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'It's all about the now . . . every year is a clean slate'

Things are about to get serious, admits Gillian Cooke.

Gillian Cooke is eager to make up for the disappointment of her last Winter Games. Picture: Getty Images
Gillian Cooke is eager to make up for the disappointment of her last Winter Games. Picture: Getty Images

The train for the Winter Olympics will soon depart and those who hope to be Sochi-bound are fighting for their tickets, the Scottish bobsledder included. Having crashed and burned in Vancouver three years ago, the former world champion has more incentive than most to pursue a place. But reputations count for nothing, even within the confines of Great Britain's own team.

That's just as it should be, says Cooke, who will make her first appearance on the World Cup circuit in this weekend's stop in the Utah resort of Park City. Paired at the outset with former skeleton slider Victoria Olaoye as her driver, the pair have made light of their insertion into the GB3 sled, earning two top-six placings to date in the second-tier America's Cup.

However, with the UK obtaining just two berths for Russia, one crew will be left behind. Cooke is just three years removed from landing the global title but it gives her no credit with the selectors. "It's about the now," she says. "Every year is a clean slate. You've always got to be at the top of your game."

That the competition, internally and externally, is so ferocious is partly her own doing. The long jumper proved that her athletic skills were highly transferrable in her past successes, sparking another wave of converts which includes British sprinter Craig Pickering and American hurdler Lolo Jones.

"Standards across the world have really gone up since I first came in," the Edinburgh native reflects. "The type of person at the back of the sled has changed. It used to be the biggest strongest person you could find. But now people are saying: 'you only weigh 65 kgs but can you push the sled anyway?'

"There are more sprinters and jumpers who have come in and that's shifted things. Having high profile people who have made the switch successfully has then attracted others. But it doesn't always work. There have been the ones who have got to the top of the track and gone: 'whoa, this isn't for me.'"

Fear is not in the job description of brakewoman. Not even the prospect of further high-speed crashes has deterred Cooke. At the last Winter Games, she and her cohort Nicola Minichiello went in among the favourites but did not complete the course. It was devastating. "I want to get back to a second Olympics," she says. "I want to finish a race. And to be pushing for the best possible result."

Sochi will be no ordinary Games. Politics have long become enshrined in their very fabric despite the subsidence of protests against the country's anti-gay laws in recent months. Doubtless, Cooke notes, the clamour will soon recommence. An event such as an Olympiad is an effective vehicle to highlight ills to a worldwide audience.

The athletes, necessarily, will narrow their focus. Expectations for what they will find on arrival are high. "The amount of money they've put into it, the venues will be amazing," adds Cooke. "We've had lots of briefings about the village and the setup, as well as Russian customs because it is a very different culture. You realise they don't do things the way you do but that's part of what I love about travelling."

First things first. World Cup points and consistency within the next two months. Then, when three is cut to two, survival and an opportunity for atonement. Perhaps her last chance. "I probably don't have many more years left in me," the 31-year-old affirms. "It's the physical and the mental side, coming into a hard winter's training, knowing that you might not be there by the next Olympics.

"It's a tough sport on your body. I've had two major injuries in the four years. I'm not sure how much my body can take before it gives up."

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