Saturday, December 29, 2012

Bring on Europe

“The man who says he can, and the man who says he can’t... Are both correct.”

The Australian Four-man Team (courtesy of Ron LeBlanc)

This season, like last, has been broken into two parts. After returning from the North American leg of the tour I’ve been back in the Australian summer to enjoy the Christmas and New Year period with family and friends.
It’s been a valuable few weeks, to let the body recharge for the vital stint in Europe. This will be bobsledding like I have not known. Tracks I’ve never been to, in countries I’ve never seen. It’s a surreal feeling going to a new location with a job to do, but that is how it must be approached. There will be fun along the way, as there always is with the Aussie team, but I can’t stress enough how important this phase of the season is.
Our North American leg had ups and downs.
Like any sport, and most of life for that matter, it’s all about how you bounce back.
Challenges come in all forms, they're not just the obvious and the visible. This season everyone in the group has faced more than they’d expect. But I think that has been a great opportunity for us, to overcome the obstacles, so that next time these things happen, we barely even notice them in our way.
We were happy with how we finished in Calgary, three 7th place finishes in an increasingly competitive America’s cup field was a good way to wrap that part of the season up. Especially when you consider that we were a man down, and called in Dustin Macpherson for the 4-man races. He did a fantastic job and we got our starts down considerably over the course of the week.

In one race, we finished just 0.01seconds behind Japan for sixth place. Over two runs, three kilometres of ice, 28 corners it had come down to that for a medal. It just goes to show how small the margins can be. It’s both disappointing and encouraging at once.
Obviously to miss out by that much leaves you always wondering if just one more bit of effort, one more step at the start, or even one less, could have made the difference. But what is encouraging is that we are a young team. We have so much more room to improve. We have to make the most of that over the next 12 months in the lead up to the Winter Olympics.
So now it’s Europe, and I recall a brief chat I had with Lucas about it.
“Europe will be so good,” he said confidently.
“Why's that?” I asked.
“It just will be Ben”
And that was it. There are simply no arguments to that logic. All I could do was give no response and smile.
The boys are taking on Altenberg this week in the World Cup. It’s a challenging track, but a great opportunity for Heath to get some valuable track time, and points. I will have to wait another week to finish work commitments at home before arriving to join the team for the World Cup in Konigsee, Germany.
Heath and I pushing in Calgary
For this part of the tour, it’ll be Heath, Gareth, Lucas and I. A bit of a reunion for last year’s World Championships team. Again we’ll take to the year’s big event together. After Konigsee we’ll travel to Igls, Austria for the next stop on the World Cup tour. Then, it will be the World Championships at St. Moritz, Switzerland on the only ‘natural’ track on the circuit. That means that every year, they carve the track out of snow and ice, through trees and around buildings.
It’s going to be something special whipping through a forest at over 140 kilometres per hour.
Another chance to compete on the world stage awaits.
Till next time...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Back to Bobsledding

"Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better, and your better is best"
The four-man push in the World Cup
After 30 hours on a plane, even a bobsled run doesn't wake you up. Despite the g-forces, the excessive speed, and the freezing cold... there were moments on the way down the track where I really didn't know where I was. Not just which corner, but which continent.

After arriving in Salt Lake City late in the evening, the Australian four-man team for the race, Heath, Duncan, Lucas and I had a race at 9am the following morning. After such a long and hard pre-season, it was a strange way to begin competition.
My recollection is so hazy due to the jetlag, but neither of our first four man races went to plan. The first race saw us disqualified after a miscommunication at the startline left one of our push athletes out of the sled, and our second race saw us relegated to 9th place after a crash in the first heat.
If I needed a wake up, I got it as we rolled out of corner 13 on one of the faster bobsled tracks.
In my new position of number 2 in the sled, I am the most exposed to the wall of ice that we hit when we roll, and I was lucky to avoid a bad burn on my shoulder. It's always the sound that's so distinctive, the intense rattling as hard ice and your helmet collide at over 100km/h.
But crashes happen to the best and if you are serious about the sport you can't let it affect you. We all pulled up fine. Sometimes normal bobsled runs hurt more depending on how well you are positioned in the sled.
The disappointing effort from behind the sled and the unfortunate crash are all things that come down to experience. We are still a young team, and need more time on ice, and behind a sled to ensure we are able to put absolutely everything into it. With no facilities back home, we are forced to utilise every moment in training overseas, and often we are still learning as we race.
After the America's Cup, it was time to briefly celebrate my 24th birthday, and a visit from an old Uni friend was an awesome present - thanks Nikki for dinner!

