#54 in the list of senior British men to have represented GB (1990-1998)
Sutton (Sooty) Atkins was born in Derby on 19th April 1971. He first put on a pair of roller skates aged four but the sport of roller speed skating had yet to cross his path. In his early teens he was frequenting the Derby Rollerworld rink with his friends and these social gatherings would be play an important part of his early speed skating career. The fact that Atkins spent so much time at the rink meant that his skating skills and trickery were making him well known. Not only that but by being well over six feet in height he was difficult to miss.
In the mid 1980's the Birmingham Wheels club used the Rollerworld rink between general sessions for their winter training. Despite the club's base being almost 40 miles away, the rink was the closest to hand and ideal for their winter preparations. On 7th March 1987 Birmingham Wheels held a series of indoor race events at Rollerworld in between the general sessions. The rink helped secure a sponsor for the event, Labatt's Beer, and some serious prize money in the form of vouchers was up for grabs for the winners. This attracted many of the elite British skaters and even the likes of former international Rohan Harlow dusted off his skates to give it a go. The final race was the Senior Men's 30 Laps and as the race unfolded it was full of thrills, spills and incidents. The atmosphere in the rink was electric and nobody could hear the commentary against the backdrop of noise as the crowd cheered and shouted for the skaters. In that crowd was a 15 year old Sutton Atkins witnessing his first ever speed skating event. That event was to have a profound effect on Atkins and immediately his thoughts turned to "I want some of that!" Unbeknown to Atkins at that time, the winner, John C. Fry, winning his first ever scratch gold medal, would also have an effect of Atkins's skating career, but those days were a long way off yet.
By the time he was 16 Atkins was already showing the skating world that he meant business. Almost immediately after the race at Rollerworld, Atkins set about finding out how he could start up a new club. Within a few months Derby Rollerspeed was born with Atkins at the helm and acting as club secretary. He couldn't wait to give it a go and Derby Rollerspeed put on the first event of the 1987-88 season at his home rink, Rollerworld. Atkins himself was seeded in Category 3, finishing a creditable 3rd from 13 skaters with his own team mate, Paul Murfin, winning the event. He was up and running.
On 10th April 1988 Atkins took his first gold medal. With the winter now over, racing had switched to outdoors and Atkins was faced with competing on a banked track, Tatem Park, for the very first time. He was still in Category 3 but his long legs and long stride paid dividends on the super fast big sweeping bends of the London track. Standing head and shoulders above everyone else it was difficult not to notice Atkins who would now be promoted to Category 2 for the next race. Despite his victory people were still not taking him that seriously. His height, his age, his technique and his physique was not thought to be any serious threat and people didn't pay him much attention, but within a matter of weeks all that would change and for any who disregarded him, they did so at their peril. On 15th May now at the Birmingham Wheels track, Atkins was just pipped for the gold in the Category 2 1500 metres by just 4/100ths of a second by Chris Ampaduh. He had been competing for just 6 months and was already holding his own against some of the country's rising stars.
The World Championships in 1988 were in Cassano d'Adda, Italy and Atkins, still only 16, made his own way out there to go and watch the racing. There are not many 16 year olds who would dream of doing that but for Atkins he simply couldn't get enough of the sport. Already his determination to make his mark was beginning to shine through and although he undoubtedly enjoyed the racing, more importantly (for him) he was learning. He soaked up information like a sponge and was not afraid to talk to anyone and question what it was they were doing and why they were doing it. Many people admired Atkins for his "get-up-and-go" attitude, but for Atkins his motives were far more calculated. He wanted to be the best and his trip to Italy would help him be just that.
