Life in the fast lane as Alan takes on bobsleigh challenge
After a whirlwind few months, international discus thrower Alan Toward is clocking up the miles across north America and Europe after switching sports to bobsleigh. Reporter Stuart Laundy caught up with him during a fleeting visit home at Christmas.
NOT many people can claim to have represented their country on the international stage at one sport, let alone two.
Alan Toward falls into the latter category – firstly throwing the discus and more recently as one quarter of the four-man GB bobsleigh team piloted by Olympic veteran Brad Hall.
However, his road to the top in the two disciplines couldn’t be more different.
It took the 26-year-old, from Middleton-in-Teesdale, ten years of hard graft to secure an international track and field call-up.
As far as bobsleigh is concerned, it was simply a matter of weeks.
“I knew they were doing open trials for bobsleigh, which they do most years,” he says.
“I could not make it as I had a competition on that weekend. Then Brad put something on social media about any throwers wanting to have a go.
“One of the coaches at Loughborough mentioned my name and Brad messaged me and asked if I wanted to have a go.”
An initial try-out turned into regular training a couple of days a week followed by trials in September during which he finished in the top four – good enough to be considered for this winter’s squad.
When the announcement was made in October, Alan was invited to join up.
He decided it was too good an opportunity to miss, so left his job as head of year eight at Thorp Academy, Ryton, Tyne and Wear, to try his luck at sledding.
There was to be no waiting around as the team jetted straight off to Whistler, in Canada, for pre-season training and the first races as part of the North American Cup series.
Talk about being thrown in at the deep end – Whistler is the fastest bobsleigh course on either side of the Atlantic.
His first taste of it was a training run from the lower start on a two-man sled with Brad Hall at the helm.
As training progressed, he was given a painful reminder of what happens when things don’t go to plan.
An error when he missed his step into the sled resulted in an uncomfortable slide down the track, alerting him to the dangers of a sport where only a thin burn vest is worn under a skin-tight speed suit.
At 6ft 5in tall, he is well built to produce the effort required to help get the sled speeding down the ice.
“You need to produce a lot of force in a short period of time. Throwers tend to be heavier as well as athletic, whereas sprinters are lighter,” he explains.
“Our crew is quite uncommon as two of us are 6ft 4in or 6ft 5in.”
Alan sits at number three in the sled behind pilot Hall, Nick Gleeson – who at 18 became GB’s youngest ever Olympic bobsledder at PyeongChang games last February – at two and two-time Olympian Ben Simons as brakeman.
“I am the only non-Olympian on the sled,” says Alan.
“No-one knew what it was going to be like as I had never done it before. We started at Whistler, which is the steepest start and fastest track.”
With the discus being a solo discipline, he has also had to get used to the team dynamic as well as embracing a new sport.
“It’s been different. If I make a mistake it affects the whole team. To be fair to them, they have been really good and positive. If I have messed up, they have given plenty of advice.”
By the same token, he says he has brought his experience as an international discus thrower to offer what support he can to his team mates.
“We are quite a good little team. Any issues are resolved within a few minutes. They have accepted me quite quickly and I am starting to fit in. In the bob, if one makes a mistake, we all get a ticking off,” he says.
The training regime concentrates on building strength and sprinting – and an awful lot of pushing along with loading drills.
The crew is also responsible for preparing the sled’s runners, sanding them down to a certain grade to get the best out of what is a surprisingly old, if speedy, chassis (it holds the course record at Whistler having touched 97mph).
As might be imagined, competing at international level is not cheap, and bobsleigh was not included in UK Sport’s programme which guarantees funding via the National Lottery up to the next Winter Olympics – Beijing 2022.
Instead, the bobsleigh squad has access to a transition fund which will cover costs up to this year’s world championships in Whistler.
If the GB team is successful, it can make a case for full funding through to the next Olympics.
“Our target is a top three place at the world championships to guarantee funding,” says Alan.
While the dream is to wear the GB suit at the Beijing Winter Olympics, he is not looking too far ahead.
“Everything has happened very quickly. If I can be at the world championships, that would be a big plus.
“I think I will throw (the discus) again. I did not have the happiest season last year.
“But I always said I wanted to try something like bobsleigh. I am glad I did it.
“Even if this is my last year, I can say I have competed for GB in two different sports.”
l Alan and the GB bobsleigh team are back in action this weekend at Altenberg, in Germany, in round three of the World Cup. The four-man bob race takes place on Sunday, January 6.
Anyone wishing to see how the team gets on can watch online via the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (www.ibsf.org).