Olympic bronze medallist Joel Fearon believes Britain’s bobsledders are the best away team in the world - because they have never had a proper home track to train on.
The sprinter-turned-bobsleigh athlete is attempting to qualify for his third Winter Games, as one of two men’s teams.
Fearon lines up in a high profile crew which includes London 2012 long jump champion Greg Rutherford, as well as the experienced Toby Olubi, Lamin Deen and Ben Simons - a team he calls the “OAPs” compared to the one led by Brad Hall.
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“There is a bit of rivalry there I'm not going to lie,” he tells Eurosport.
“We're the senior members really, we've all been through two cycles at least already and very, very experienced bobsledders.
"The other team is slightly younger, slightly less experience but just very, very good athletes and probably will be ones to watch worldwide for the future - there’s definitely a lot coming from that stable.
The rivalry is a bit real - we're friends - but we're also very much rivals.
Fearon is the only remaining member of the 2014 crew which was upgraded to Winter Olympic bronze, after two Russian teams were disqualified for doping. He only received that medal in 2019, but does not have any regrets about how things turned out, as it shaped the decisions he made after what was initially a “disappointment” of finishing fifth.
GB are now a force in bobsleigh, competing for podium places and full of athletes who can mix it with the best when everything is firing. It is all the more remarkable given they are not fully-funded, and have to do bits on the side to maintain a decent standard of living.
While the basics like travel, accommodation and equipment are all supplied, making a living is a different matter. Fearon works with a charity to give young people an opportunity to get involved in sport, and also coaches young sprinters. But he says the grit they all have, and a lack of facilities in the UK, means no-one is better than the Brits at adapting to different courses.
“We were a funded sport once upon a time, so that gave us a very good setup at Bath and helped us get some fantastic training facilities down there,” he said.
“After that, it did get expensive for us, because we spend a lot of time on the road, so the financial burden is quite heavy for the teams to compete at a high level, bar that we've just got massive balls to be honest. We all get stuck in.
“Most countries go to their home track, the place where they feel most comfortable, but we have become very comfortable at having no home.
A track might have a dark cloud over it, or it's known for being scary or dangerous, but over the years, the GB teams have enjoyed it when tracks are scary because we know that it breaks athletes before the competition has even started - we really relish whatever’s thrown at us.
“We've learnt to handle whatever hurdles come and I think we are the best team in the world at doing that to be honest with you, because we're the only real competitive team with no winter sport base.”
Fearon is one of a number of sprinters who have made a serious career out of bobsleigh - Olubi and Montell Douglas are two of the others, while the sliding sports in general have regularly borrowed from athletics. But he is not any ordinary sprinter - he is the UK’s fifth fastest ever over 100m.
He says Beijing will be his last Games, should they get there. For a decade, Fearon has competed across two sports successfully. But he admits making the initial switch was not easy - and says it is not for the faint-hearted.
“I was miserable for a little while, mainly because it was just so far out of my comfort zone,” he said.
“If you don't like speed, you'll go in at 100 miles an hour, with zero protection. If you don't like heights, you're at the top of a mountain. If you don't like the cold, it's minus 25 outside.
Even warming up as an athlete, you're doing it in icy car parks, to me this was all so new, I'd already competed for Great Britain in athletics so I knew how to do stuff, but not in this environment.
“Michael Khmel, who was my coach at the time - from 20 all the way until I was 30 - he travelled with me summer and winter and if it wasn't for him...he would protect me. If I was struggling, he would be with me all winter and he'd say all right guys, you're going to have to give Joel a day off, or a couple of days off, or give him a week to just get over something.
“It was sort of a father-son bond, even doing summer and winter sports at the same time, it's very mentally fatiguing. He helped me to maximise myself on both stages. Without that kind of support, I don't think I'd be able to get through it.”
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Whether a sport gets UK Sport funding or not is always on a knife-edge, and it certainly used to be dependent on performance alone. That is changing, but the delayed medal from Sochi meant the sport probably did not get the financial rewards it deserved for the next cycle. Fearon will not openly complain about it - but says it is up to the teams now to secure a future for the sport, and inspire the next generation of athletes.
“Without funding, we've all developed a better skill set and learn how to use the tools in our arsenal, how to connect with people, how to get companies involved, and that's the same with Brad's team as well. They've managed to make connections that the sport would never potentially have.
“Hopefully when UK Sport comes back in and we've still got all these backers, it can make an even brighter future for the next few cycles.”
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