Bobsleigh: Women on a cool mission

Nicola Minichiello and Jackie Davies plan to turn world silver into Olympic gold when they hit the track in Turin

To say that Britain has a tradition of success in Olympic bobsleigh is pushing it. Compared to nations like Germany, Switzerland and the United States, its achievements in an event, which began back in the 1880s when someone had the bright idea of lashing two toboggans together, have been modest.

There have, nevertheless, been flashes of attainment, most notably in the two-man bob, which Anthony Nash and Robin Dixon won in 1964, but also in the four, where silver and bronze were earned in 1924 and 1936 respectively, and the paratrooper Sean Olsson and his men added another bronze at the Nagano Games of 1998.

The chances of that proud but modest haul being swelled at the Turin Winter Games in February are distinctly healthy - and the main contenders have the opportunity to make further history by becoming the first British women to bring back a medal in this event.

Nicola Minichiello and Jackie Davies will arrive in Turin as the world silver medallists after producing the performance of their lifetime in Calgary last February, and although they have made a steady rather than spectacular start to this season's World Cup series, they will travel to Italy as much in expectation as hope.

Both already have Olympic experience, having partnered different drivers when the women's two-man bob made its debut in the Games at Salt Lake. Afterwards, both decided to extend their ambitions by learning how to drive the bob, and they might have gone into these Olympics as rivals had Lottery funding cuts not obliged the British Bobsleigh Association to cut its numbers. Only one women's team could be sent to Turin - and both Minichiello and Davies determined that they would be in it.

"We knew we would have a great start, which is one of the main components, so we decided to get together," Davies recalled.

That left one obvious question unanswered - who would drive? In their first season together they found an unusual answer by taking it in turns to drive, much to the bemusement of their competitors.

"The other girls used to ask us 'Who's driving this week?' and we'd say 'We're going to toss for it.' It was a unique way of bonding as a team," said Davies.

Eventually, however, a choice had to be made. "We decided we'd have a series of selection races," Davies recalled. "The first one was in Lillehammer, and Nicola won, and I said 'that's it'. Why go on?" Switching positions in the sled was a relatively conservative change for Minichiello, who changed sports only weeks before the Salt Lake City Olympics, jettisoning a career as one of the country's leading combined events athletes who, under her maiden name of Gautier, was at one point third in the national heptathlon rankings behind Denise Lewis.

"That first Olympics was very surreal," recalled Minichiello, whose husband, Tony, used to be her athletics coach. "I'd been training for seven or eight years to go to an Olympic Games for heptathlon and there I was at an Olympics doing something completely different. It was bizarre. I don't really miss heptathlon - the bob's more fun. Much more fun." She acknowledged, however, that some work had had to go into persuading her husband - who now guides the European junior champion, Jessica Ennis - that he had not been wasting his time coaching her.

"I'm still doing it," she said. "But he's very supportive. Luckily, Jessica came along so I was off the hook. Now he spends more time with her than he does with his wife, and I spend more time with Jackie than I do with him. But he directs our physical training, so he feels involved."

With their format established, reaching the podium at the World Championships allowed Minichiello and Davies to access top-level Lottery funding which has enabled them to spend more time training abroad.

Davies, who is in the Army, still keeps up with her driving - she has recently retained her Inter-Services title. But she has accommodated her Olympic ambitions to becoming a back-seat driver - with all that phrase entails.

"Nicola is a better driver than me," she said, adding with a grin: "But I've got a reputation as being scary. So she's very careful. My job is being the powerhouse to start the bob off as quickly as possible and then get in behind Nicola. I also look after the equipment so that Nicola can concentrate purely on the driving. But being a driver myself is of great benefit, because I understand the track a lot more. I can tell Nicola how the ride felt, where the mistakes were ...

"When you are learning to drive it's not like any other sport where you can simulate it in practice. The coach describes it to you, and you then jump into the sled and do it. They start you off a little bit further down the track, which they say makes you go slower. But going from 80mph to 70mph when you are learning is not much of a concession.

"The first time you go down a track as a driver, you just see white everywhere. You forget where you are. The ice is white, the walls are white, the covers are white, and you've obviously got the snow ... After my first week I hated it so much I wanted to jack it in, but the coach was really confident."

It was Davies's turn to take up the narrative: "You are trying to process 50 bits of information in your brain and you've got less than a minute to get down the track, so once you've made one mistake you are at the next bend already." The rash suggestion that a sled would probably find its way down the steep and curving track best if left to its own devices prompted synchronised scoffing from both women.

"No," said Minchiello with a laugh. "Not really. It would probably crash at corner one. You have to drive the sled down. Imagine throwing a marble down the run - it would go up and down and up and down. You have to try to cut through the pressure and find the perfect line to take you forwards ..."

"... otherwise we would go up and down like a marble and turn over at the end of it," Davies added.

"Exactly," concluded Minichiello. Sharing sentences is a clear mark of familiarity, and these two have spent plenty of time working and training together in the space of the last couple of years. It is a curious life for competitors on the circuit, especially if they are still competing for Olympic places - they end up in a gray area not knowing if they are housemates or rivals or both.

The German team of Sandra Kiriasis and Anja Schneiderheinze established itself as an early favourite for gold in Turin by winning the opening World Cup event in Calgary last month and taking equal first place in Lake Placid just over a week later with the US team of Jean Prahm and Vonetta Flowers.

The British pair's respective results were: 10th, ninth. They are heading in the right direction - and by the time they reach Turin the podium could be within reach.

Olympic bob: Britain's roll of honour

* 1924 (Chamonix) Four-man bob

1, Switzerland II

2, GB II (Ralph Broome, Thomas Arnold, Alexander Richardson, Rodney Soher)

3, Belgium I

* 1936 (Garmisch) Four-man

1, Switzerland II

2, Switzerland I

3, GB I (Frederick McEvoy, James Cardno, Guy Dugdale, Charles Green)

* 1964 (Innsbruck)


1, GB I

(Tony Nash, Robin Dixon)

2, Italy II

3, Italy I

* 1998 (Nagano)


1, Germany II

2, Switzerland I

3, GB I (Sean Olsson, Dean Ward, Courtney Rumbolt, Paul Attwood)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine