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International Skeleton and Bobsleigh Racer

Interview with Julia Simmchen

Not many people can boast two generations of international skeleton and bobsleigh racers in their family, but then Julia Simmchen comes from no ordinary family.

Interview BY CONOR SHILLING, MAY 29, 2021

It's no surprise, therefore, that she first experienced the high octane thrill of skeleton racing aged 11, before starting to race competitively just three years later, aged 14. During the intervening period, she has split her time between Switzerland and Germany, taking part in skeleton competitions all over the world. Now, aged 19, Julia is undertaking training for the German Federal Police, which allows her to puruse her ambitions in the world of skeleton racing. She spends three months a year in sports school, combining it with her police training. The rest of Julia's year is spent training for and competing in skeleton competitions.

Despite the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, Julia has managed to compete in several international skeleton competitions so far this year. We recently caught up with her to find out what it's like to come from a family of international winter athletes and why the sacrifices of competitive sport are definitely worth it. Julia also lets us in on the intense pre-race preparation process, while explaining the unique thrill of racing down the winter track at high speeds...

How did you get into skeleton racing?

I would say it's almost like a family tradition. My grandfather was an Olympic bobsleigh champion. My parents were also both competitive athletes and were internationally successful in skeleton. When I was a small child, they told me many stories about the sport. I was already totally fascinated by the sport as a girl, I imagined it to be incredibly exciting to drive down an ice track at speeds like on the highway. Unfortunately, I was only allowed to start actively competing in skeleton at the age of 14. I was told that track and field was the best preparation to be able to quickly start the skeleton sled. At the age of 11, I was on a skeleton sled for the first time. The first run I did, I loved it, the speed was so amazing, I can’t describe the feeling. It was a lot of fun and I knew immediately that this is what I wanted to do. The 2016 Winter Youth Olympics in Lillehammer was the start of my skeleton career. It was a very quick start into the sport. I did a lot of international races in that first year. I was told that I was talented and learned fast. 

My parents always gave me good advice, but were never my coaches as we wanted to split that and make sure I had normal coaches.

Julia Simmchen, Professional Skeleton Racer

Your parents were also skeleton racers – what advice/guidance have they given you?

They never wanted to push me too much. I didn’t have to do the sport just because they did it. I could decide what I wanted to do – that was worth a lot to me. If I needed their help, they where always there for me. My mother said the most important thing is having fun and being relaxed on the sled because if you’re not relaxed, then nothing works. She advised me to always stay focused and make the best out of difficult situations. I learned from her to approach things positively and to always do my best – you can't do more than that. My parents always gave me good advice, but were never my coaches as we wanted to split that and make sure I had normal coaches. 

If you didn't become a skeleton racer, what do you think you might have done instead?

Sports have always been my life. Since I was a little kid, I loved to run on the beach, swim and dance. In my school years, I was interested in many things but never wanted to go in any other direction than sports. Every child has a dream of what they want to become, I had no idea what I wanted to do later but always knew I wanted to do something with sport. When I was younger, I was quite good at athletics because I was tall for my age. I did five heptathlon disciplines. I was never the best at one, but was good at everything. After my active time as a competitive athlete, I could imagine passing on my knowledge as a trainer or taking a position as a sports coordinator, perhaps in a federation such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC). 

What is your daily/weekly routine when it comes to training?

It depends a little bit on the season. Our training is divided into build-up training (April to June), summer training (July to September) and then in October, the winter season starts. In summer, I train six to nine times a week for 12-18 hours. A training session lasts about two hours. The training consists of strength training, sprint training, jump training and push training. For this, we have a track with a sled on wheels that runs on rails. 

You have to be fast and react fast as you haven’t much time to think. You really have to listen to what your body says.

Julia Simmchen, Professional Skeleton Racer

What are the best qualities of a skeleton racer?

As a skeleton racer, it’s important to always be 100% concentrated and focused, you often only have milliseconds that decide victory or defeat. You have to trust your feeling and be able to act intuitively. At the same time, you have to react quickly to unpredictable situations. You have to be fast and react fast as you haven’t much time to think. You really have to listen to what your body says. It’s important to be versatile. On one hand, you need to be athletically on top form to start fast with a lot of power and energy. On the other hand, you need to switch to calmness and concentration while driving, which is a big challenge. 

