Bobsled: Hurtling to glory
Ruaidhri O'Connor meets an Irishwoman with a passion for plummeting downhill at breakneck speed who is on the verge of qualifying for February's Winter Olympics
When you mention bobsled to most Irish people in their mid-20s, it evokes a combination of memories.
The first things that come to mind are flashbacks of the movie 'Cool Runnings', a fictionalised Disney effort that airs at this time of year about the 1988 Jamaican team that manages to patronise and romanticise in equal measure.
The more sports-mad among us will have watched the Lillehammer and Nagano Olympics on the BBC or tuned in during Eurosport's winter programme between the ice-skating, ski-jumping and Eurogoals.
But for three young Irish women, that faraway sport represents their Olympic dream as they enter the final stages of qualifying for the Vancouver Games in February.
It's a sport that appeals to one's adventurous side, while also inducing a shake of the head as teams of men and women somehow fit themselves into a tiny pod and hurtle down the ice at alarming speeds.
It all seemed a faintly glamorous distant entity to the Irish child, as a quick look out the window would confirm that the fields of the local GAA or soccer club were more amenable to the local climate.
But the Irish two-woman team of Aoife Hoey, Claire Bergin and Leona Byrne are two races away from qualifying for February's games and for Laois native Aoife, the prospect of qualification is the culmination of a voyage that started 10 years ago.
Her past two attempts at qualifying ended in heartbreak, with Ireland finishing 16th (with 15 teams qualifying) on both occasions in a sport where the major nations are allowed to send two teams.
This time around, Team Ireland sit in 20th place, but the International Olympic Committee have extended the competition to include 20 teams and Hoey and her team-mates are now on the brink of realising their Olympic ambitions.
"We're in the last qualifying spot and at the moment our place is secure. We have two races left to count and the margin is a tiny bit too large for the trailing teams to catch up," says Hoey.
"We will have to finish fairly well to make sure of it, but I'm fairly confident on the next two tracks -- Germany and Switzerland. I don't want to count my chickens before they've hatched, but I think we'll sneak in. I think we've done phenomenally well based on the amount of effort and time, considering we are a very small team."
That small team comprises driver Hoey, who is 26 and from Portarlington, and her break-women: 24-year-old Dubliner Bergin and Byrne, who is 22 and from Carlow.
Hoey's sister Siobhain, a former competitor, manages the team and will be chef de mission in Vancouver. Aoife followed her sister into a sport that didn't come naturally to the then Irish teenager.
"Siobhain was one of the first women to compete in bobsled for Ireland," she explains. "She knew the men's team at the time eight years ago when there were national trials held at Morton Stadium in Santry. She had excelled in the trials, as from a triple-jump background, she was fast, explosive and powerful.
"She came home after being on the circuit for year and told me about how great it was, how tough it was; and from listening to the stories, I wanted to take part myself and I did the trials the following year. I was only 16.
"I had to wait until I was 18 for insurance reasons before I was allowed to slide, but I became a break-woman for two, three years behind another pilot.
"When she retired, I decided I'd have to learn to drive and Siobhain became my break-woman."
Training at Santry gave her a slight taste of what she was getting into, but she only realised the true enormity of the sport when she was at the top of the run for the first time.
"I'd heard stories about what bobsledding was like, but until you're actually up there you don't realise how fast it actually is," she says.
"There's a huge fear element. When I was standing at the top of the run, everything seemed doom and gloom. The weather was very cold -- it could be minus-30 degrees, windy and icy -- and I had no idea what to expect.
"I had been told about G-force: some tracks experience four or five Gs. Astronauts might get that sort of force, and the pressure in bends and the speed are unprecedented.
"Adrenalin is hugely important, but you have to have an element of fear because you're responsible for your break-athlete in the back. You welcome that little bit of fear, so that I do the sensible thing when I'm on the way down."
The team are all summer athletes on top of their winter pursuits, and they are known for their fast starts on the circuit. The IOC have been supportive, purchasing a state-of-the-art sled to assist them. But given the small nature of the sport in Ireland, they've been leaning on friends, family and employers for help.
Hoey works for the Athletics
Association of Ireland, who she says have been incredibly supportive.
"It's such a hard sport and we rely on friends and family to support us," she says.
"They've been a great support over the years. My own family have travelled to events -- my brother has even helped with pushing the sled.
"It weighs 300kg and you're talking about three girls heading out in a van maybe nine or 10 hours from one track to another, lifting, moving, dragging a sled and all for a run that takes maybe 30 seconds.
"It might take four or five hours of training in one day with 50 or 60 sleds going down in a session; it means it's very intense with a huge amount of work to be done.
"The sled has to be prepared every evening after sliding. You have to polish each of them with sandpaper and that can take four or five hours every evening -- and that means that the better your materials, the faster you'll be coming down the ice."
Those familiar with 'Cool Runnings' would expect a frosty reception from the more established nations, but Hoey says that the stronger countries offer plenty of assistance to their Irish rivals.
"The other nations have been really helpful to us," she explains.
"You don't want to be a burden on any other nation who comes from a background of having money and support there, but we've done our best and we stand there with great pride.
"Everyone is in complete awe of us because we compete with the best in the world: we're very, very good on the starts.
"My driving has improved immensely and I think even in four or five years' time you could be looking at a top-10 finish, rather than a top-20.
"My family and everybody are very excited. We're trying not to push the fact that we're in the last qualifying spot and while there is great excitement, nobody's saying we're going to the games just yet.
"It's in the back of our minds that this is actually very possible at this stage and we can look at how far we've come from the very start and how much we've improved as athletes and how we've improved as an association.
"We're all just so thrilled and I can't wait until February to get on that plane and know that we're really going to Vancouver having worked for it and deserved it."