The collapse of the program, relying on her parents financially and months spent away from home weren't the only trials Narracott would have to endure. One of the dangers of skeleton is an uneven track. Tiny bumps at that speed and with that force are magnified exponentially and are responsible for concussions.

In 2019, Narracott suffered a head injury.

"That was my third concussion. And it very well could have been the end of my career," she said.

The concussion and the very real possibility of retirement prompted a serious conversation between Narracott and her sports psychologist. It meant that she had to zoom out and look at the big picture not only in terms of her career but her life post-sport if her physical symptoms didn't improve.

"I was prepared to call it quits. I had my parents and my husband being like: 'We need you healthy. This is not worth your brain. There is more to life than being an athlete. So if you go to Whistler and you're okay, great. If you go to Whistler and you're not okay, then you have to seriously consider calling it quits.'"

Weighing up the decision to call it quits also meant accepting that her career maybe wouldn't end with the silverware she craved and knew she was capable of. Narracott learnt to let go of expectations and pressure thanks to the very real possibility of retirement.

"I've only been scared once. And that was actually my first run back after my last concussion, which was quite bad. That was a career defining moment. Hence being scared," she said.

Thankfully, her return to the ice didn't have any adverse physical effects and, unburdened by the pressure of winning, Narracott's mentality shifted to a positive place.

"I was just calm. I was having fun. I wasn't worried about what anybody else was doing," Narracott said. "It was just: 'Okay, what do I need to do right now to be the best I can be?'

"I was in the moment ... but that came from finally letting go of the need and the want to medal. I've been trying to medal [at] a World Cup for years. And I've always known I've been capable of it. But I finally just let go of that idea that my career was somehow going to be worse for the fact that I didn't medal.

"So I think that allowed that final little bit of tension that was obviously still in my body to relax. And then all of a sudden, it just started to flow."

Not only did racing begin to flow but so too did the results. Her maiden World Cup win came at St Moritz in Switzerland only a few weeks before the Olympics. It was an important win for so many reasons.

"So first of all, it's one of my favourite tracks. It's everyone's favourite track, because it is natural, and it's sliding through a forest," she said. "And you don't get any of the vibrations that you get on the normal tracks. And it being the birthplace of our sport. So there was that side of things. It was also the first World Cup that my husband was coaching me for."

Her husband, Dom Parsons, a British skeleton racer was able to help Narracott figure out the track quicker than everyone else: a good omen for what was to come in Beijing.

After 10 years of racing for no wins, that breakthrough paved the way for Olympic success.

"Two days out from the race -- so the final day of training -- did not go to plan. I had terrible runs, questioning everything," she recalled. "But thankfully, we got to race day and I was like, 'No, I'll be fine.'"

Her first two runs had her in a good position with gold medal hype following Narracott and piquing the interest of the sport-loving public back home in Australia.

"I was very fortunate that my sprint coach, and my sports psych and Dom, my husband, were like, 'You don't need to do anything different. Today does not demand perfection. Today just demands the best you can put down and be consistent. It doesn't have to be a three second track record. It has to be good enough.'

"So I was relaxed and having fun. And I think it might have put a few people off. Like, I was nervous, but I was probably the least nervous for the Olympics than what I had been all season, which kind of cool.

"Everything, and I know it sounds silly, it just clicked. And it was two of those days where I had runs that were good. And I knew they were quick. I didn't realise at the time that they were as quick as what they actually were, which was fun. And then the biggest challenge was always going to be the time difference between runs, run two and run three."

Narracott successfully passed those 36 hours between runs and continued to race consistently quick. But a strong finish from Germany's Hannah Neise saw her claim gold.

"I think the race result has sunk in like the fact that I've finished second at an Olympics. Actually second in a race? That's sunk in," she said. "Second at the Olympics is still taking a while and then what that means in a broader historic point of view that might take a little while to sink in."

Just like the story of uncle Paul got Narracott into bobsledding, there is no doubt that Jackie has become the same figure for a kid in Australia. She is aware of that responsibility and wants to ensure the path to potential Winter Olympic medals is easier for the next generation.

Her hope is that any funding gained from her medal goes towards development programs, getting kids on ice, learning how to slide, and seeing if the sliding sports are ones they want to pursue is the first step.

A push track in Queensland would also help with talent identification for all the sliding sports.

After enjoying some time back in Australia for the first time in years, Narracott has returned to the United Kingdom and is back into training.

With Milan 2026 the endpoint of a new four-year block, Narracott is tempted by the thought of a normal, COVID-free Olympics. Outside of the hyper-focus of the Olympics, the hard work begins once again with preparations for World Cup events next on the agenda after a well-earned break.

"It's a year-by-year proposition," she said. "And then a couple of years out from Milan, we'll look to put things in place so that's equipment-wise and body-wise. But the first year of the quad it's. 'We can breathe again. Let's go back, have some fun, take the pressure off, and slowly build it back up again.'"