Bringing the little things together in search of success at Sochi for GB Bobsleigh

It may be just six months until the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi but according to Gary Anderson, the Performance Director at GB Bobsleigh, there is not a lot you can do in the last six months before the Games to get things right but there is a lot that you can do to get things wrong. GB Bobsleigh have spent the last three and a half years since the disaster of Vancouver, looking at how they can improve. The goal was always for the 2018 Games but with the Men’s Fourman crew, driven by John Jackson, now ranked five in the World and one of the fastest starters in the World and the Women boasting a former World Junior Champion in Paula Walker, things are ahead of schedule and they go to Sochi quietly confident that they can do well. So how have Bobsleigh gone from being also rans to now attracting some of the best athletes in the world as well as some of the best support staff from other countries to the programme? …

GB Champs 34909The GB Cycling programme has been the catalyst for many sports in how they look at their sport. Gary Anderson was brought in after Vancouver and with the likes of driver John Jackson looking to move on in the wake of how things went in 2010, the task was to get the team ready for the 2018 Games. The team are four years ahead of schedule and have spent the last three and a half years looking at every single thing that can improve the performance. From bringing in the support of the McLaren F1 team to help with the sled to actively encouraging fast athletes to switch to the sport, those that watched Dara O’Briain’s Science Club on BBC 2 recently will have seen some of the small things that are being looked at to shave the hundredths of a second off and get them closer to the front. Anderson admits that “there was a lot of work to be done after I joined in 2010, it was always an eight year project. However, with the athletes that we have now recruited, it has allowed us to go for medals in 2014 and this is extremely exciting. It is a bit surreal as we never expected to be where we are. I am confident that we are going into these Games, the best that we can be. If we do that then I really think that we have got a chance.”

While the immediate goal is Sochi, the long term pathway for Bobsleigh is very bright as well: Paula Walker won the World Juniors in 2011, Mica McNeill took silver in the 2012 Youth Olympics and bronze in the 2013 World Juniors. Anderson is keen to point out that the team going to Sochi is ‘a very young team. John Jackson is the oldest person on our squad but the rest of them have probably two if not three Olympics in them. This is very exciting.”

Bobsleigh is a high octane and adrenaline fuelled sport. From bursting off the start and powering a sled to as fast as you can in five seconds is hard work. It takes a supreme athlete to be able to do this. Once the start is over the skill of the driver in keeping away from the sides takes over. Every time the sled even nudges the side, this costs time. Anderson believes that Paula Walker has developed and matured immensely in the time he has known her. Last season’s World Ranking for Walker, Anderson believes is a false due to her crash that caused her to be injured. “At Altenberg where she crashed and caused the injury going forward for the rest of the season, that taught me more about Paula than anything else. She was in the position to take her first World Cup Medal until she crashed on the last part of the track. At the time she was ahead of all her rivals and these will be her rivals in Sochi. She can compete at the highest level. From there the rest of the season was always going to be an uphill battle but to her credit she went to the World Championships and competed and also went to the Olympic test event where we got the valuable time on the track that she needed. She is in great shape at the moment. I have a saying with Paula that is STW: Shock The World, we are going to start the season and people are going to be surprised at the level that Paula is at.”

John Jackson is the leading male driver at the moment. Currently hobbling around on crutches but both Jackson and Anderson have faith that he will be in fine fettle come the Games. Anderson explains that ‘injuries never come at a good time.” Even with injuries the ethos of getting the best surgeon and recovery programme in place is there. Jackson was sent up to Scotland for surgery and according to Anderson recovery is ‘excellent’ so far, “the prognosis is that he will be back ready for the first World Cup of the season.” Anderson stresses that the plans for the team are exactly as they were before he was injured. UK Sport’s facility at Bisham Abbey will be seeing a lot of Jackson as he continues his recovery programme. Jackson is held in high regard by Anderson, it was Anderson’s appointment that encouraged Jackson to stay on after Vancouver so the two are on the same song sheet. Anderson believes that Jackson is one of the best drivers in the World and behind him he has one of the fastest crews in the World.

The subject of brakemen is something that Anderson is very proud of. Anderson himself came from Athletics and so he knows some of the fastest sprinters over short distances. This explosive power is vital in getting a standing 3o0KG sled moving as fast as possible in a short time. Recently Olympic sprinter Craig Pickering joined the programme to add competition to the crew. Pickering knows that he has his work cut out to dislodge one of the incumbents to the crew but the competition is good Anderson believes. “The guys are committed to the programme and train full time and are amongst the fastest in the world,” according to Anderson, “we will continue this through to 2018 at least as well. I am always looking to recruit people who are faster than what we have got. We need to keep on building up.” Such is the competition and strength in depth, Anderson believes that there are five or six brakemen chasing the three spots for Sochi. This is good for the GB 2 sled as well. With an injury in early 2012 highlighting the need to upskilling the guys on the team, the team is now stronger due to this being highlighted. With the aim to get two sleds to Sochi, the squad of brakemen will be nine to ten in size, Anderson is looking for. While you can only nominate three brakemen for the Games, there is no accreditation available for a reserve, any injury will have to require special dispensation from the jury.

How many runs down the Olympic track will the sleds have done come the Games? The track is new and making sure the sled can get the fastest line for the timed runs the crews get six official training runs before then during the Games period plus they will also have two additional training days and they have already been on the Sochi track for two weeks and they have another week coming up. By the time the first competitive runs start, the British crews will have been down the track approximately forty times!

The other important ingredient to the success of the project is the equipment. The close co-operation with McLaren F1 is well known. As the Games get closer, more information regarding the innovations will be released but at the moment every little piece of information that can be garnered to make the sleds quicker is a closely guarded secret incase the opposition get wind. With BAE Systems also involved, funded by UK Sport Funding, all the marginal gains advantages are being collated in Project 50. Project 50 is so called as it will be 50 years  since Britain won a Gold medal in the Fourman come Sochi.

Some of the marginal gains will be kept quiet until the last moment as GB Bobsleigh like to keep some of the powder dry prior to the Games. At the start of the track, many of the sleds sit on blocks and during this time other teams can look at the sleds. While the jury have to inspect the sleds to make sure they are legal, GB Bobsleigh will try and keep the sleds covered as much as possible to keep their advantage to a maximum prior to the runs. The World Cup will see the sleds race in the same configuration as that will be seen in the Olympics but as Anderson points out, “the interpretation of the rules is just as important as the application of the rules.”

Anderson knows that GB Bobsleigh is “fighting with the big boys now.” All the teams are pushing the boundaries. Every hundredth counts. Anderson is proud that Britain is the top non Alpine nation in the sport of Bobsleigh. All the other nations have tracks that they can test things on. The dry start practice ramp at Bath University is the best that Britain can hone their skills on in the UK.

The confidence in the cap is good and now the rest of the world is also taking note of the British team. The Swiss team, one of the strong teams of Bobsleigh have just lost their head coach to the British, the Germans recently admitted that the British team is one that they are worried about in the chase for medals.

With all this in mind and the set up that is now in place, Anderson will not be happy “until we have won an Olympic medal.” It is certainly possible and is something that has been a long time coming. “We have a plan and if we execute that plan, we have got to be happy whatever the outcome is.” For such a highly motivated and dedicated set up, this trajectory is promising. Anderson finishes up with “I have a feeling that if we do all that, then the outcome is very, very good!”