By the start of the 1989 season Atkins had made it to Category 1. It was by now recognised that he had improved significantly, but with the likes of Tony Marriott, John C. Fry, Hugh Doggett and Sean McGeough to name but a few, Atkins was still not yet considered a serious threat. Then on 9th April 1989 all that changed. The Birmingham Wheels club had put on a 10000 metres event for Senior Men and with a field of 31 skaters Atkins was naturally amongst them. At that time Tony Marriott (North London) was by far the best out and out skater in the country. Twelve months earlier he had taken a silver medal in the European Championships just behind Italian legend, Patrizio Sarto and a gold with his British team mates John C. Fry and Sean McGeough in the relay. Now, though, Fry (Birmingham Wheels) was racing against Marriott and he and his Birmingham Wheels team mates, the likes of Andrew Lyndon, Simon Davis, Chris Amapduh and Rob Shemsan, were trying their hardest to take the sting out of the North London skater by continually attacking off the front. Marriott was North London's lone skater and effectively had to give chase each and every time. So strong was Marriott that he successfully pulled each and every attack back and was even heard to taunt the Birmingham Wheels skaters with "ok who's next?". Their efforts, it seemed, were futile as they failed to make any dent in Marriott's armour, or so they thought. Sitting in the pack and watching this all unfold around him was Sutton Atkins. As wave after wave of attacks came and Marriott chased each and every one, so Atkins just sat and bided his time. With 2 laps to go the pack was once more all back together but this time the attack came from Atkins. With a monster effort he gapped Marriott and the chasing bunch and held on for victory with Marriott finishing 2nd and Fry 3rd. It was a wake up call for both the Birmingham Wheels team and Tony Marriott who only ever considered that the race would invariably come down to one of them. Now, there was someone else to consider.
On July 9th 1989 at Westbrook Lane, Herne Bay, Atkins would take his first major medal and become the Northern & Midland Counties Champion and by 1990 he had a silver and two bronze British Championship medals to his name. This earned him a place on the GB team sheet for the forthcoming European Championships in Inzell, Germany, where Fry would be his room mate. On the track Atkins would only skate just one event, the 5000 metres, but on the road he would compete in six out of seven events finishing twice in the top ten. Unfortunately for Atkins the World Championships were held in Colombia in 1990 and due to potential security risks the British Federation decided not to send a team. Instead, Fry, Atkins and Fry's domestic team mate Simon Davis, teamed up to take part in the San Benedetto International in Italy in September. Whilst in Italy during a random visit to the track, Atkins noticed a girl using a pair of inlines in the centre. Curious he asked if there were any his size, which there was, and Atkins proceeded to give them a go, much to the amusement of the watching Fry and Davis. Little did any of them know just what an impact these skates would have on the sport in just a few years time.
By 1991 Atkins was now well known and well respected in the skating community although that year heralded just one bronze medal in British Championships in the 1500 metres. His international performances were nothing to write home about either. At the European Championships his highest places were 11th on the track and 13th on the road. It is not clear why his international performances were lacking but by now his domestic performances were clearly impressive and there is a train of thought that suggests Atkins had simply become complacent and maybe a little arrogant. An example of this unfolded between himself and the then Team Manager, Chloe Ronaldson. Atkins had decided to soak up some sun on the beach and after some time Ronaldson appeared and suggested to Atkins that "he had had enough sun". Atkins ignored Ronaldson and continued to stay on the beach. The subsequent fallout from that incident saw Ronaldson and Atkins having words.
Ronaldson: I told you to get off the beach and you ignored me!
Atkins: No you never. You expressed an opinion. You said "I think you have had enough sun"...and I didn't think I had.
His first World Championships results were also nothing of note. His highest placing was 29th in the 300 metres time trial whilst in the heats of the 10000 metres he had the indignity of being lapped off and then fall as the pack passed him. It was not a happy experience for Atkins and a bitter pill to swallow. He had some serious thinking to do.
At around that time cracks were also starting to appear between any relationship that Atkins and Fry had previously had. Fry was probably more than a little frustrated at how things were progressing for himself domestically. Eight years of trying and he still hadn't won a national title. Not only that but he had always been second best to Marriott and with the North London skater now stepping aside it was Atkins, not Fry, who was being seen as the number one. In addition, like Atkins, Fry had an arrogant streak and when they both surfaced together there tended to be fireworks.