For a second year in a row, the entire team was treated to the luxuries of the Olympic Gold Medallist Jim Shea's mansion. A hot tub after a long day of sliding, or in the gym goes down well.

Not a bad spot for a spa
The team worked hard in training to ensure we had things set for the second crack at the course... at a much higher level. Our first world cup race of the season.
Lucas struggled with a stomach bug during the week.... mainly due to some undercooked meat that he served to everyone, he'll need to step up his game. He was forced to to pull out of the running for a spot in the four-man.
Duncan was given the nod for the two-man race after his strong efforts in the America's Cup the week before. The boys didn't get the times they were looking for, the pressure of a world cup is a whole other level... but it's great experience for our team to get a year out from the Olympic Games.
In the four-man, I pushed from two, Duncan sat in three, and Anthony (Tony) jumped in as the brakeman. In only our third push together, we equalled Australia's record push at the track. It wasn't as fast as we were hoping for, but it's encouraging that we know there is a lot more to come.

Our downtime was hurt by a bit of contact with the shortwall high up on the track that limited our highest speed. It just goes to show that at the elite level, margins are very small, and the tiniest mistakes make big differences. We didn't get a second run after finishing outside the top 20, but there are promising signs for the squad.
The boys

Duncan (snores like a wild pig) has now gone home, and we can all finally get some sleep at Whistler's Athletes village. Our pushes should improve drastically! ;)
The challenges of travelling, training, and competing fade away when you realise the amazing places you get to see, and the brilliant athletes and people you get to meet. It's always worth so much more knowing how hard we've worked to get where we are.
We're excited to see what we can do here as Lucas (Stig) Mata, Anthony and I fight for the two-man brake spot behind Heath for the first race at the track.
It's the fastest course in the world and we're going to get to some serious speeds... Bring it on!
As always a big thank you to everyone at home and here at the tracks helping us out and supporting us!
Hope you can all watch along as we push for glory, I'll post links to the live-feed on my Facebook page.
Till next time... Feel the rhythm and feel the rhyme!

Friday, October 12, 2012

New season is upon us...

 "It's not the will to win that matters, everyone has that. It's the will to prepare to win that matters"

Bench press with our new Stormtech kit!

It's been a long time between posts... eight months is a long and lonely time to train for a sport you can't practice at home.

But like any bobsledder, all the boys on the team and myself have been doing plenty of work in the gym and on the track in the lead-up to what should be Australia's best season in the sport of bobsled.

Heath Spence doing what he does best... damaging things

Gareth Nichols dominating the squat rack

Lucas Mata deadlifting heavy

There's a real sense of belief among this group, and despite the distance between most of us communication hasn't been an issue. I can't tell you the number of times I'll log-in to Whatsapp after a day at work to find over 50 new messages.

It's a bit of fuel to train harder.

So how do we train? Well as a brakeman, it's simple. Go to the gym, and eat alot. We're really only useful on the ice for about 5 seconds, so we want to make sure that every fraction of that time is spent giving the absolute most into pushing the bobsled.

 We've been hard at it doing plenty of squats, deadlifts, cleans, bench presses and plenty of similar weights and exercises to bulk up and get strong. It's a weird concept, training for months to shave off just small fractions of a second off of a start time.

From all reports there has been significant progress across the board from all corners of Australia and the world with the training group. For myself, that progress took some time to get going.

