Consett’s Mica McNeill made Winter Olympic history last month when she became the first British female bobsleigh driver to secure a top-eight finish at the Games. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson spoke to her about her battle just to make it to Pyeongchang

MICA McNEILL can vividly remember the moment she thought her Winter Olympic dream was about to be snatched away from her.

Sitting down with officials from the British Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association, the British number one was told there was no longer sufficient funding to send her to the Games.

There was frustration that almost a decade of hard work and sacrifice was going to count for nothing. There was incredulity at the timing of the move, just five months before the Winter Olympics were due to begin. But there was also anger at the decision to withdraw funding from the women’s team while three men’s squads were still being supported on the path to Pyeongchang.

McNeill and her partner, Mica Moore, had matched the mens’ results over the course of the season, indeed on many occasions, they had surpassed their male peers. So why were they the ones that were having to suffer?

“Right from the moment we were told, we said, ‘This isn’t right’,” said McNeill, who first took up bobsleigh on the dry track at Camp Hill, near Richmond, as a teenager. “We wanted to fight for ourselves because we’d given so much to try to make it to the Olympics, but we also wanted to fight to make sure women’s sport was properly represented.

“Young girls need role models, and it’s important for sport to provide that. It’s important that girls can look at people competing on TV and think, ‘I can do that’. Women shouldn’t be pushed to the back or singled out because of gender, and we weren’t going to allow that to happen.

“Winter sports in general are seen as minority sports, so we thought it was important that women in our sport weren’t marginalised even further. We didn’t want girls turning on the Winter Olympics and thinking, ‘Oh, there’s not a British women’s team so women mustn’t be able to do bobsleigh’. It was important to counter that.”

So instead of feeling sorry for herself, McNeill embarked on a crowd funding drive that eventually raised more than £40,000 through public donations.

That money enabled her to complete the World Cup season, guaranteeing her qualification for the Olympics, and helped fund her participation in Pyeongchang, where she piloted the British sled to an eighth-place finish.

No British women’s team had ever finished so high, and having had to overcome so many obstacles just to make it to the start line, McNeill is justifiably proud of her achievements.

The Northern Echo:

FINE FINISH: Mica McNeill (right) celebrates with her team-mate, Mica Moore, after finishing in the top eight at the Winter Olympics

“It probably hasn’t properly sunk in yet, but it was an incredible thing to be part of,” she said. “In the space of five months, we went from a position where we didn’t even know if we were going to be able to compete in the Olympics to finishing in the top eight.

“We had such a good time out there – the scale of an Olympics is completely different to anything I’d been part of before. There are little improvements I could have made over the four runs, but given that we were starting at a massive disadvantage to most of the other teams, I think we have to be pretty pleased with how it all went.

“The most important thing is that we didn’t let down everybody who had supported us. That was a really big thing for us. It was amazing that people donated so much money – we said from the start that we were ‘powered by the people’ and we were.

“When you’re in a sport like bobsleigh, you’re never really sure if people even know what it is, never mind take an interest in it. So for them to get behind us in the way they did was incredible. It just shows that the support is out there.”

Like many young girls, McNeill played a variety of different sports during her school years. Swimming, trampolining, football, hockey, netball – had things turned out differently, she might have found herself pursuing a career in any of them.

It was purely by chance that she came across bobsleigh, but having been given the opportunity to travel the world in pursuit of her sporting dream, she is in no doubt as to the importance of women and young girls being given an avenue into sport, whether in a competitive or social setting.

“Sport has been amazing for me,” she said. “You wouldn’t necessarily think that someone from Consett would become a bobsleigh driver, but I did it, so that just shows there’s no reason why anyone else can’t.

“But even if you don’t make it to the elite level, sport is still such a good thing to do. Any kind of exercise is good for you, and that applies just as much to women as it does to men.

“And then there’s everything else that sport teaches you – how to be part of a team, how to make sacrifices, how to deal with setbacks and defeats. I think it’s important that girls get to be part of that. Sport should never be about one gender or the other.”