1992 was a big year for Atkins. On 20th June he won his first British title, the 300 metres time trial on Birmingham Wheels. He followed that up a few hours later with a second victory in the 1500 metres. But as euphoric as those victories were, the next few weeks would spell disappointment for Atkins. Ronaldson was again Team Manager for the forthcoming European Championships in Acireale - Sicily, Italy, and quite unexpectedly she did not select Atkins for the team. Ronaldson cited the events of 12 months previous as being a major factor in her selection and that she thought Atkins to be a "disruptive influence". Ironically, Atkins turned to Fry's father and former international skater, John E. Fry, for advice. It would appear that the advice worked as the result was that Atkins was re-selected for the World Championships in Rome later that year. But once again, his performances were unremarkable with a highest place of 27th in the 20000 metres. What shouldn't be overlooked here, though, is that these Championships saw the inclusion of inlines for the very first time, but whilst many countries were now beginning to switch over from quads, most notably the USA and the Dutch teams, Britain were still behind the times when it came to using them domestically.
In 1993 Atkins again became a double British Champion and with Ronaldson standing down in favour of Hugh Doggett as Team Manager his selection for the European Championships in Valence d'Agen, France, came as no surprise. Once again Atkins was below par. In the two events he skated on the track he would finish 15th in the 10000 metres points and be disqualified in the 20000 metres. To make matters worse Atkins felt that the parabolic banking of the track had resulted in a soreness and stiffness in his back. On the road he didn't fare much better either and once again left the Championships feeling more than a little deflated.
A few weeks later, leading up to the World Championships in Colorado Springs, USA and during a general squad training session, things came to a head between Atkins and Fry. For a few years now they had not seen eye-to-eye but mostly the rivalry was confined to the race track with Atkins invariably coming out on top, domestically at least. This time, though, an intense disagreement between them meant the pair had to be physically parted. The blame was put squarely at Fry's door and he received a 9 month ban (later overturned) for his part. Some time after that Atkins withdrew himself from selection for the World Championships, citing lack of funds as the reason for his withdrawal. The resultant break from racing gave Atkins time to reflect on what he needed to do if he was going to make his mark on the international scene. In 1994, it finally seemed like it was all starting to come together for him.
In April 1994 Atkins was selected to represent Great Britain in a Europa Cup event in Homburg, Germany. It was still early season, but in both the 10000 metres and 20000 metres on the road Atkins would place an excellent third. It was just the boost he needed and any doubts that he previously had were quickly starting to fade away. A month later he would win the first of his three British titles that year with a strong performance in the British Championship Marathon at Skegness. Domestic competition in 1994 was quite strong with the likes of Fry, Ian Ashby, Michael McInerney, Steven Walker and Mark Tooke, to name but a few, and so when the national team was selected for both European and World Championships the team was carefully chosen for specific events. Due to the physical issues he had 12 months earlier on the parabolic track in Valence d'Agen, Atkins was selected just to compete in road events. At the European Championships in Pamplona, Spain, he would compete in every distance on the road with a highest position of 6th in the 5000 metres. In the World Championships in Gujan Mestras, France, he would compete in four of the six events finishing with a highest position of 15th in the 10000 metres points. It was a significant improvement on previous years and he was now starting to emerge as an international athlete of some repute.
In 1995 he continued where he had left off and was sweeping all before him domestically. Adding another five British titles to his name he was well on his way to re-writing the record books with regards British Championship gold medals, and he was still only 24. The major international events that year, however, saw little by way of significant improvement (highest places were 7th at Europeans and 12th at Worlds) but importantly he was still making progress, albeit more slower than he would have liked.
At the World Championships Atkins struck up a friendship with the 5000 metres World Champion, USA's Scott Hiatt. Atkins used this new found friendship to his advantage and spent some considerable time in the States training alongside Hiatt and on occasion, multiple World Champion Chad Hedrick. Atkins had returned to basics and realised that although the key to his success lay mostly with himself, there were other skaters and people in general who could also play an important part. His time in America paid huge dividends and Atkins returned not only a far better skater but with a far better attitude to training. His hunger had always been there but now the application of all that was important to be successful was also starting to evolve. By 1996 Atkins was virtually unstoppable domestically. Not since Tony Marriott had anyone been as dominant in Britain as Atkins was that year, and with another six British titles to his name he had equalled the record for the most number of individual Senior Men's Championships since the first one was held back in 1894. Next up for Atkins was the European and World Championships.