 A demanding full-time job on top of my complete lack of experience in training as well as a lack of a coach, meant that motivation was hard to find. But as the season has neared, I've put significantly more into it, and despite a few injury setbacks, I'm happy to say that I'm in far better shape than I've ever been.

I've been fortunate in the recent weeks to get some fantastic help from sprint coach Matty B and weights coaching from Dean. They've been phenomenal in quickly picking up technique issues in the gym and on the track. It's amazing to know all the tiny things that go into making you run fast... and in my case all the things I'm not quite getting right just yet!

So now, we're just weeks away from a new season. And I think, before looking too far ahead, it's important to remember how far we've come already. Just a year ago, I'd never met any of the boys on the team. Aside from Heath and Duncan, none of us involved in the World Champs last season had ever even touched a bobsled 12 months ago.

 In early November we begin racing in Utah in the Americas Cup. The following week it's the World Cup at the same venue. The excitement is palpable, after many months working several jobs our pilot, Heath, has already hit the ice in preparation.

The season is just around one final 5-G corner... HERE WE GO. Amp up everyone and let's hear your support! Feel that rythm... feel that rhyme... get on up, it's Aussie bobsled time!!

World Championships February 2012 - Video post

Our incredible time at the World Champs in Lake Placid at the end of last season.

Calgary World Cup February 2012 - Video post

A behind the scenes look at bobsledding for Australia from last seasons World Cup race in Calgary.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Big League

"Oh you haven't been down the track yet? Good luck with that.." - A track worker at the Whistler bobsled track
A great shot down the Whistler track

This is the World Cup....and there’s an undeniable change in the atmosphere at the track. There's more focus from the pilots, the brakemen are bigger, and faster. The sleds are worth more, there are more coaches, physios, and support staff for every team. That is, all except for us.
We are very much the same as we were a few short months ago when we competed in the America’s cup. We’re even short one guy (Giseppi we miss you), so in fact, theres a little bit more for all of us to do.
Whistler village
This event has a totally different feel. We’ve had our photos taken, we have our own uniform (this time we won’t be appearing to represent Canada), and there are TV cameras everywhere.
But much like home, plenty of time is spent in the gym...

In fact it's in the gym where I first noticed the change. During the America's Cup we didn't see many of the European teams... now they are here in force. I mean that literally, they are huge.
The Russians in particular make everyone else look just that little bit smaller. They have legs the size of Redwood tree trunks…
They can't physically jog normally, the muscles don't even have enough room anymore. It doesn't mean they can't run though.
In the gym for the first time with them... I noticed that while they did their warm ups they systematically took control of the gym from the warm-up running area, to the squat racks. They even took charge of the music. I’m not sure what exactly I expected to hear, but it wasn't what blared through the speakers. It was the ghostbusters theme song… me and Lucas looked at each other and burst out laughing. We threw the Russians a quick look as if to say, ‘this is a joke right?’. They stared straight back blankly. We laughed some more.
With the sounds of the 1980’s movie running through my head, we went to the track, did some sled work and I prepared for my first run down Whistler.

It's the fastest track in the world, and you can hit speeds of 150km/h. Heath and I bombed it off the top just 24 hours after I'd arrived, and very quickly I remembered why I loved the sport. The speed, the adrenaline, and the competition.
"It's awesome to be back!" I yelled at Heath as we ground to a halt.
"Come on lets get to the top" he replied. I had a feeling he may have missed out on my enthusiasm...
Heath and Lucas lined up for Australia in the two man race in the World Cup. Lucas notched a 4.97 second start, a massive improvement on our training times. Despite the strong push, the best in the world were still two-tenths of a second faster at the start. It was a harsh reminder that despite how far we'd come, there was still a long way to go.
Harsh realisations come in many forms... whether it's other competitiors showing just how good and strong they can be... or it can just be yourself, not performing as well as you thought you could.
Such a realisation came for me in the first four-man push of the World Cup race in Whistler.

