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Scot hurtling towards vital stage on road to Olympics

THE one-year countdown to the Winter Olympics in Sochi began on Thursday, but Scotland's Gillian Cooke, who survived a horrific bobsleigh crash on the Vancouver track that killed Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili at the last Games, is in Russia already, fighting for her place in the British team.

Gillian Cooke is confident of performing well on the Olympic track
Gillian Cooke is confident of performing well on the Olympic track

The Olympic test event there next week will determine whether finance for the women's pair – Cooke is partnered by Paula Walker – will continue. Another crash, in early January, derailed good results which seemed likely to guarantee continued backing. Friends reported Cooke could barely walk, amid fears she had aggravated nerve damage suffered during the crash in Vancouver.

"It did not affect my performance beyond the first 10 days," she said dismissively. However, she and Walker, who drives the bobsleigh, under-performed at the World Championships last weekend, "so now we must finish in the top eight in Sochi to maintain the level of funding we are on."

They had been third until well down their final World Cup run at Altenberg in January, but overturned on the second-last bend. "I got out under my own steam, told the medics I was fine, and got on the truck back to the top," said Cooke. "But by the time I got up there, my back obviously was not fine. I was sent to hospital in Dresden for an x-ray and scan. Bruising took a few weeks to clear, but I was desperate to race, with the Europeans and Worlds coming up on consecutive weekends.

"I wasn't really ready for the Euros – probably 80-90% fit, and we were fourth. At the worlds it was sore, but didn't affect my performance."

Walker, however, had damaged her knee while bending down doing Christmas shopping and the effects lingered. "That's affected our start quite a bit, and is pretty much where the World result came from," added Cooke. "We'd been inside the top eight most of the time, but 14th put us completely outside the funding matrix."

It is ironic to reflect that the multiple athletics champion – a Commonwealth competitor in both long jump and pole vault – is now best known for splitting her lycra suit as she bent down to push in St Moritz. The video clip went viral.

"I always get ribbed about it. Always. It will probably follow me for life. I think when I leave bobsleigh it will probably go under wraps for a bit, but it will probably pop out every so often," she said with self-deprecatory choice of words. "You either have to be mortified for the rest of your life, or join in the joke. It raised the profile of the sport, and made me very well known. It's somewhere over 8.6m hits now, and will probably rise as we approach Sochi."

Facing a possible funding crisis, it is sobering to consider that if each viewer had paid one penny per hit, Cooke would be £86,000 to the good.

Her first experience of the Olympic track this week is encouraging, though. "The profile suits us, and Paula is driving well," said Cooke. "It's a steep start, which I think suits us. It's a very different beast from Vancouver. It's slower, certainly, and very different to anywhere else on the circuit.

"There are three uphill sections. It's reasonably easy to get down, but quite difficult to get down fast. It's not so much who finishes, as who stays off the walls. It's quite technical. In Vancouver you could make mistakes because others would too. If you do that here, especially going into the uphill sections, it's very difficult to get it back.

"We are testing equipment: which runners work best, trying different set-ups, where the best place to load is. We're trying to learn everything we can. The next time we'll be back here is for the Olympics."

Cooke went into Vancouver, with driver Nicola Minichello as a world champion but there is no concession to past reputation. "I am always fighting for my place," she said, confirming she has won two push-offs against rival brake-woman Kelly Denyer.

"I am certainly more experienced now. We are coming from a different angle. Before Canada, we'd had a fantastically successful season and there was a lot of pressure and expectation. This time will be completely different. We are top six, top eight. There is a perpetual push to get into the medals, but it is not expected.

"It's a different feeling coming in, a different team overall – with the boys and girls coming together. It's a lot easier with 10 or 12 people ready to muck in, all working towards the same goal; easier than two girls trying to lift a 150-kilo sled out of the back of a van."

Cooke is not the only Scot in line for an Olympic bobsleigh place having switched from athletics, either. Former Ayr Seaforth sprinter Stuart Benson, who has won Scottish sprint titles both indoors and out, was in the GB quartet which finished fifth at the World Championships in St Moritz last weekend, a result which put pilot John Jackson and his crew on course for a place in Team GB next year.

From Troon, Benson is an RAF corporal. He entered a bobsleigh talent identification event after winning the Scottish indoor 60m title in 2011. He had previously claimed the 200m crown outdoors and was RAF and Inter-services sprint champion.

The technical training instructor, who had done no specific bobsleigh training before the try-out, quickly graduated to the Europa Cup circuit, but last weekend's World fifth place – just seven hundredths of a second off the bronze medal – was the best in the event by a British team since Olympic champions Tony Nash and Robin Dixon took the world title in 1966.

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