Werner down but not out as Winter Olympics hopes dashed

Ashleigh Werner (left) and Australian teammate Bree Walker at the start line at the 2018 Women’s Bobsleigh Junior World Championships at St Moritz, France.

JEWISH Sydneysider Ashleigh Werner, and her Australian women’s bobsleigh teammates Bree Walker and Mikayla Dunn, went through a roller coaster of emotions in the last fortnight in France.

While they ended their first three-month racing season in America and Europe on a high by competing at the Junior World Championships at St Moritz and finishing in an impressive 11th place, they also had their hopes of qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games – which begin this Friday in South Korea – crushed, following a decision by the sport’s national governing body, Sliding Sports Australia (SSA), not to nominate them to the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) to compete at the Games.

After competing in nine races overseas and scoring several top 10 finishes, Werner’s team met international standards for qualification.

But they failed to satisfy Olympic qualifying standards set by SSA and agreed to by the team when it first formed two years ago.

SSA’s tough decision prompted former Australian Olympic athletics and bobsleigh star Jana Pittman to launch a petition on the change.org website to reverse the decision, which attracted more than 3,800 signatures.

In a message on the Australian Women’s Bobsleigh Team’s Facebook site, Werner, Walker and Dunn wrote it’s been a tough time but “the amount of support that we have received . . . has been absolutely amazing and we can’t thank the Australian public enough”.

“We finished on a high [11th place at the Junior Worlds], proud of what we have achieved and how far we have come.

“We also walked away with a fifth [placing] in the overall junor ranking on the Europa Cup circuit, which was a complete surprise.”

Walker, the team’s pilot, told ABC’s The Ticket program on Monday the team is disappointed by SSA’s decision, but understands it, and will not be appealing it.

She said of the Junior World Championships, “we treated this as our Olympics and we’re really happy with how we performed.”

Team pilot Walker, and Werner – the team’s first ranked brakeman – completed the St Moritz course in a time of 2:20.79 and reached top speeds of 135km per hour.

Werner, a talented rugby player who made the dramatic switch to boblsleigh after attending an Australian selection trial in mid-2016, told The AJN while it would have been amazing to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics, the team’s main focus is improving and securing its place in the 2022 Winter Olympics.

SHANE DESIATNIK

 Q&A WITH ASHLEIGH WERNER:

Q. What was is like competing for Australia in the Bobsleigh Junior World Cup at St Moritz, and were you satisfied with the result against the world’s best?

Ashleigh: It was a pretty surreal experience. It was our world debut, and considering that these were ‘our Olympics’, it was pretty emotional. It was pretty amazing standing at that start line next to my best friend with Aussie colours on – a really proud moment. I turned to her at the start line and said “It’s you and me now girl, lets do this for our country” and she laughed, winked and just nodded. It was unbelievable, especially considering everything that had happened in the past few weeks and how much support we have had. We were really happy with how we performed – personally I would have liked to have pushed faster – but race day performances come with experience, and its definitely something I am looking forward to working on in the coming years.

Q. How has the team dealt with the news that it won’t be competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics, and what positives is the team taking from the overall qualification season?

Ashleigh: It had been a rollercoaster month for out team emotionally. Obviously the closer you get to Olympic selection, the more stress and anxiety builds up. These were conversations we had been having with our federation for some time now. It was a pretty big blow to deal with – all of us are elite athletes that have come from other sports and have been working towards this goal for some time. It’s hard to sit back and realise that you were SO close to your dream but someone else has stood in the way when you have performed better than anyone expected or asked of you on the ice. At the moment, we are still sort of in mourning, but I know it’s going to fuel me into the next four years. Considering we are a rookie team, we have been blown away by the support we have received from inside the sport. We took risks, headed to Europe (which Australia hasn’t done in a while in women’s bobsleigh) and made connections that will benefit our careers in the future. We are incredibly proud of our performances and how we have handled the situation, so at the moment, we are holding our heads up high.

Q. How heartening has it been to receive so much support from Aussie fans and people like former Olympian Jana Pittman?

Ashleigh: There are no words to explain it! We woke up one morning and there are our faces all over the news and internet! Obviously it’s not the way we wanted the world to know about our team, but the messages of support we have received has been mind blowing. Some of the world’s top bobsledders have shared our petition and posts or messaged us to let us know they are cheering for us. Jana (Pittman) has been amazing – obviously she has been involved with our federation having been a bobsledder previously, but the woman knows how to motivate you! None of this would have happened without her and I am incredibly thankful for what she has done for our team, and hopefully for the work she will continue to do in the future. Its unfortunate that all the work everyone has done didn’t help change the outcome, but I’m hoping to use this platform as a way to bring in more athletes and funding to the sport over the next four years when we can field a full Australian Women’s Bobsleigh Team (or two) into that Opening Ceremony.

Q. What is the goal and next steps for you and the team for 2018 and beyond?

Ashleigh: Short term, I will be finishing my degree and starting a graduate job, and in March I plan to head to Lake Placid (USA) for a bobsleigh pilot camp to try my hand at driving. It would be great to work on developing two Australian pilots through the next quadrennial in the hope of sending two sleds to the next Games. But that is far away and will require a lot more than just hard work. For me, I need a bit of time off from training before hitting this off-season hard. I’m coming back [to train and compete in North America] next season to show the world that no matter how much it hurts and no matter what you lose, you can always come through it a better, stronger person and athlete! No one is taking my dream away from me – it’s just been postponed a little bit.