How do you prepare for a competition?

Before an official race, you always have three official training days with six training runs. This is because every track is different and you have to get used to the new track and learn the curves. Most of the time, we are at the same place for a whole week and have track training and athletic training once a day. Before the race, we usually only do short athletic sessions. These consist of short explosive sprints to stimulate the muscles. The day before the race, it's time for sled making. That's when I polish my runners, tape the sled and get my race suit and helmet ready. The preparation for the race therefore takes around three hours. On race day, the sled has to be placed in a closed-off zone and checked so that there are fair conditions. An hour before my start, I warm up. Then 20 minutes before, I go to the changing room and put on my race suit and spikes. At this point, I'm ready for the race!

Can you tell us about some of the competitions you've taken part in 2021 so far?

We weren't sure if we would be able to do any competitions at all this year. We have only had half the amount we would normally have, but at least we've had some. I was in the Europa Cup, taking part in five races. In training, I always had one of the three fastest times but ended up with top six finishes. It was OK, but could have been better. I also achieved second place in the Junior German Championships. Last year, I took part in the Junior World Championships.

Mental strength is an important aspect. Winter can be very long and you're away from home, family friends. Nevertheless, you always want to do your best.

Julia Simmchen, Professional Skeleton Racer

What are some of the challenges you've had to overcome?

It's certainly not always easy because you have to travel a lot to get to the different bobsled tracks around the world. Travel days can be very exhausting, but that's what makes the sport in my opinion. The very long training days usually start at 7am-8am and end in the evening after video evaluation and material preparation. It’s normal that we have long days. However, I really like that as I get bored quite easily. Of course, we are outdoors a lot and make track inspections, while also watching other athletes who drive. It can also be very cold and snow heavily, but that's all part of the sport. Mental strength is an important aspect. Winter can be very long and you're away from home, family friends. Nevertheless, you always want to do your best. I sometimes struggle to realise my training performance at the competition, because I am perhaps sometimes too ambitious. Also, a race always consists of two runs and it's not easy to complete two consistent runs.

What are some of the sacrifices you have to make as a skeleton racer?

During the winter, we train and travel a lot. We don’t have much free time. Meeting with friends or going on hoilday is very rare, because training has priority. You always want to do your best, but sometimes there are difficult situations. Something could happen in training, you just want to see your family but you’re far away from home. Overall, we have a good team, we are a big family and everyone helps eachother. I went to boarding school very young, it wasn’t always easy to be away from my familly but I learned to be independent at an early age.

It's always a great feeling when you've just crossed the finish line and you know it was a good run with great speed.

Julia Simmchen, Professional Skeleton Racer

Are the sacrifices worth it? Do you ever wish for a more 'normal' life?

Yes, for me they are worth it. I couldn't imagine my life without competitive sports, I have learned so much through sports and met so many great people. I simply need the sport and the movement. I'm a person who always has to do something, it's hard for me to really do nothing on rest days. I need the full daily schedule, otherwise I get bored quickly!

What do you find most satisfying/rewarding about competing in skeleton racing?

It's always a great feeling when you've just crossed the finish line and you know it was a good run with great speed. The atmosphere is cool because we're a big family. You have contact with lots of other nationalities and we have a good connection - everyone supports eachother.

What advice would you give to someone starting skeleton racing for the first time?

Have fun and don’t be scared! Normally, you won't start at the top of the track so there is less chance of something bad happening. If you have someone to explain to you to stay calm, you can enjoy it and feel the speed.

How are you preparing for the Winter Olympics?

I am preparing for the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy. At the moment, I am too young for the 2022 games as in skeleton racing, you are still a junior until you're 23.

My goal is to achieve a podium place at the Olympics in 2026. I'm quite optimistic that it will all work out.

Julia Simmchen, Professional Skeleton Racer

What are your aspirations for the Olympics?

I want to give my best and enjoy every minute I have. I always say once you have done a training session, it never comes back again, so you need to make the best of it even if you don't feel good. My goal is to achieve a podium place at the Olympics in 2026. I'm quite optimistic that it will all work out.

What are your future plans for after the Olympics?

I want to combine work with the German Federal Police with sport. I aim to stay in sport and potentially become a coach. However, I may want to study something completely different. I like to live in the moment and not make plans too far in the future.

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