May 17, 2021
(How I sled into Bobsled and the Olympics)
1993 There I was sprinting around the running track passing a rugby ball to and fro with my training partner.
Back then I would never have dreamed that the words in the title would trigger such an elevated heart rate, extreme anticipation, a heightened adrenal rush and a minute of extreme sensory buzz. Yes, it only lasts about a minute. But that’s a feeling one is unlikely to experience again. That is until you slide again. You can reach up to 93mph with nothing but Lycra between your skin and flesh-burning ice, should you crash!
Mind you, back then I would also have never believed it if you told me I’d be running my own Pilates studio and be a Balanced Body Master Instructor. But back to the story.
On the running track I would often see a young guy being coached in sprint drills by a fit strong coach by the name of Nick Phipps (two-time Olympian, hero and now good friend). Eventually, we struck up a conversation, exchanged pleasantries and I soon discovered the young guy, Nicholas was trying to qualify for the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics in bobsled. He was representing Hungary and their first-ever attempt at this sport (a bit like the Jamaican Cool Runnings of Central Europe). Being the funny guy I said, “I’m of Hungarian stock, can I play?”
Nick (Nicholas) asked me if I thought I could push a Bob? “Of course! I’m a rugby prop, I’m built to push and shunt anything!” How naïve was I?? And that was that, we went away and mentioned this encounter to our respective fathers and low and behold, it transpired they had known each other as school kids.
Nick did invite me out to the training ground where the British Bob team practiced pushing a makeshift Bob on wheels. I did pretty well there. (That’s not a patch on the real thing though, NOTHING prepares you for the real thing!)
I had just started my then business when two months later I received a call out of the blue. It was Nick who said “Pete, we’re at the World Championship finals, we have our points so only need to complete this race to qualify for Lilliehammer. The problem is that my brake man is injured, would you come out and push?”
Er…. Doh.. ok!
Within days I was in St. Moritz at the first ever man made bobsled track , built in 1902. It’s a punishing track including battering turns and a 180 degree Horseshoe curve, with a wall measuring 20 Ft high that spits you out at up to 5G’s.
JEEZ, what have I let myself in for?
I had never seen a real Bobsleigh or Bob track before this point. I was mixing with the world’s best, I had to get licensed and a permit rushed through and then jump in feet first.. what was I doing!?
So there I was, and my intro went something like this.
“Ok Pete, you’re the brakeman. You need to memorise the track, turns left and right etc. There are 19 curves. Oh and you need to brake before the final curve to slow us, then release through the turn and brake again for the finish… got that?””
We unloaded the Bob in the car park and practiced running on the spot and loading into our two-man Bob. We had a couple of walk off practice runs to test the course and for Nick to practice his race lines. It was a jolly ride, electrifying BUT… I felt like a tourist and it felt nothing like what was to come.
Everything was so surreal, Prince Albert of Monaco was just one of the jocks with us in the changing rooms. Huge, lean, loud athletes were getting psyched up with menacing tones and movements.
‘I can do this. I’ve played London 1st Division rugby, I can bench press 170 kg, I know how to slap myself around the head, build the tension and adrenalin and get into the right mind set… erm… right??’
Next thing I know..
“Bob in track”
We’re at the start line, cow bells are ringing, people cheering and the cameras are on us. Oh yes and my heart is beating out of my chest. ‘Just don’t slip, don’t screw up the loading, push for your life!’
Nick and I roar and off we go, yelling and pumping those legs. Hundreds of sharp pin spikes on our soles catching the ice. Oh yes and Nicks feet kicking up too high behind him and slicing my hands to boot. Too much adrenaline to care!
I’m in! I didn’t slip! I loaded smoothly, kind of!
Then my inner rookie tourist revealed himself.
It feels like we’re moving pretty slow, trundling along. Almost boring. Nick had said to load , keep my head down, stay still and centred and grip for dear life. This isn’t what I expected so I lifted my head for a peek-a-boo….. BANG!
We had just entered and corner so my head hit the side of the Bob. Rookie.
Ok, stay down. But then more silence and trundling, one more check? BANG!!! Stoopid rookie, that hurt more. A minute in a Bob can feel like an eternity.
It all suddenly changed. The taps of the Bob against the ice walls reverberate through you, the whooshing noise is loud and the shaking of the Bob is aggressive. Oh no, now it’s suddenly a white knuckle ride.
Then just as suddenly it’s a quieter and smoother ride, briefly. I partially relax but realise that through the experiential commotion I’ve totally lost count of the turns! Are we approaching the end?
Out of the blue it hits. We are in Horseshoe.. apparently. I feel immense pressure, I can’t breathe and we’re high on that wall. We are shot out of it like a bullet, bashing walls side to side. Please don’t let us crash! Where am I?
Over the shearing noise I hear Nick screaming… but I can’t hear the words. Yes!! He must have seen the clock and we’re doing well, he must be elated? (How can a novice with no experience and without 1000’s of practice runs and pushes behind him get a good time!!)
The reality? We are approaching that last corner and Nick knows that if the idiot behind him doesn’t brake we may well flip over.
He was actually screaming “brake you F%^$£*&er braaaaaake!”
Oops, I didn’t and by a miracle he got us through the corner. Was that it?? Oh No.
We’re in the straight away approaching the finish line, the officials and other athletes. That’s all good then. Well, the only slight problem is that I don’t know that. I’m totally disorientated and lost count! I should be braking and slowing down.
Startled expressions as our Bob wizzes through the line and Nick start’s yelling again. What’s his problem? I’ll tell you what it is as hindsight has bestowed much wisdom upon me.
We were still hurtling at high speeds and he didn’t know if there was a wall or a sheer drop at the end of the track? He was urging me in no uncertain terms, and expletives, to brake. I still can’t hear him!
I’m still oblivious to the potentially life ending conclusion to this race as I’m a good boy and keeping my head down right?
Suddenly we are weightless, airborne actually. Nick’s still screaming, I’m clueless and we are shooting off the end of the track into an empty snow filled car park.
Then, silence. Where are we? Had the brakes frozen? Are we alive? Can I look up now?
Nick is stunned, the speakers blaring and officials sprinting towards us and then to cap it all… a train full of curious tourists snakes it’s way past the end of the car park. Bemused stares at the solitary and stationary Bob sitting in a snow filled car park. Yep, that’s us and that’s how it all began!
I didn’t have the papers or experience to make Lilliehammer but went on to compete in Nagano and Salt Lake City.
I took my paraglider with me on the off chance I could have a fly in such a stunning setting and land on the frozen lake. On the way up I started chatting to a Canadian couple. They asked what I was doing there? With chest puffed out proudly I announced that I was taking part in the World Bob finals.
Do you know what they said? “Did you see those idiots fly off the track yesterday?”
Mmmm, “I sure did, have a great day”.
Maybe next time I can share the advantages for this career and for rugby I would have gained had I started Pilates sooner. There’s also a very funny story leading up to our qualifiers for the Salt Lake City Olympics !!