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Britain's bobsleigh ice queens

By Anna Thompson

A delighted Minichiello and Cooke celebrate world gold
A delighted Minichiello and Cooke celebrate world gold

Towards the end of last season, Britain's number one bobsleigh driver Nicola Minichiello realised her national team needed to be strengthened if they were going to consistently challenge for podium finishes and medals.

So she found a novel way of pinpointing specific targets by surfing the social networking site Facebook.

She selected 20 women whom she believed had the attributes to augment the team and fired off e-mails in the hope they would consider testing with them.

A handful replied and one of those was Edinburgh long jumper Gillian Cooke. The team was immediately impressed with her explosive speed and strength and she went straight into the GB1 bobsleigh.

And together with 30-year-old Minichiello and her long-time brakewoman Jackie Gunn, the team have had their most successful season.

They had three podium finishes in the World Cup, came third in the European Championships but their ultimate highlight was winning the gold medal at the Bobsleigh World Championships, held at Lake Placid in New York.

Minichiello, from Sheffield, told BBC Sport: "It's quite surreal to be known as a world champion to be honest.

"I genuinely believed we could win a medal and I genuinely believed if everything went right we had a shot at winning it because it was one of my good tracks."

To the general sporting world it was a shock to see a British win in bobsleigh as this had not happened since Robin Dixon and Anthony Nash triumphed in the World Championships back in 1965 but it wasn't a fluke for those who follow the sport.

British Bobsleigh performance co-ordinator Mark Carter said: "They have been threatening to win a race all season but because the other nations are so strong, beating them is a major achievement.

"Nicola is a very good athlete. She has also got the racing driver's skills for judging distance and speed."

To put it into context, their success is remarkable when you take into account Britain does not have any bobsleigh tracks at which to practice. There is a push-start track at Bath University, which is a vital resource, but the team has to head over to Austria to get time on the ice.

Also the funding is miniscule when you compare it with the strong German, Russian and United States teams.

Cooke and Minichiello have only worked together for six months
Cooke and Minichiello have only worked together for six months

Germany's Sandra Kiriasis has been all-conquering in the sport. She has won the World Cup title for the past seven seasons and won Olympic gold at the 2006 Winter Olympics, which is not surprising considering the Germans invest millions of euros in their winter sports teams.

Minichiello, who has been in the sport since 2000, is funded by UK Sport to the tune of about £160,000 a year but this is just enough to allow her to compete on the World Cup circuit and in the major championships.

She is a teacher by trade and has to work the off-season as a supply teacher on top of being made an athlete mentor for the Youth Sport Trust.

But the former heptathlete wished more funding was forthcoming.

"I don't want to sound ungrateful to UK Sport because they are brilliant with us," she stated.

"It's just that the more funding you can get, the more you can do with the sled, a little bit more testing, a little bit more development for example.

"If people can come in and help that would always increase our chances."

However, the bobsleigh team is able to tap into UK Sport's Research and Innovation resources, which enlists the help of the aerospace and Formula One industries.


Bob Fudge, who worked for McLaren's F1 team for 17 years, looked at Minichiello's sled ahead of the season and minor adjustments were made, including fixing the seat and moulding it to Minichiello's profile. All had a positive effect.

She confirmed: "It's been a continual progress. My driving has improved along with the help of the coaches. We did some work on the sled. It has all been brilliant."

Minichiello will work on her conditioning during the summer as she said she has been struggling for full fitness since undergoing a double knee operation in 2007.

But she is superstitious about changing what she calls a winning formula with the team - and sled - and cannot wait until October when the season starts again.

And the culmination will be the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, next February, with Minichiello revelling in the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre and is confident she can turn world into Olympic gold.

"I know it's the end of this season and I'm tired but in some respects I'm quite disappointed it's finished here," she conceded.

"Now we can go out with the confidence this has given us. We'll put it on hold for seven months and then start dominating again.

"I love the Vancouver track. It is the ultimate bobsleigh track, which is what I prefer because it is more technical and demanding on the driver.

"It is fantastic and bodes well for the Olympics."

see also
Brit bobsleighers win World gold
22 Feb 09 |  Winter Sports
Best season for Brit bobsleigher
16 Feb 09 |  Winter Sports

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