The 1996 European Championships for Atkins in St. Brieuc and Lamballe, France, showed yet another improvement with some top ten individual placings and just missing out on a medal in the relay, but by the time the World Championships in Scaltenigo and Padua arrived, Atkins was in the form of his life. On the track he would finish 8th in the 20000 metres and on the road 9th in the 1500 metres and 7th in the 10000 metres, both of which saw new British Record times being set (which still stand today). His 10000 metres performance was nothing short of excellent. The race itself was a points race and Atkins would finish 7th on points and roll in 4th across the line, but that doesn't tell the whole story. In the bunch sprint for the finish Chad Hedrick (USA) was one second clear with the next three skaters, Arnaud Gicquel (France), Martin Escobar (Argentina) and Atkins being separated by just 3/10ths of a second. Hedrick had posted a World Record time but due to an infringement near the finish was relegated one place in the final sprint. It still gave him the World title but his time was scrubbed and the second placed skater, Gicquel was awarded first across the line and subsequent World Record. Atkins, being just behind posted what was then officially the third fastest time for 10000 metres in history. Atkins returned to the UK and was greeted with the praise he deserved. He had put in some excellent performances and as well as finally being recognised now as a class international skater, he had also put Britain back on the skating map. Furthermore, his performances had earned him a place to compete in the 1997 World Games in Lahti, Finland, an event only held every four years and seen as some as the unofficial Olympics. It was a once in a lifetime achievement. However, by the end of the year and before the next season started in earnest, things would start to unravel for Atkins. He had suffered setbacks and knocks over the years, but what came to him in early 1997 took the wind completely out of his sails.
It all started on 8th December 1996 at a low key event held in his home town of Derby. By now Atkins' main rival was fellow international Chris Stafford and although Atkins invariably came out on top, the needle between the two had been brewing for some time. During a series of six close races that saw Stafford and Atkins continually pitted against each other, there had been bumping, barging and disqualifications which then proceeded to spill over off the track. For the altercation that followed both skaters received reprimands from the British Federation along with suspended bans. Over the next few months all went quiet between the two, but it wasn't long before the rivalry resumed.
The two skaters continued to battle it out on the track through the early part of 1997 but as the British Championships arrived emotions once again ran high. Stafford was still to win a title but Atkins, having now won several, was working for team mates to share in the spoils. However, in the 5000 metres he was adjudged to have fouled Stafford causing him to fall badly. The result was that Atkins would be disqualified and receive an outright ban. It was a sickening blow for Atkins having superbly qualified for the World Games, but the ban meant that he would miss out on the opportunity to compete and despite his protestations there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. Atkins was devastated. His ban also meant that he would miss out on the European Championships and with the World Championships to be held in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in November, Atkins did not put himself up for selection.
In 1998 Atkins had picked himself up and dusted himself down and set about doing what he knew best. Training hard and skating fast. In May that year he, along with Chris Stafford and Mark Simnor, surprised many people by taking another Europa Cup bronze medal, this time in the relay in Rome. But despite another three British titles added to his now record breaking tally, there was a "new kid on the block" in the form of Leon Flack. Flack was also a short track ice speed skater with a remarkable turn of speed. If he was still there at the end of a race invariably there was going to be only one outcome - victory for Flack. Atkins, now 27, realised this and had to change his game plan accordingly. He knew he had to try and out strength Flack. More often than not, it paid off and once more Atkins established himself as the number one skater in the country.
