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Interview: Gary Smith, Bobsleigh Champion

Published: Fri Mar 06 2015

Gary Smith works for a company that helps us get our parcels to you. Does that warrant an interview? No, probably not, but he also happens to be the Veteran British Bobsleigh Champion — and that certainly does warrant an interview.

Ever wanted to know what’s going through a man’s head when he’s flying down an icy hill in a tin can? Read on and you might just find out…

I don’t know much about bobsleigh to be honest. I’ve seen Cool Runnings and I enjoy watching the Winter Olympics, but beyond that I’m pretty clueless. How do bobsleighs work? Do you steer them at all or is it all in the leaning? 

Cool Runnings was a good film, but it was no joke to those who had to bobsleigh with them — when you are at the top of a mountain at -21 degrees centigrade, after warming up mentally and physically, only to be told that the bobsleigh track is closed because the Jamaican team had crashed again. They very rarely got down the track unscathed, which was very annoying.

As to the workings, in bobsleigh you need to race both two man and four man sleighs to get World Cup points. The mechanics are the same for both — they are driven using two toggles connected to ropes, similar to those in the old go-carts. The aim is to get the least amount of friction on the steel runners (these are like the bottom of ice skates but much larger). Those drivers that can see the best lines, which tend to be the more risky lines, tend to get down the mountain quicker.

The bobsleighs have maximum weights when racing, this includes the brakeman and driver, and in the case of four man bobsleighs, the two other runners. Naturally the more weight you have the quicker the bobsleigh should travel down the mountain, so large, strong and quick bobsleighers are what you want. This means you do not have to put weights in your bobsleigh to get the weight up.

There is no need to lean in a bobsleigh (that’s for luge and skeleton), but the guys behind the driver need to know the track, so they can go with the motion of the sleigh and keep to the lines that the driver is trying to race.   

Things like football or running are pretty accessible to most people, but not many schools have bobsleigh runs. How did you get into it?

I got into Bobsleigh because I was a decathlete in the Army. There are very few people that can afford to bobsleigh because of the costs and time that it absorbs. I was ranked in the top ten decathletes in the UK after my first decathlon. This got me recognised in the Bobsleigh world because the top bobsleigher at that time was Mark Tout, who was also a decathlete and a good friend.

What’s the history of bobsleigh? Where did it come from?

Bobsleigh originated in St Moritz with the British aristocracy in the early part of the 1900. For the history its best to go to this site, there are some good photos of the early bobsleighs as well.

What makes a good bobsleigher?

I touched on this above, but being strong, fast and heavy are the physical attributes you need. You also need excellent reactions (because you are travelling a few inches off of the ice at speeds of up to 90 miles an hour), nerves of steel, good preparation and to be crazy. 

If some bizarre reason I was drafted in at the last minute to compete in the bobsleigh competition in the Winter Olympics, what tips would you give me? 

I suggest a lot of new pants. As I said, you need to be a little mad to do this sport — it is very dangerous, and not for the faint hearted. Only a few people are any good at driving bobsleighs, even at the top levels. I watched the world championships in Koenigsee this year, and there were still drivers that were not in control of the bobsleigh. It’s very easy to lose your lines and get yourself into a lot of trouble.

I do not think you can train to be a good driver, a bit like how you can’t train to be a good grand prix driver I suppose. Athletes do tend to do a lot of strength work like weight training combined with sprint training. As a driver I kept my reactions speed up by using Playstation and Xbox driving games. The hand to eye coordination is key.

Here’s another naïve question for you… how do they make the tracks? Do these melt away in the summer or are they permanent fixtures?

In the old days the tracks were created by ice blocks, but nowadays I think St Moritz is the only track that is not refrigerated. They are made using concrete blocks to form the shape, and then they are frozen using water, and built up.

In the summer there are no competitions so they are left to defrost. They are still used, using sleighs with wheels in some places where they can make money from tourists.

What's going through your head in the run-up to a run?

I think it is the same for every driver at the top — they are completely focused on the track and how they are going to drive it. If you ever watch the Olympics and the drivers before they go off, you will notice that they are driving the course in their minds with their hands out in front of them, simulating the drive down.

The heart is pumping. Any driver that says they have no fear is lying. You have to give every run your utmost respect; after all you do have someone else’s life in your hands.

And what's going through your head once you're in the bobsleigh? Do you think at all or is it purely reflex reactions? 

On the way down you do not have time to think about anything. You are looking for entry points to the curve and concentrating on the particular aspects of the curves. Some curves, for example, have flat spots in them, or hidden exit points. 

Until you are at the bottom shouting ‘brake’, your mind is focussed on the track. Naturally if things go wrong, you have to be ready to make split second decisions to rectify the problem. If you do not, you will crash. It is a simple as that… no pressure.      

You only recently got back into bobsleighing. How has bobsleigh changed since you first got involved?

The bobsleighs have constantly got better through technology. Things like wind tunnels have been used to get better aerodynamics and kit has got better, in terms of safety. The tracks have got safer too. Curves now have roofs so the bobsleighs can’t fly out — this used to kill many bobsleighers in the past.

I recently found out some of the most challenging courses have either closed down or been modified to make the course easier to drive, which has annoyed the more experienced drivers because they like the challenge of a good dangerous course.

Gary (that's him on the left) and his partner Neal Killen (that's him on the right) collecting their medals from 1964 Olympic gold medallist Tony Nash (that's him in the middle) after winning the Veterans section of the 2014 British Bobsleigh Championships

What next for Gary Smith? Have you got any more competitions on the horizon? 

I was hoping to do the British Championship this year, but it has been cancelled. I will compete in next years though. I also am aware of a veteran competition that I may start to take part in, but I will need to get my own bobsleigh and find someone who has the time and money to travel around with me. 

I would also love to get into driver training, but with being out of the game for so long, this will be hard to do. We will see where it takes me after a good British Championship next year.

What do you get up to outside of bobsleighing?

Presently I still play in goal for Stilton FC. I am also the Chairman at the club. I also play golf, and thoroughly love a good challenge. I walked up Kilimanjaro about five years ago, and I have plans to go to Canada in September for a canoeing adventure with some like-minded friends.

I think that’s all I’ve got. Thanks a lot for answering my questions. Have you got any words of wisdom you’d like to pass on?

Do the things you can do now with the best intensity, train while you can and be the best you can. Live for what you can do now. Money is nice, but it is the experiences in life you talk about. Do not stop making memories to think about…