There is no stopping them now
Bobsleigh pair Claire Bergin, brakewoman, and Aoife Hoey, pilot, with the statue of Patrick Kavanagh beside the Grand Canal at the announcement of the Irish line-up for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
WINTER OLYMPICS:THE BRAKEWOMAN, as every bobsledder knows, doesn’t dare touch the breaks until the end of the run. Instead, the brakewoman nearly breaks her back trying to get the sled up to speed, while the pilot jumps in, casually enough. Then they hold on for dear life, as the whole thing goes hurtling between walls of ice at up to 160kph. The adrenaline rush, they say, is as good as a bungee jump.
“Well, I’ve a done bungee jump,” says Claire Bergin, the brakewoman. “It’s not quite the same thrill. Bobsleigh lasts much longer, and is much more exciting.”
“But there is also a huge amount of trust involved,” says Aoife Hoey, the pilot.
“I know it can be hard on Claire, getting in behind me, especially if I haven’t driven that track yet. And I’ll let Claire tell you whether she trusts me or not.”
“Of course,” says the brakewoman. “The team wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise.”
All a bit scary then? “Definitely,” says the brakewoman. “The first time I was very scared, and I think I was scared nearly every race last season. This year I have more confidence. But you still get the same adrenaline rush every time.”
Ever tempted to just jam on the brakes then? “There’s to be no breaking on the way down,” says the pilot.
“Once the sled is pushed off you cannot actually touch the brakes until you cross the finish line. Then Claire will put all her power into stopping” – which as every bobsledder knows, means pulling up hard on the brake handle, which sinks the steel teeth into the ice, and brings the sled to a screeching halt . . . all going well.
Most people occasionally see the bobsleigh on things like Ski Sunday, and ask why?
Bergin and Hoey saw it, and asked why not?
Together, they’ve now become the first Irish women to qualify in the bobsleigh at an Olympics, and yesterday, at the Canadian Embassy in Dublin, were named as part of the only six-strong team that will compete in Vancouver, starting on February 12th.
What awaits them, at the Whistler Sliding Centre, is one of the fastest bobsleigh tracks in history: 1,450 metres, 16 tight corners, a 152-metre vertical drop and a whole lot of nervous energy. Ever since Cool Runnings became the surprise box-office hit in 1993, a team of bobsledders from any country where snow is more novelty than customary are invariably a source of some amusement, yet Bergin and Hoey couldn’t be more serious about it.
They come from athletics backgrounds (Bergin, 24 a sprinter; and Hoey, 26, a triple-jumper) and train just as hard for bobsleigh as they did their original events.
“We both need speed and power, for the start,” says Hoey. “We do the same training, explosive weight-lifting like the clean, and bench. Claire has a huge responsibility at the top of the run, as the brake athlete. She really has to be explosively fast, from the block. I would jump in then, obviously having contributed myself. Hugely!
“It is also very expensive, and as a small nation, we would rely heavily on the Olympic Council. Two seasons ago we were fortunate that they actually purchased a new bobsleigh for us. A full carbon-fibre sled, top spec. They can range anywhere from €40,000 to €200,000. We’re moulding the sled to our needs now, and it is running very, very fast. Which might actually be a disadvantage, because we might want to slow it down.”
To qualify, they needed to compete in several European and World Cup events, eventually securing the top-20 international ranking they needed. They’ve been coached by the German Horst Hörnlein, who won a bobsleigh gold at the 1972 Winter Olympics at Sapporo, and yet most of their training is, by bobsleigh standards, fairly primitive.
“We train a lot on the running track at Santry,” says Bergin.
“There is an old bobsleigh out there, on wheels,” says Hoey. “The original bobsleigh the men’s team used, for the Nagano Olympics. It doesn’t look pretty, but it does the job.
“Our big ambition was to get to Vancouver, and we’re thrilled to be at that standard, and the pride that comes with representing the country at this level is unbelievable. But there’s a few nations there we’ll give a run for their money.”
The team for Vancouver includes another former athlete, Patrick Shannon, who competes in the even more dare-devilling event, the skeleton. He has no brakes at all, woman or otherwise.
“We get a five or six G-force on the run,” says Shannon, “which is the equivalent to the space shuttle taking off, or flying a fighter jet. We get that all the time, with only a lycra skinsuit protecting you from walls of ice.”
Shannon’s customised helmet bears, suitably enough, a skeleton. As if to say no brains involved – which, as every bobsledder knows, is not necessarily untrue.
Irish Winter Olympics Team
Winter Olympics, Vancouver: February 12th – 28th
Aoife Hoey:Bobsleigh (pilot) – A native of Portarlington, the 26 year-old was introduced to bobsleigh by her sister Siobháin, the chef de mission for Vancouver, who narrowly failed to qualify for the last Olympics in Turin. Both come from athletics backgrounds, with Aoife winning the national triple jump title in 2003 (Siobháin won a record eight titles between 1993 and 2000). Aoife works as a development officer with Athletics Ireland.
Claire Bergin:Bobsleigh (brakewoman) – The 24 year-old from Dublin was a champion junior sprinter, competing for Ireland as recently as the European Indoors in Turin last March, in the 400 metres relay, and was introduced to the bobsleigh only two years ago. She studied accountancy at DCU and is on a training contract with Deloitte.
Patrick Shannon:Skeleton – A native of Campile, New Ross in Wexford, the 33 year-old also comes from an athletics background, again the triple jump – winning several Irish titles both indoors and out. He was first lured into trying the skeleton by Clifton Wrottesley, who famously finished fourth in the event in 2002, in Salt Lake City, and was chef de mission four years ago in Turin.
Kirsty McGarry:Alpine Slalom – The 24 year-old from Dublin will compete in her second Winter Olympics, after Turin, where she carried the Irish flag and finished 32nd in the Super G (her older sister, Tamsen, competed in 2002). She has claimed 55 podium positions in international competitions since the age of nine. She is studying physiotherapy at the Royal College of Surgeons.
Shane O’Connor:Alpine Slalom – From Malahide, in Dublin, the 36-year-old has been skiing since the age of five, and has represented Ireland in five World Championships. A former Dublin junior hurler, he is head coach at the Kilternan Ski Club in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains.
PJ Barron:15km Cross Country Skiing – Still only 21, and a native of the Aberdeenshire Highlands, he declared for Ireland in 2008, given his mother, and grandmother, were born in Dublin. The university student will make his Olympic debut, having narrowly edged out former Irish Olympic rower Paul Griffin for selection.
Officials:Siobhán Hoey, chef de mission; Dr Marie Elaine Grant, chief physiotherapist; Niall O’Connor, Alpine team manager; Ken Ellis, Alpine coach; Colin Gaffney, Alpine coach; Rolf Haggstrom, cross country coach; Horst Hörnlein, sliding coach; Barry Delany, bobsleigh technician.