At the European Championships in Coulaines, France, Atkins skated every single distance, both road and track - sixteen in all if you include the relays and team time trial. Again he was just outside of the medals with an excellent 4th place in the 10000 metres points on the road, although the full picture shows it to be his only individual top ten finish. The team for the World Championships in Pamplona, Spain, consisted of just him and Stafford and again Atkins skated every single distance. His highest placing here was 11th in the 10000 metres on the track. It was suggested that he had lost some of his edge since his last Worlds outing in 1996, but in reality the toll of competing in no fewer than 13 top class events over six days and flat out for almost 90 miles in total was more likely to be the contributing factor. But whether he was feeling jaded or not, Atkins could never have foreseen that the final event, the marathon, would be the last time he would compete in an "absolute" World or European Championships for Great Britain. If the events of the 1996-97 season had took the wind out of his sails, what now followed would almost sink him for good.
At the start of the 1998-99 season Fry was asked by the British Federation if he would become the National Team Manager. He had been retired from competing for some four years now but had continued to be actively involved and so he agreed. Fry immediately set about organising praparatory international trips that included the Pretoria International in South Africa and the Europa Cup in Zemst, Belgium. He also organised squad training sessions and included Atkins in his plans, but it wasn't long before the pair were both at loggerheads once again. It was always going to be difficult with Fry at the helm and Atkins still at the top of his game. Fry had ideas about how things should be done but Atkins had different ideas. After all Atkins had been around for over 10 years now, most of which had been as Britain's top skater and a British international, some of those alongside Fry himself. Both were stubborn and neither was going to back down. Atkins made it clear he wanted to do his own thing and Fry made it clear it was his way or no way. The result was that on 9th May 1999 Atkins presented the British Federation with a petition to oust Fry from his position as Team Manager. It stated Fry was "too dictatorial" and was signed by squad members and general federation members alike, some of them Committee members. As soon as he became aware of this Fry asked the Committee for permission to deal with the issue personally. They couldn't agree to this fearing a major backlash from the squad and possible consequences that were not in the best interests of the sport. The result was that after just a few months in charge Fry resigned his position with immediate effect.
Taking over from Fry as Team Manager was another former British Champion and international, Mark Tooke. With the European Championships in Ostende, Belgium, looming ever closer, Tooke held further squad sessions and took a team to compete in the Europa Cup event in Rome where Atkins would place third in the 10000 metres (ironically a team already selected by Fry). But when Tooke announced the national team for the European Championships Atkins name was not on the team sheet. It was a major shock to all, not only Atkins. Tooke cited the events back in May as the main reason for leaving Atkins out, stating that he felt Atkins' inclusion would be "detrimental to the team". Both Fry and Atkins had become victims of their own arrogance and stubbornness that had left both of them out in the cold but things were to get much worse for Atkins.
Atkins had left Derby Rollerspeed back in 1992 and had raced for a series of sponsored teams but had now secured a place on the lucrative Bauer Hyper World Team, but his exclusion from a major international was not in the plan. Atkins vented his fury on an open internet forum but his comments were brought to the attention of the British Federation. They believed his comments had bought the sport into disrepute and decided to punish Atkins with the result being a 5 year ban from all competitions. This was not just a slap on the wrist, this was a major penalty and unprecedented within the sport in this country. Many thought the ban too severe and it would be hard to disagree with that view point. Only Brian Hartley had received a more lengthy ban (a lifetime ban for punching an official, although this was rescinded soon after) back in the late 1960's. Atkins was just 28 years old. He was still the undisputed number one skater in Great Britain and was beginning to come good internationally. The ban was a massive blow and for all his character traits, whether you loved them or hated them, it undoubtedly left a massive hole in British speed skating.
Atkins' story doesn't end there, though. He worked hard academically and earned himself many qualifications as a coach and trainer in a number of sports. His first love, however, was still speed skating and he decided to make a go of his new found business and coaching skills outside of the UK and made his way to Denmark.
Three years into his ban the Danish Federation asked on his behalf whether Atkins could resume racing in Denmark but no quarter given by the British Federation and the request was denied. The only compromise was that he was free to coach. This he did and soon Atkins was head coach for the Danish national team. His training methods, knowledge and experience all helped Denmark progress as a speed skating nation and within the next few years they would be winning medals at European Championships. Whether these performances were as a direct result of Atkins influence can be debated, but what is certain is that Danish skaters certainly improved in the period Atkins was in charge.
