Bobsleigh: Sled girls' debt to Kelly and home

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The Independent Online

When push comes to shove, M and D are Britain's best double act on ice since T and D.

When push comes to shove, M and D are Britain's best double act on ice since T and D. However, Bolero is not their bag. They happen to go bobbing along at around 90mph, which makes them the best since the gold strike of N and D (Nash and Dixon). Last weekend Nicola Minichiello and Jackie Davies, in their secondhand sled bought from the Americans, ended a 40-year medal drought by taking silver in the World Bobsleigh Championships in Calgary, an achievement that makes the frontispiece of the slim volume of British winter successes.

Both converts from more orthodox and less hazardous sporting pursuits, this school-teacher from Sheffield and a serving soldier from Birmingham are a pair as bubbly as the champagne which deservedly awaited them in the deep-frozen Rockies. And of course the hopeful toast was "To Torino 2006".

As Nicola Gautier, 26-year-old Minichiello was one of Britain's leading heptathletes, at one time second only to Denise Lewis and above Kelly Sotherton. She is still 13th in the all-time list with 5,784 points. But she says: "The opportunity to go into bobsleigh came along just at the right time. I knew in my heart of hearts that I wasn't going to make it right to the top in heptathlon. An athlete friend who had been on the British bobsleigh team suggested I give it a whirl." She and Davies, 27, a corporal in the Royal Signals Regiment, teamed up after competing separately as brakemen at Salt Lake City's Winter Games. They won the World Push-start Championships last summer, for which they had trained on the new 125- metre track facility at Bath University. "It's the only place you can properly prepare for bobsleigh in this country," says Minichiello.

She works as a supply PE teacher, and the day after returning from Calgary last week was back home in Sheffield to take up a new post at a local school. Her husband, Tony, is a GB athletics coach who sets the pair's athletics training programme.

She reckons that bobsleigh costs her between £6,000-£8,000 a year. "I tend only to work short-term contracts so I have the time to train and compete during the season."

Like Davies, she says she found the Olympic success of Kelly Holmes inspirational. They both have similar backgrounds to Holmes, being of mixed race and from single-parent families. "Like Kelly, we were brought up by working- class mums, and have had to overcome some difficult challenges, particularly in the early days of growing up," says Minichiello. "My mother is such a strong person and has been a massive influence. She has made me the person I am. She taught me how to focus on what I wanted to achieve."

Davies concurs: "My mum has been incredibly supportive. She has always been there for me. Nicola and I come from parallel backgrounds, and the more I learn about the way we were brought up, the closer we're drawn together."

Davies's family is steeped in sport. One of her younger sisters, Samantha, 25, competed as a 200m runner in the Sydney Olympics and now lives in America, where she is married to the Arizona baseball star Royce Clayton. Her youngest sister, Maggie, 20, is on the British bob-skeleton team. "Basically I have always been a bit of a sport-billy. It was my mum who said, 'You should pick one thing and concentrate on it'.

"When I first got into a bob I hated it. It was scary. I was the brakeman and with a driver who had never been down a track before. It was like being in a washing machine. But I'm glad I stuck with it.

"I later became a driver myself, so I know how difficult it is. Going from the driving seat into the back is always a bit worrying, because you don't have that feeling of being in control, but I've grown to trust Nicola implicitly, she's great."

Both say that getting the silver, just 0.02sec behind the long-established German duo of Sandra Kiriasis and Anja Scheiderheinze, was "a fantastic feeling". "We knew going into the competition we had a fighting chance, because we had just been out of the top three twice this season," said Davies. As a former athlete and Army rugby player she, too, was introduced to bobsleigh by a friend who was also a competitor. "When I first went along it was just to try something different, but I was persuaded I had potential. I've also had tremendous support from the Army, and its School of Physical Training."

A radio technician, she is based at Aldershot, as is the women's team coach, Peter Gunn, an Army Air Corps warrant officer and former British champion. "It was a stunning result for two of the best athletes in British sport," he said.

As a pair, M and D have never received any Lottery funding, but this will change; because of their Calgary result, UK Sport are recommending their inclusion in the World Class programme.

A silver medal in the World Championships does not necessarily translate to a place on the Olympic podium. But, as Minichiello says: "What this result shows is we can compete with the best in the world. Hopefully this is the breakthrough that we have striven for."

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