The Olympic sliding track in Yanqing district, China, resembles a dragon crouched among the fibrous forests of the mountain. Its beauty is an afterthought for bobsleigher Breeana Walker, but its architecture is never out of her mind.
Yanqing, where Walker and her fellow Australian teammates Sarah Blizzard and Stefanie Fernandez are training, is where the 2021-22 sliding season starts. It’s also where the Winter Olympic Games will take place next February, and the Australian team plans on being there.
Every day before sliding begins Walker hikes the track to study the ice, its condition, its curves, its straightaways, its hazards.
“In the beginning, it’s quite steep. And then it kind of levels out and then there’s what they call the spiral, a 360-degree corner, that kind of drops, so then you get a whoosh of speed,” she said.
Speed, measured in tenths of a second, is why bobsled is known as Formula 1 racing on ice.
It’s no secret Australia isn’t known for the sport, but that pace, adrenaline and sheer love of it is lifting this trio to new heights. So much so, the international circuit is taking notice.
The ones to watch
Bobsleigh is dangerous, chances of flipping and crashing are high.
In competition, one, two, three or four athletes crouch in sleds that streak down icy slopes at up to 150 kilometres per hour, hoping to make it to the finish line in the shortest time.
Walker thrives on the velocity.
In the last two seasons, Walker, Blizzard and Fernandez reached some of the fastest times on some of the most challenging tracks.
Walker has seven gold medals and one bronze in monobob, and in 2020-21, achieved a second-place ranking in the world in that event, while the team are listed eighth for two-person bobsleigh.
Their achievement as athletes from a non-winter sports nation is making countries in the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation that traditionally dominate the slopes, sit up and observe.
But they’ve faced their fair share of challenges along the way.
Challenging the naysayers
Australian women bobsleighers have competed at almost all Winter Olympics since 2010.
But in the lead up to the 2018 PyeongChang Games, despite meeting international standards, Walker and her then-crew were not nominated by their own federation alongside their male counterparts. Sliding Sports Australia cited safety fears among the reasons for not selecting the women. In the ensuing publicity storm, Jana Pittman, herself a former bobsleigher, appealed for the women, while more than 4,000 supporters signed an unsuccessful petition objecting to the decision.
Although crushed, Walker was, by then, somewhat accustomed to having her dreams contested.
“I made an agreement with myself that I was going to make the next Olympics, but not just make the next Olympics, I wanted to be competitive.”
So Walker turned her full attention to training. But that was never going to be easy.
The 17 professional sliding centres in the world are all overseas. Training at local sporting facilities can’t compare, Walker says, which is why she now spends seven months of the year training overseas and has lived in Frankfurt since the pandemic started.
She also decided to find coaches to help her improve her pushing and piloting skills. Then there was the cost of equipment and putting together a team. A physical education teacher back home, Walker has spent the last few years with a substantial hole in her hip pocket.
“Every single time, you know, prices have increased for things, or I’ve lost teammates, or I didn’t have a coach, or sponsors drop me and it looks like I can’t afford my whole season.
“I’m just like, just keep going, keep going, keep going.”
Levelling the field
The new Olympic sport of monobob, introduced in response to a push to level the field for women and give them, like their male counterparts, two competition events, has helped ease things. In the solo sport, the athlete pushes and pilots a rig that is stripped of any technological advantage and weighs the same as a two-man sled.
“It also increases participation for athletes from small nations like Australia because it’s much cheaper than having to buy a two-man sled and get teammates.”
But monobob can be tricky. To drive a bobsled, a pilot grips two D-shaped rings and pulls them either left or right depending on which direction she wants the front runners or blades to turn.
“With monobob, you have to change your skill set to be able to drive it.
“You can feel more and can control the two-man sled a lot more because there’s more weight in the sled. And because I’ve been doing it for a bit longer, it feels more natural.
Giving it their all
Walker and Blizzard were originally track and field athletes. Fernandez used to compete in speed cycling and weightlifting.
Blizzard and Fernandez are what’s called ‘brakepeople’. It’s their task to help the pilot push the sled to a strong start in the two-person race, then leap into the sleigh last, just before gravity takes over. She sits folded behind the driver and prepped to pull a lever that digs a rake-like anchor into the ice to slow or stop their momentum once they reach the outrun (which is the section of ice beyond the finish line).
In the last two seasons, Blizzard has anchored Walker to four top-10 places in World Cup series events, while Fernandez teamed with her for a top-10 place at their first Europe Cup.
Training involves lots of sprinting, weightlifting, plyometrics and trials to see who can push the 170-kilogram rig the fastest in 50 metres.
Both Blizzard and Fernandez hold a love-hate view of bobsleighing itself.
“It has to be because it’s very raw. We sit on the floor of the sled, and we hold on to the frame, which of course means no seat belts. It’s a huge toll on the body, there are 4 to 5 G forces and there are possibilities for concussion.”
If Bobteam Walker’s two-person sled qualifies, only one of them will be the anchor at the Beijing Olympics, and the other the reserve. They’ll find out in January if they’ll be competing.
For now, Walker is intent on knowing all she can about the dragon sliding track, even though conditions will have changed by the time the Games come around.
“It’s going to be very interesting once the track gets faster because it’s been quite slow, but as it gets colder, it gets faster,” she says.
“It’s going to be fun. It really is.”
ABC Sport is partnering with Siren Sport to elevate the coverage of Australian women in sport.
Jenan Taylor is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist with a love of high performance and combat sports.