In 2004 the UK ban on Atkins was finally lifted. Now settled in Denmark he decided he would once again take up racing. He had obviously kept himself fit and his coaching and mentoring had kept him in touch with the sport. Much of his early return to racing was done in Denmark but in 2005 he entered the Berlin Half Marathon, the Lagos Grand Prix in Portugal and the Over 30's Category at the Gera International, Germany...and won them all! These victories played second fiddle, though, to one victory he achieved on his return to major competition, the European Masters Marathon Championship (Over 30's Category). Finally, Atkins had a much deserved and long sought after European gold medal. He had announced his return with a bang.
Ironically, when Atkins finally decided to return to skating in Britain it was for Powerslide UK, a team then headed up by Andy Porter. According to many who sat on the Committee at that time it was former Committee member Porter who had been the main voice behind banning Atkins for a full 5 years. It is of course possible that in the period since his ban started Atkins may well have had time to reflect and let "bygones be bygones" although it is more likely that Atkins didn't realise that Porter was the main reason for his 5 years in the wilderness. Atkins' return to racing was not without incident, however, if some reports are to be believed. In Denmark he once again fell foul of a national federation and received a lengthy ban for apparently throwing away a Championship medal. The ban, though, was put before the Danish Sports Council and thrown out amidst reports of nepotism and unprofessionalism within the Danish Federation and the case was closed.
On his return to racing Atkins amassed a total of 14 Danish Championships and taken no fewer than another 25 British titles to add to the 26 he had already won prior to his ban in 1999. This record tally of 51 individual senior national titles is 14 more than the great Chloe Ronaldson achieved throughout her career. Atkins, however, returned to a sport in the UK that was suffering from a distinct lack of depth, class and not least of all a desire to do whatever it takes to be successful. He would be the first to admit that at 40 plus years of age and still winning British titles said as much about the state of British speed skating as it did about his own personal achievements.
In those latter years Atkins tended to only race in the UK during the British Championships but in 2008 was once again asked to put on a British skinsuit and represent his country. He politely refused. If there is one thing Atkins is, it is a master at knowing his own limitations. As much as the sport had declined in Britain it had increased in competitiveness globally. Atkins knew just how hard he had to work just to hold his own as an international skater back in the 1990's, but now it was doubly hard and not only that but he wasn't a spring chicken any more. He knew that on the European stage, let alone the World stage, he would be an "also ran" and that was one thing he just wasn't prepared to be.
In June 2009 Atkins set up his own business, "Sk8skool" which oncentrated on elite personal coaching school for speed skaters. The business took off well and Atkins now had his own team with Sk8skool as a sponsor. In doing so Atkins put something back into the sport which so many fail to do during their skating careers or after they have retired from competition.
It is quite remarkable to think that Atkins amassed more than 50 British titles. But as remarkable as that is, undoubtedly his greatest achievement was his victory in the 2011 World Masters Marathon Championship (Over 40's Category) in Dijon, France, finally pulling on a rainbow jersey and getting his own world gold medal. In 2012 he just missed out on retaining his title by finishing second in Germany.
Sutton Atkins is not only a British skating legend but an enigma with the sport. He has competed (on and off) for more than 25 years, managing to produce some quite remarkable results along the way. Controversy has followed him at every turn of a wheel but it is also what makes him who he is. People will tell you that the most successful sportsmen or sportswomen are egotistical, selfish and arrogant and one could argue that Atkins has been all of these at one point or other in his career. But don't take that as criticism. As well as all those traits he had a single mindedness and dogged determination that saw him rise very quickly to being the number one skater in the country, and then hold that position year after year until he was stopped dead in his tracks. On his return some 5 years later he again showed everybody what it takes to be the best of those around him. 25 years on and whilst Fry and Atkins will never be the best of buddies, there is a mutual respect for each others achievements. On the outside Atkins has mellowed, or matured may be a better way of putting it, maybe he even has some regrets. But deep down inside that 2 metre frame of his still burns that innate desire to be seen as the best British skater in modern times. And for some he always will be just that.