WHEN Elise Christie imagined herself studying forensics, her mind was filled with intoxicating ideas of crime scenes and corpses.
Little did she think she would find herself intricately examining the anatomy of a speed skater.
The position of the feet, bend of the knees and angle of the arms; each are scrutinised on a daily basis by the 22-year-old, part of a painstaking attempt to hone her technique on the ice. Her diet and sleeping patterns are monitored, too, each little percentile of potential wrung from her lithe frame with a view to winning an Olympic gold medal. Marginal gains, the experts call it. "All the little things I needed to change," is Christie's preferred description. "Before, I didn't really bother with all the little 1% improvements that make the difference between medalling and not medalling. But not now."
So what has changed? Christie points to the turbulence of her teenage years, moving from her Livingston home to Nottingham at the age of 16 to train full-time in a sport that was hitherto little more than a weekly hobby, and her sudden immersion into the world of an elite athlete. At what is a confusing enough time in anyone's life, she felt lost and lonely. Had she made the right decision in forgoing university and her dream of becoming a forensic scientist?
Those doubts persisted even though she qualified for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. Her initial spurt of progress having begun to level out, she found herself taken aback by the level of competition and finished no higher than 11th in any discipline. "Before the Olympics, I didn't believe; I was just happy to be there," she admits. "I wondered 'should I stop now because I'm not going to get any better or should I really knuckle down and go for a medal'. Thankfully, I made the decision to carry on but I realised things needed to change. I grew up, really."
Christie sought out the sports scientists and coaches at the squad's Nottingham base and begun a thorough examination of her technique, attitude and lifestyle. What were her strengths? What aspects could she improve? What should she be doing differently? Suddenly, her dormant passion for forensics was awoken. "I find problem-solving interesting and I like learning about science," she explains. "So I actually really enjoyed doing it. My goal was to work on my weaknesses so I could go into the Olympic year in a position to maybe challenge for a medal. In that way, I'm probably ahead of schedule."
And how. In her final World Cup race of 2012 in Nagoya, Christie franked her status as world No.1 at 1000 metres with two gutsy performances that demonstrated many of the improvements, both mentally and physically, that she has made. Suddenly, she is the skater everyone else wants to beat. "It's going to be harder to stay No.1 than it was to get there," she cautions. "My plan is to focus on the other two distances [500m and 1500m] because they are weaker and just keep doing what I'm doing in the 1000m so that there is not too much pressure on it."
Such an approach might be anathema to other athletes but the key for Christie is maintaining her motivation. She readily concedes that constantly training for just one event bores her – "I like spontaneity and the variety keeps me interested" – and hence intends to enter all three distances when the Olympics get underway in the Russian city of Sochi next year. First, though, she has the European Championships in the Netherlands next week to consider, followed by the final two World Cup events of the season and the World Championships in Hungary a couple of months down the line.
It is a gruelling schedule but one the Scot relishes. "For six months of the season, you are in and out of the country all the time and you're constantly thinking about your diet and sleep patterns and everything else," she says. "It is pretty relentless and sometimes you are just so tired and jet-lagged but you've just got to get on with it. The stresses all disappear once you get on the ice and that's when you've got to make it count."