While Watford fans will be hoping their team can return from Bolton Wanderers with a win on the final Saturday of February, one Hornets supporter’s focus will be on a series of high-speed journeys that could result in a historic sporting achievement – a Great Britain Olympic Games bobsleigh medal.
Britain have won four Olympic medals in the sport, most famously in 1964 when Tony Nash and Robin Dixon triumphed in the two-man event in Innsbruck, while this country’s most recent success came 16 years ago when Sean Olsson’s four-man crew claimed bronze in Negano. But Gary Anderson believes a fifth medal may be added to that list in six weeks time in Sochi.
I first interviewed the Watford-born performance director of Great Britain Bobsleigh earlier this year and we met up again last week, shortly before Anderson flew to Germany for the resumption of the World Cup in Winterberg at the weekend.
“We have a chance,” the former Leggatts School pupil responded when I asked what his gut feeling was about Britain’s medal prospects. “All we can do is be the best prepared physically, mentally, tactically as we can be and what will be will be.
“We can’t control what the US do, we can’t control what the Russians do, we can’t control what the Germans do, all we can control is what we do and I know that we are in a place where we can go there and say we did the best we could. Whatever that brings us, great, because that’s the best we can do but I know if we do our best we’ll be up there challenging.”
Britain’s medal hopes are centred on their number one four-man sled piloted by John Jackson. His crew came 15th and 14th in the two World Cup races in Germany but prior to that, Jackson claimed a historic silver at Lake Placid.
“If you look at the last result, and I always say you’re only as good as the last result, it was a silver medal at a World Cup which was the best ever World Cup result for Great Britain so I have to say we’re in great shape,” Anderson said ahead of the Winterberg event. “We have three races remaining for World Cup qualification. We’re in Germany this week, then Switzerland, then Austria and on January 19 we’ll know who’s qualified for the Games, how many sleds we’ve got going and we’ll be able to give you a much better picture of exactly where we’re placed. But, at the moment, we are certainly within the top five in the world.”
Olympic qualification is based on the final finishing positions in the World Cup and the men – in both the four-man and two-man bobsleigh – need to be inside the top 20, while the women, who only compete in two-seat sleds at the Olympics, require a top-14 placing to book their place in Sochi.
Anderson is hopeful Britain will have as many as five sleds at the Olympics, explaining: “If you were to ask me today I’d say we’d have two four-man sleds, two two-man sleds and a women’s sled, that’s what I think we’ll take. In saying that, we are putting a lot of resource behind the second women’s sled because what we need to happen is for someone to make a mistake. If someone makes a mistake, we need to be poised ready to take that place.”
It would be an unparalled achievement for Britain to qualify five sleds for the Olympics but it is the confidence partially borne from what Jackson and his brakemen Stuart Benson, Bruce Tasker and Joel Fearon achieved in America in December that is helping to fuel the belief that an even greater prize could be won on Sunday, February 23 when the four-man bobsleigh will be last set of medals presented in Sochi.
“What we’ve proved there is that we can do it,” said Anderson. "Out of all the non-Alpine nations, we are the top-ranked country. Every country that’s ranked above us has a track of their own. Great Britain obviously doesn’t have a track but that’s not really a disadvantage to us because we’ve always maintained the start, the acceleration of that sled is where we can be the best in the world and that’s what we’ve concentrated on. We’re at tracks from day one they open to the day they close so we have the same amount of ice time available to us as any other nation.”
The confidence is further enhanced by the fact Britain won silver after going quickest in their second run at Luke Placid, having been placed seventh after the first, as they finished just 0.07 seconds behind the victorious United States quartet.
The former member of Barnet FC’s backroom staff commented: “It’s happened in the last two races now that we’ve gone fastest in the second run out of everybody in the world.
“The benefit of that for us is in the Olympic Games it’s four runs and we tend to get better with each run, so we know that as long as in the first run and second run we can position ourselves within the medal zone; I say the medal zone, if we’re in the top six going into the second day we have a chance.”
The fact Britain have won one medal this season – and could emulate that in Sochi – owes much to the determination and dedication of Jackson.
The pilot’s Olympic dream looked to be over in August when he ruptured his Achilles but the 36-year-old has defied medical expectations to battle back in time to be ready to compete on the biggest stage. Jackson is still not back to full fitness but, as Anderson explained, that was always the intention.
“He’s about 70, 75 per cent at the moment which is even more encouraging that we’re getting the results that we are, knowing that Jacko isn’t quite there," the performance director said. “We always knew that he wouldn’t be 100 per cent until the Games and that was always the plan. So we still have this modified start and we are starting in the top five in the world. If we’re doing that with a modified start, when we get that start effected and correct then we’ll be up there with the best.
