Scottish sprinter who turned to bobsleigh has high hopes of a medal in Sochi, finds Richard Bath
WHEN Stuart Benson was first offered the chance to try the bobsleigh in his late 20s, the Scottish champion at triple jump, 200m and 60m indoor sprint wasn’t having any of it. After all, he still had medals to win and titles to claim in his chosen sport. But as he entered his 30s, the realisation dawned that his peak had passed, that he needed a new challenge.
When the RAF avionics technician received an e-mailed invitation from Talent Search and agreed to give bobsleigh – long a bastion of service personnel – a go, he did so because he wanted to stretch himself, “not because I had any loftier ambitions”. Yet less than three years after turning up at Bath University and spending a month getting to know his new sport on a Cool Runnings-style bobsleigh with wheels, later this month he will line up at Sochi as part of the four-man bobsleigh team, one of Britain’s brightest medal hopes.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” he says. “When I was first approached I was still very blinkered and focused on being the best sprinter I could, but there came a time when I thought I’d reached my potential as a sprinter so I thought I’d give it a try.”
At first, there was no chat about even making Sochi, let alone competing for a medal. But after some mixed initial results, the rookies gradually began to improve, taking baby steps at first and then coming on in leaps and bounds.
“We came fifth in the world championship last year, and we’ve won two silver medals this year [including a silver at the European Championships in Germany last weekend],” says Benson. “But there have been a lot of trials and tribulations. We started the season trying lots of different crews as we had lots of good athletes turning up, and then we had a new sled designed by the McLaren Formula One boffins, so there was a pretty mixed bag of results. We had a 17th, 16th, 15th but we’ve also a had a silver medal in Lake Placid where we beat the American gold medallist at his own track. We’re now firmly established in the world’s top five, so the potential is there.”
As the results began to get better, Benson began to believe, the dream bolstered by two important people in his life: his wife Sarah and younger brother Andrew. Sarah, a 3,000-metre runner who hopes to represent Scotland in this summer’s Commonwealth Games, also works for the Scottish Institute of Sport explaining to athletes what it takes to succeed and has been a rock for Benson.
Andrew, however, has been even more inspirational. A keen Sunday football player, he accompanied a pal to an audition for a place in the volleyball programme for London 2012, only to be persuaded to take part and then drafted into the Olympic squad. Disaster struck just before last year’s Games when he was injured, but his example was not wasted on his brother. “He really inspired me,” says Benson. “He started the sport late, then he stuck with it, proved that he could compete against the top international players and generally showed so much dedication in pursuit of his dream.”
But it was only relatively recently that Benson finally realised that a medal was within their grasp. “I really began to believe at the end of last season when we came fifth in the world championships and then fifth again at the Olympic testament when we were beating people we’d looked up to for the two previous seasons,” he says. “We came away from that thinking: ‘we’re all full-time athletes and we’ve all got the backing of UK Sport; we can do this’. Up to that point Bruce [Tasker] had been working in a bar, [GB sprinter] Joe [Fearon] had still been doing athletics, but with a clear run, a year to go, and with a new sled to come, we could see the road ahead and knew that we had a genuine chance of a top-three position.”
Benson has come a long way in the last two years. He has added 10kgs of upper body muscle and improved his 30-metre times significantly in order to be able to propel the sled over the first 15-20 metres, accelerating from zero to 35 kilometres an hour before jumping in. Although their sleds are designed by McLaren, the rest of the operation has been low-tech, with the four sledders competing in 30 World Cup events over the past three years, generally finishing on a Sunday afternoon and then leaving without showering, driving up to ten hours to the next resort to be ready for training on the Monday morning. They’ve had to do all the maintenance on the sleds, all the driving. For a sprinter like Benson, who happily admits he was mollycoddled, it came as a real shock.
“It’s created a real bond between us, though,” he says. “Of course we’re jealous of the Germans, Swiss and Canadians with their huge back-up, but when you’ve got the sled on the block after you’ve done the work on it, you have this confidence which makes it more rewarding when you slide, so I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Yet the past couple of months have not been easy. Back in October, pilot John Jackson, the only previous Winter Olympian and the most important member of the team, wrecked his Achilles tendon in training. Only a groundbreaking operation by Scottish sports surgeon Professor Gordon Mackay got him back in time for Sochi, but only after an immediate diagnosis that he would miss the Games. “Jacko is irreplaceable,” says Benson. “He’s such a good pilot, and the fact that he is consistently driving us down so that we finish ahead of where we started is why our chances of a medal are so good. So when he did his Achilles in training we all thought ‘this might be it’. And not only would it have been it for him, but for all of us because there are other decent drivers, but no-one that comes close to Jacko.
“What we didn’t expect was a text from him a week later, the day after his operation, saying that he would be there on the start line with us in Sochi, and not just in spirit. That made us think. If anyone was going to get injured you’d want it to be Jacko because he has the determination and a background in rehab. When he ran for the first time, which was in a training session, it was very emotional: it was a real breakthrough for us all. It made us realise that if he can come back from that, then we can really give this a good go. It was the point at which we all thought, ‘maybe this is just all meant to be’.”