Bobsledding In Beijing
For Winter Olympians Montell Douglas and Mica McNeill, becoming the fastest human bullet on the bobsleigh track is all about teamwork
By Liz Connor
Illustration by Adriana Lozano
When it comes to winter sports, few are more brilliantly bonkers than the bobsleigh. Riders in space-age Lycra suits and helmets shove a 300lb sled across an ice-covered track, sprinting full-speed alongside the hulk of metal before hoisting themselves inside the frame. This all takes place split seconds before gravity takes over and barrels them down a 1,200-metre descent.
In the two-man event, things become even more precarious as the sled is pushed and ridden by just one driver, who controls the steering rope, and a brakeman who yanks them to a stop at the end of the run. As a pair, they can reach terrifying speeds of up to 83mph. Needless to say, it’s a thrilling and dangerous sport that requires strength, agility and nerves of steel. One misjudged move and you can occur a life-changing injury. When I ask Montell Douglas and Mica McNeill how they don’t completely bottle it when they approach the slippy descent, they laugh. Funnily enough, Team GB’s two-woman bobsleigh team are pretty casual about what seems like an unfathomable feat of bravery.
“It’s the Marmite of sport; you either love it or hate it,” says brakeman Montell. “Some people go down the track for the first time and can’t wait to get back in the sled. Others try it and are like, ‘Get me out of this thing, I am never coming back.’” Most first-timers dip their toe into the sport by trying a taxi-bob, a four-person racing bobsled that lets you experience the stomach-churning feeling of sledding at top speed in the total safety of an expert driver and brakeman. “Basically, if you’re not a fan of the taxi-bob, there’s no way you’ll want to try what we do,” she laughs.
I’m speaking to the teammates over Zoom from the Team GB complex at the University Of Bath. The pair are isolating together before flying to the Beijing Winter Olympics in the hopes of securing a gold medal for Great Britain. “At the weekend we made a roast dinner which was a really nice way to feel some home comforts before we fly to China,” says Mica. “It was a bit of a ritual before we had our last training session yesterday; we’ve got a push track here in Bath so we’ve been trying to utilise that as much as possible so we can feel like we’re as ready as we can be.”
Adrenaline-lover Mica discovered the sport as a teenager through a local snowsports centre, but Montell had a later route in. Originally a sprinter and former British record holder for the 100 metres, she joined British Bobsleigh in the summer of 2016 when a coach scouted her for the brakeman role, recognising star quality in her strength and speed. Her natural ability in both disciplines means she’ll be the first woman to represent Great Britain in both the Summer and Winter Games.
“I haven’t really had time to process the news because our main focus right now is preparation before we leave,” says Montell, who found out she qualified for the Olympic bobsleigh squad just a week earlier. “It’s pretty non-stop right now but I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved. I’ve got an 18-hour flight coming up so I’m sure that will be the moment when it all sinks in.”
The 36-year-old, who previously repped Great Britain in the 100m at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, is arguably at the top of her game at what many would assume to be the end of her career. Competing 14 years after her Olympic debut, she’s proof that when it comes to sporting ability, age is no limiting factor.
“I joined bobsleigh when I was 29. I probably had at least four years of my career where people were thinking that I was completely done, even when I was top eight in the country and competing at nationals. It got to a point where I just felt like, ‘Wow, I am old’,” she recalls of her initial move into the sport. An overseas trip in 2012 opened her eyes to what she feels is an ageism issue in British sport. “I went to train in America and my age never came up once. It just wasn’t a thing over there. Back home, I spoke to fellow athletes who are multi-Olympians, real legends in the sport, who felt exactly the same. In the US they focus on form. If you can do the job, you’re in. That’s what I want to represent here. It’s not about my age. It’s not about what I look like. None of those things matter if I can perform.”
Although sleds have been around for centuries, bobsled racing didn’t begin until 1877 in Switzerland where steering mechanisms were attached to toboggans. It’s been a staple of the winter Olympics since the first games in 1924, when bobsledding was only for groups of four athletes. Now, there are separate teams for four-man and two-man bobsleigh, but women are still relatively new to the competition, with women’s bobsleigh becoming an official Olympic sport in 2002.
“I don’t think enough young women are getting involved in sport at a young age,” reflects Mica. “As a gender, we’re behind in certain sports like bobsleigh,” agrees Montell. “There’s a gap which is to be expected, but we are working to close it. We’re hoping that just by pushing forward and being visible, we can help to make that happen.”
One of the problems plaguing the Winter Games is not just that women were sidelined in certain sports for too long, but that winter sports are, generally speaking, a fairly privileged pursuit. To help combat the issue, the teammates say they are keen to launch open days for women to come and try the bobsled at the track in Bath in the future. “Mica came to bobsleigh at 16 when she was given the opportunity to have a go, but if that hadn’t happened, she wouldn’t have this amazing career,” says Montell. “Most people come into our sport by being asked to join. We’re not on TV all the time on the World Cup circuit so you need to stream the competitions from YouTube.”
“I think accessibility comes from exposure,” adds Mica, “and funding obviously is a big part of that too. For me personally, it’s just so much fun,” Mica enthuses. “It’s a rough and tough sport, but we get to go fast and that’s what I love.” For those brave enough to try it out, the British Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association (BBSA) is the best resource for information about where you can access facilities and training around the country.
So how do you bobsled skillfully? Well, there are three elements. Firstly, you need a strong push. Getting enough speed at the start of a run is critical, which is why brakemen athletes are strong and fast. You also need a skilled pilot who can steer the sled down the track without crashing (they do this by manipulating two ropes with handles called ‘D-rings’). The pilot navigates the sled along the course, which can have anywhere between 15 to 20 turns, using physics to identify the fastest lines possible – a skill that can take years to master. Lastly, you need total trust and teamwork.
“Both athletes push the start, but I get into the sled earlier and get my hands on the D-rings. That allows the brake woman that extra boost before they jump in,” Mica explains. “When you look at the workload, the push start is about 10% and the drive is 90%. But everything that you gain at the start is multiplied down the track and it’s just so important to have that team pushing together to give the sledge the best opportunity to pick up speed at the bottom.”
With each run, they literally put their lives in each other’s hands. “It’s a big responsibility,” says Mica. “Right now, we’re training in the gym together, we’re running together and we’re pushing together,” adds Montell. “It’s important that we spur each other on when we make that big lift or hit that goal. If I’m struggling and having a flat day, we put our music on and just vibe as a team. It makes such a huge difference being on the road together. We’ve got individual jobs, but we’re pushing towards performance.”
Unsurprisingly, there’s not a lot of downtime in bobsleigh, especially as they have to work full-time alongside training. Like most millennials, they unwind by watching Netflix, although the cliché of Epsom salt baths for recovery is not on the menu: “If I do have a hot bath, you know it’s been a nightmare of a day. I probably have about three a year,” jokes Montel.
“I joined a cycling club for women,” she adds. “I love going out on the bike for long rides and particularly in summer. I also took up roller skating again after it went wild in lockdown. I used to do quad skating when I was younger and that’s been great because I’ve been able to go out with my goddaughter and we skate together.”
The bobsleigh world has given them friendship and routine. The community, in general, is like a big family. “It’s a very harsh sport,” says Montell. “You’re on the road for long periods of time. You’re in very difficult environments that are cold, windy, wet and quite miserable. The community does really try to look after each other. Of course, there are rivals and people you contend with, but we have a [mutual] appreciation of how tough bobsleigh really is.”