“His recovery has been immaculate, amazing. When it first happened we all thought that was our chance finished. We now know that maybe, what that did was re-align our focus. Maybe we had to look at it a slightly different way, which we did, and it shows we’re adaptable and any team that wins a medal at an Olympic Games has to have that adaptability and I think we’ve proven we’ve got that.”
The plan is for Jackson to reach peak fitness “about a week out” from the two days of competition and the bobsleigh chief continued: “We’ve bolstered our medical support to take care of Jackson, we use the intensive rehabilitation unit at Bisham Abbey, we have a clinic in Switzerland that we’re utilising as well for on-season, plus our medical staff that travel with us. But the doctors and the physios have been brilliant. The surgeon has performed a miracle.
“Jacko is so precise with his rehabilitation. He’s got all his paper work, he evaluates it every single day so he exactly knows where he is which is great credit to him and if anybody’s going to get it right, it will be him.”
The majority of the British bobsleigh squad will not be at the opening ceremony in Sochi on Friday, February 7; they will be fine tuning their final preparations at a training base in Germany and will arrive in the Olympic village three or four days before they are due to compete.
Anderson though, will be in Russia to make sure everything is in place and as someone who will be at his third Olympics – he worked with the curling team at the last winter Games in Vancouver and was also performance manager for judo at the 2004 Olympics – he is ideally placed to comment on what lies ahead for the British team.
“It is unique,” he said. “It’s a circus and when you walk through those Olympic gates and into the village there is nothing like it in the world.
“All of a sudden you’re presented with all this free stuff, which is one of the benefits, you’re bombarded with a huge array of food, all of these other nations, all of these other sports. If you’re involved in just one sport and you go into that environment, you see stars from other sports that you recognise from TV etcetera and in winter sport you’ve got all these hockey players that play in the NHL (National Hockey League) that suddenly are sitting next to you on a table and eating their lunch.
“That sort of thing is what you have to deal with, with some of the athletes. With their first-time experience in the Games, it can be a bit overawing.
“I also know that anything can happen. So whatever you prepared, be prepared for something you haven’t prepared for because anything can happen in an Olympic Games.”
Anderson is also a strong believer that competitors should get a taste of the wider Olympic experience, without losing sight of why they are there.
“I think it’s important that during that intense time that you do get time away from your own sport and take the opportunity to go and see it,” he remarked. “Time is a precious commodity and you have to use it wisely but we do try and encourage the athletes and the staff if they get an opportunity to take an hour away to do so, embrace the culture of the country that you’re in, go and look and lend support to some of the other sports and your teammates but also remember why we’re there.
“We try and treat like any other competition which is very, very hard at an Olympic Games because it is so different. But when we get on to the track, when we get on the start line it’s exactly the same as what any World Cup would be.”
The Sochi bobsleigh track is the longest of its type in the world at just over a mile. However, “it’s a very difficult track in terms of going fast” because it has a number of uphill sections where mistakes will cost time. But in a sport where a hundredth of a second can be the difference between winning a medal or not, even the smallest technological advantage could be decisive.
“In Lake Placid where we won the silver, I convinced my head coach to go with everything we knew that would work,” Anderson explained. “He was reluctant to do so because he doesn’t want to play his cards too early. However, I needed to know where we were and we went with everything that we knew worked and we got silver.
“We’re now cutting back a little bit again. We’re not playing everything until the Olympic Games. We have a lot of things that we’ve changed over the Christmas period, we’ve been in St Moritz testing a new sled and that will be unveiled this week and we believe that will give us another little bit of an edge so it’s all very exciting. But come the Olympic Games is when we’ll play our full hand.”
But isn't there an element of risk with saving your ‘full hand’ until the Games?
“There is,” he acknowledged. “But there’s an element of risk with playing it too early because other nations will see what you do and some of the things we are doing are quite obvious and so people will pick up on that.
“We have some equipment that the athletes will be wearing which we won’t unveil to the Games. We’ve already tested it and that element has worked and we’ve already had it approved by the international federation so it’s legal.
“Yes, there is an element of risk but we would have tested everything before we use it and in training we’ll test it, so we minimise that risk. But I think sometimes if you’re going to win a medal, you’ve got to have that little bit of risk. If we played it safe, we’d come seventh or eighth.
“Sometimes you roll the dice as well. If we find ourselves in fifth place, if we take a risk we might come seventh or we might get third – I’ll always take that risk to come third. It doesn’t matter whether if you’re fifth or seventh if you’ve got that chance of coming third.”