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
Tuesday 13 December 2005
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)
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