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Hurtling to an Olympic dream

Aoife Hoey may have begun life as an athlete, but her first love is sliding down icy tracks in a flimsy box of metal.

On February 23, she will achieve a dream when she stands on the top of the sled track at the Winter Olympics with Claire Bergin -- the first Irish women's crew to have made it.

Although they had to breathe a sigh of relief yesterday as a late legal challenge by the Australian Olympic Committee, to the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS), had threatened to override their qualification.

The Aussies were claiming that one Oceanic team was entitled to compete and have now been added as a 21st team after a lengthy deliberation, which had been preceded by the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) presenting a vehement counter-argument to save the Irish berth.

Hoey and Bergin have already been living in the Olympic Village since last Monday week in Vancouver and can now focus on the job at hand without the worry of losing their accreditation and being sent home.

In 2002, when women's bobsledding first made the Olympic programme and again in 2006, the Irish women's team had missed out by one heartbreaking place. It has been a long, hard road.

"In some way, it's our family and friends who are really enjoying the moment. We haven't had time," says Hoey.

First off to Vancouver was her sister Siobhán, chef de mission for the Irish team at the Games, along with sled technician Barry Delany. A day later, Aoife and her brakewoman, Claire Bergin, arrived to start practising before the Games start on February 12. Official practice for the bobsledders begins on February 18, with the races on February 23-24.


"The Olympic Council of Ireland pushed to get us a few days on the track at Whistler before the Games. It's a new track, which has hosted only one World Cup, and very few pilots have driven it," Aoife explains. "We couldn't afford to go to the World Cup there, since we needed a full season in Europe. Eurosport sent me a DVD of it, and we'll be walking it with our ice coach Horst Hornlein and getting to know it."

Hoey already knows that the track is extremely fast, with sleds reaching eye-watering speeds of 160km towards the finish. "The Canadians are very big and strong but they may not be the best technically, so it's designed to suit them," says Hoey.

The Irish are fortunate to have Horst Hornlein to call on. "He's a sled god. He's won everything -- European, world and Olympic medals -- and he's such an expert."

Those who have hurtled down a local hill on a tray during the recent snow might think that sledding is a simple sport: the crew runs hard at the start, jumps in and then lets momentum take care of the rest.

"We have to keep telling people that it's not a rollercoaster! It's the person behind the D-rings that stops the sled going as fast as it should. The pilot has to drive the sled, going two centimetres higher or lower for the best line through the bends. All this at an incredible speed with the G-forces battering you -- my neck is permanently sore. It can be carnage if you get it wrong."

Fitness is crucial for both driver and brakewoman. In the off-season the small team worked hard on building explosive strength, using a rusting men's bob from the Nagano Games in 1998, which is stored at Santry, as well as spending hours in the gym. The work is very specific.

"In 2008, I approached Claire and Leona Byrne, who are both athletes, and persuaded them to do a training weekend with me in Austria. I remember how scared they were but, although I wasn't driving very well, they realised it wasn't as extreme as they thought."

Next step was a training programme to turn them into sledders, devised by Siobhán, the pioneer of the women's sport in Ireland.

"It's quite different to athletics -- I changed my physique completely and put on a huge amount of muscle. A brakewoman can be 80 to 90kg in weight but there's not a pick of fat on them -- they're ripped."

Sleds and crew must come in under a certain weight for competitions. "If you're strong and big, then you can push a lighter sled because it is the combined weight of the sled and crew that counts. If you're bigger, the sled can be lighter."

After a few months training Bergin and Byrne discovered that their athletics had benefited, with Bergin making the Irish sprint relay team for the European Indoors.

They competed on the track over the summer and then their focus was firmly on qualifying for Vancouver.

"The girls were fighting for one place in the sled and we made it quite clear that it was there to be grabbed. In the end Claire came up trumps, but Leona was snapping at her heels and she's got huge potential. I'm very happy with their progress."

With a run lasting less than 60 seconds, nothing can be taken for granted. Off the track there's constant work to be done on sled and runners, searching for that extra hundredth of a second. Not for nothing has bobsledding been compared to Formula 1 driving. At every event, long hours are spent hauling the sled around and then, in the evenings, sanding and treating the runners so that they are just right. It is not a glamorous job.

Since last November Hoey, Bergin and Byrne have been virtually full-time on the bobsled circuit, with the former taking a prolonged break for her job with Athletics Ireland.

They started at Igls in Austria, where they finished seventh and ninth in a European Cup competition. Next up were three competitions in Germany, starting with the European Cup in Konigsee, where they finished 12th, in Winterburg they again finished 12th in the European Cup round, followed by an impressive 22nd in the World Cup.

They improved that placing to 19th at the next World Cup round in Altenburg before returning home for the Christmas break.

By now they were ranked 30th in the world and knew they had one hand on their tickets to Vancouver. A 23rd place at a World Cup in Konigsee in early January followed by a 20th place in St Moritz confirmed their world standing. They had made it.

The Irish are respected on the circuit. "There's an element of fear. They know we don't have the resources and yet we've put in the work and are doing well. They don't want to be beaten by the Irish."

Since her first introduction to the sport almost a decade ago at the age of 16, Hoey has driven every track on the circuit, with her favourite the legendary Cresta Run, which is a natural track. She hopes to drive them all again.

"I'd love to put in four more years -- but not like we've done it for the past few years. You're constantly holding your hand out and it's far too hard on your family and friends, who you're asking all the time to muck in.

"We are eternally grateful for the support we got from people like Paul Kiernan, who competed at the 2002 Games, and his brother Giles. They were just brilliant."


Although she was good enough as a triple jumper to win the national title in 2005, Hoey is now first and foremost a sledder. "Maybe it's the thrill you get when you're at the top of a track waiting to start.

"You don't get that in the triple jump! Plus there's the travel to such beautiful places and the people you meet. We have got great support from other teams."

For Hoey, Vancouver should only be the start. "I feel that with four years' investment in us and with the right equipment and back-up, we could be looking at a top 10 place at the next Olympics. My driving is as good as anyone's and the British have done it, so why not?"

A constant support is big sister Siobhán, a pioneer of women's triple jumping, who went to bob school in Igls after learning that women's bobsledding would be included at the 2002 Olympic Games. For the 2006 qualifying campaign, Siobhán had Aoife as her brakewoman. When they failed to qualify by just one place, Siobhán handed over the driver's rings to Aoife.

"It's fantastic that we made it this time -- just reward for all Siobhán's hard work and dedication. It's also nice that she is chef de mission, which shows that the Olympic Council appreciates the years of work she put in."

Hoey's family will travel to Canada from Portarlington, where the entire town, young and old, is backing Team Ireland. "It's a nice for our parents. They've been there since we competed in the under-7 competitions at the Community Games and they are so proud. They're on cloud nine."