Our four-man start in Whistler

It was my first attempt at jumping in as the third man in the sled. It mightn't sound like much, but jumping in from the side is totally different from jumping in from the back.
While sprinting at full pace, you jam your outside foot on the side of the sled, leap up over the side of the sled, then quickly throw your legs under the number two in the sled and lower yourself down in under a second... at least... you're supposed to.
As we began our push, I can safely admit I wasn't confident going into it. How much of a role that played I don't know. I ran far too long, that was my first mistake, then I stuck my spikes in the back of Gareth's suit in number two. As I tried to pull my foot back a bit, I over-rotated and fell forward with my head.
Fortunately (not so much for him) I smashed my helmet into the back of Gareths... and managed to use the poor bloke to get my hands on the side of the sled and fling myself back into the sled.
Somehow I'd stayed in, and managed to sit before corner one.
Doesn't mean I, or the team, was happy about it. It was a dissappointing start to what ended up being a very good run for Heath. Still, we sat in 14th out of 14 sleds.
I managed to sort myself out for the second run, and on reflection it's unfair to be too hard on myself after my first crack at something new... I guess it's just not that often you do something for the first time on international TV.
We've trained hard this week in Calgary after an epic drive through the Rocky Mountain and tomorrow the final World Cup races kick off with the two man event. Lucas and I contested a pushoff and Lucas won by a massive margin of three-hundredths of a second and will race tomorrow. We're excited to get another crack at the world's best...
I'll leave you with a picture of the Australian flag... flying high at Calgary Olympic Park.
Till next time....Keep feeling the rhythm!

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Build-Up

"You don't know what a hard day's work is.
Wait till you get over here" - our pilot Heath

Heath no doubt will work us hard for out first race in Whistler in a little over a week.

But as far as I see it...the biggest challenge about bobsledding for Australia isn't doing nuts and bolts at minus twenty degrees, or competing against the world's best... it's about training back home on your own before the sun rises.

It's been two months since my last race in Calgary. Here in Canberra, I'm several thousand kilometres from my Lucas and Gareth in Perth, and a good day's worth of air-travel from our pilot Heath in Canada. Self motivation is the key, the desire to get back and race.. and improve.

Regardless, I'm still not used to my alarm ringing at 6am most mornings. Every horrific honk makes me question my will to live.

But when it does go off, I simply ask myself, "Do you want to compete at the Olympics? If not.. go to sleep. If you do, get up now".

I think everyone has these sleep debates, I'm just not used to them quite so early.

When you work full-time... 6am is the only time to train.

It's certainly given me a new found appreciation for all athletes. You have to sacrifice alot, fortunately so far, all I've had to sacrifice is sleep.

With motivation though, the harsh realities of training hard while working in a career job seem to not worry you so much. And we've had plenty to be motivated for.

The next stop

The World Cup and the World Championships... they are the next competitions. In a week we will race the World Cup in Whistler... followed by the world cup in Calgary. Then we head to Lake Placid for the World Championships.

It's exciting, but I haven't been totally thrilled with the weather over there recently..

It's a busy schedule ahead. No doubt it will be physically challenging, but from what I hear out west, Lucas and Gareth have been pushing themselves (and a bobsled on wheels) to improve. Heath has declared he's been 'training the house down' on numerous occasions For my part, I've worked hard at putting on weight and can proudly declare I've gained a few kilos (not christmas ones) since the last trip to North America.

The sleds have made their way across to Whistler...

Our team mascot wouldn't miss the journey...

Jamooli, our biggest fan...
It's been an exciting build up over the last few weeks, with a bit of media interest in the form of my own network, ABC, and some print media as well.

Alongside that, the support from our sponsor Energy Watch, as well as from our family and friends has been fantastic.

I hope you can follow along over the next few weeks as the myself and the team prepare for our biggest test as we go up against the best in the world for the first time.

It will be great to see our hard work put into action and there's no doubt we're all champing at the bit to see how we compare. Whatever happens, it'll be another great learning curve in our overall build-up to Sochi 2014.

I'll leave you with a shot of my old jumping shoes, lying in readyiness on my training oval a few hundred metres from home.. It's the last place people expect someone to train for bobsleigh.

Till next time, keep feeling the rhythm!