BOBSLEIGH might have made Gillian Cooke suffer over the past few years, but the Scot’s enthusiasm for the sport is as strong as ever ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
The 30-year-old Great Britain brakewoman endured a “traumatic” Olympic debut at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, an event she and driver Nicola Minichiello went into being tipped for gold off the back of winning the 2009 World Championships, but ended up crashing out of. The accident left Cooke with nerve damage to her hip and she was unable to climb steps properly for the next 18 months, yet she continued to compete in bobsleigh, operating as a driver.
Then, having returned to brakewoman duties and working alongside driver Paula Walker, she was involved in another major crash at the Altenberg World Cup in January this year, which caused her spinal damage.
Cooke has since reported she has returned to “full fitness” – even though she thinks the nerve damage is “pretty permanent” – and is continuing to work her way towards next February’s Sochi showpiece. And while she admits there have been “low times” and “down days” since Vancouver, it seems giving bobsleigh up has never been on her agenda.
Asked if she contemplated quitting the sport after the 2010 Games, Cooke said: “I didn’t. There were times when I was thinking ‘am I ever going to get back to where I need to be?’ There were definitely low times where I wasn’t making progress and I couldn’t even climb a six-inch step, never mind sprint flat out. You have your down days, when you think ‘is it worth it? Am I ever going to get there?’ But the team around me at those points was really good.
“They would video me and say ‘this is where you were a month ago, and now you are here’, and that really helped me through that time – the reassurance that I could make it back.”
Cooke feels things are shaping up nicely for Walker and herself heading into the 2013-14 season, which begins in November. And with regard to Sochi, she feels it is no bad thing that the focus in terms of GB bobsleigh medal prospects is less on her two-woman outfit this time and more on the men’s four-man team following their fifth-place at the 2013 World Championships.
Cooke said of Walker and her: “Things are looking good. In the testing we have been doing, the numbers are pretty encouraging. I think both Paula and me are laying down PBs, so it is really encouraging moving forward. Going into Vancouver there was massive pressure on our (Cooke and Minichiello’s) shoulders. I think some people just expected us to walk off with a gold medal again, but in the end Vancouver was a fairly traumatic experience. I think with the whole pressure leading up to that, it was almost ‘gold or nothing’, and that kind of forced us to take risks and really push it, which eventually led to the crash.
“Obviously, with the men’s results from last year as well, the spotlight is on them a little bit more, which kind of lets us work hard in the background. An Olympic medal is always the aim.”
Cooke also competes in the long jump and did so at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006. Doing the same at next summer’s Glasgow edition has long been part of her plans and it is still, despite her bobsleigh commitments.
“It is going to be a really tight timescale,” Cooke said. “I was hoping to get a qualifying distance in this summer, but rehabbing back from the injury didn’t give me an awful lot of time and now I really need to be in bobsleigh mode again. So I have had to shelf long jump a little bit for now, but then I’ll come back from Sochi and hit that one really hard in the few months I’ll have to qualify.”