Bobsleigh: Ace aims to be first female winner of sprint

THERE are several reasons why a female winner of this New Year Sprint would be welcome, not least because for 30 years, the event has gone to a male every time.

However, winter sports ace Gillian Cooke's case is perhaps the greatest of all - she needs the win to help fund her 2014 Olympic bobsleigh ambitions.

"Yes, the 4000 first prize would come in very handy," admitted the 2009 World bob champion, who is funding her own campaign to convert from a brakewoman - she won the 2009 World title with driver Nicola Minichiello - to driver.

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"But that's not the only reason I'm running - it's about a challenge and a bit of fun."

"I'd love to become the first woman to win," said the 28-year-old former British international long jumper and twice Commonwealth Games athlete, who is making her debut in the famous professional handicap.

Like many of the 82 entrants chasing the big jackpot, Cooke has been struggling to find anywhere to train in the last few weeks due of the Big Freeze.

She only returned from the current Europa Cup bobsleigh circuit earlier this month and since then she has had to have a Cortisone injection for a nagging hip injury, a legacy of a bobsleigh crash at the Vancouver Olympics last February.

But her coach for over a decade John Scott, who has steered her from George Watson's school records, via pole vault at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, an East of Scotland indoor 60 metres title and the Scottish indoor record for the long jump (6.43m), believes if any female can break the mould then Cooke can.

"She certainly won't be fazed by anything," he said. "It's really hard to say how she'll do as we've never been there before and we're told a lot will depend on the lane draw."

"She's up against one of the favourites in her heat as well (Greg Turnbull)."

Turnbull (Edinburgh AC) is off four metres in heat six tomorrow, with Cooke off 16.5 metres, but even if Turnbull or one of the other five contestants were to beat her she would have a fair chance of progressing to the cross-ties on Saturday, with the eight fastest losers overall going through from the 12 heats. Cooke is 0.75m better off on the grid than Delhi 4 x 400 metres runner Gemma Nicol (Dunfermline), who in the past has finished close up in the final.

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Nicol, Scotland's youngest ever Commonwealth Games choice in Manchester 2002, will have Turnbull's stable-mate Steven Charters to contend with in heat 12.

Charters, whose two younger brothers Ryan and Jordan are both entered, Jordan in the Youths' 90 metres, is a teacher in Glasgow and has spent much of the last year recovering from a severe hamstring muscle pull.

"Steven's running well but it's taken him a good year to get fit again and it's hard travelling through from Glasgow all the time," said his coach Charlie Affleck. "Both he and Greg (Turnbull) have a chance but they may be too tightly handicapped."

It will be interesting to see how the back-marker Craig Fleming (Greenock) copes with what is now likely to be a soggy grass track. "I struggled in the mud on the second day last time," said Fleming, who goes in heat nine from a start of 2.5 metres.