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Road to Russia: Teesside bobsleigh star celebrates double success
LAST week, two very special things happened to Teessider John Baines. First, he was selected as part of the GB2 bobsleigh crew that will compete in the four-man event at next month's Winter Olympics in Sochi. Then, he discovered that his wife, Alexandra, was pregnant with the pair's second child.
Suddenly, you imagine that hurtling around a wall of ice at speeds of more than 100mph is the easy part of the equation.
“It was quite a week,” laughed the 28-year-old, who only took up bobsleigh six years ago. “Competing in Sochi will be the culmination of all the hard work I've put into bobsleigh in the last few years, and it's a massive honour to represent your country in something as big as the Winter Olympics.
“But the really hard work will begin in June when my wife gives birth to our child. It's just strange that the timing of the two things has coincided like it has.”
Given that Alexandra will not be travelling to Sochi in person because of the exorbitant costs surrounding the Games – hotel rooms in the Black Sea resort are currently changing hands for around £2,000-a-night – it is probably just as well that the baby is not due until the summer. There must be more relaxing ways of getting through pregnancy that turning on the television to see your husband careering down a bobsleigh track.
For much of the last year, the chances of Baines doing just that at the Winter Olympics appeared remote.
Having been born and raised in Middlesbrough, he was a keen athlete with Mandale Harriers but, like so many other members of Britain's Winter Olympics team, the thought of a career in winter sports had not even entered his head until he joined the Armed Forces.
As a member of the Royal Air Force, he was invited to trial for the bobsleigh squad thanks to his athletic prowess and was immediately sent to Italy to compete in the annual Armed Forces tournament.
He had never seen a bobsleigh before, let alone been part of a crew on a real course, but after an hour or two of basic instructions, he was handed a pair of snow spikes and instructed to go.
“To be honest, it's probably worse now when you know a lot more about the sport,” he said. “Back then, it was all a bit new and exciting, and you kind of assumed nothing could really go wrong. Now, it's more terrifying when you know what the sport can do to you.
“When you're in the bobsleigh, you don't really realise what speed you're going at or just how tight you're having to cut your turns. It's only when you watch it back that you think, 'Wow, that actually looks quite scary'.”
Baines competed in three successive Inter-Services tournaments before he was offered a place in the British national squad.
With Britain's leading four-man bob, piloted by Barnard Castle's John Jackson, effectively set in stone, Baines found himself competing for a place in GB2, with the potential carrot of an Olympic place if Britain were able to secure two places on the start list in Sochi.
His hopes looked to have been dashed a year ago when he ripped his adductor muscle off the bone, and he suffered another injury setback last April when he slipped a disc in his back.
He recovered to make the GB2 squad for this winter's America Cup series – effectively the second tier of world bobsleigh - but while the GB2 crew secured successive top-two finishes, a huge 90mph crash understandably shook the crew's confidence at the midway point of the season.
They regrouped, and the addition of former Olympic sprinter Craig Pickering to the squad enabled them to make significant improvements to their start times, a crucial factor in bobsleigh performance.
Nevertheless, GB2 still went into the final World Cup event knowing they had slipped out of the top-20 place that was a requirement for an Olympic spot.
With the final two runs of the year deciding everything, driver Lamin Deen guided his crew into a qualifying spot by less than a second, and the celebrations could begin.
“I don't think it could have been any more dramatic,” said Baines. “But as a crew, I think we've earned this because of everything we've done over the year.
“It's going to be an amazing experience over in Sochi, and to be honest, I still don't think it's really sunk in yet. My two-year-old boy was helping me pack some of my GB kit the other night, and that was really special. He doesn't really understand what's happening, but one day I'll be able to show him the pictures and hopefully he'll be proud that his dad competed in the Olympics.”
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