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Royal Marines at Heart of Most Successful Season For British Bobsleigh In Almost a Decade

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Four Royal Marines Athletes have been competing for Great Britain during the 2006/2007 World Bobsleigh Season.  A season that saw the best British team result in a World Championships since the early 1990’s and culminated in a World Cup Race where the GBR 1 sled, piloted by Mne Lee Johnston and including crewman Capt Karl Johnston RM, beat the reigning double Olympic Champions and reigning World Champions to secure the best British 4-Man result since the bronze medal at the 1998 Olympic Games. 

Three times Olympian, Mne Lee Johnston (CTCRM) was again selected as this seasons GBR 1 driver in both the 2 and 4-Man events.  Mne Martin Wright (UKLFCSG), who pushed Lee in the 4-Man at the 2006 Olympic Games, returned to the driving seat to compete on the Europa Cup circuit before stepping up to the senior team, making his World Championships driving debut as GBR 2 in the 2 Man event.  Fellow Olympian, Capt Karl Johnston RM (CTCRM) pushed GBR 2 in the 4-Man at the World Championships before stepping up to push his older brother Lee in the 4-Man GBR 1 team on the World Cup circuit.  Cpl John Jackson (DNR) continued his impressive progress as a driver, competing on the Europa Cup before being selected as a crewman to push alongside Karl on the 4-Man GBR 2 sled at the World Championships.  John then returned to driving and made his World Cup Debut in the final race of the season.

Since last years Olympic Games, the British Bobsleigh Association has undergone a huge overhaul, with the appointment of a new chairman and a new performance director.  The off season saw an intense athlete recruitment and training programme to bring fresh talent into the sport.  Alongside some new military athletes there were several high quality track and field athletes recruited into the team. most noticeably sprinter Alyn Condon, a two time Summer Olympian, Commonwealth Gold Medallist and 2005 World Ranked Number three over 200m.

The first half of the season saw the entire GBR squad compete on the Europa Cup circuit to gain the maximum ice time in preparation for the World Championships in February.  There were some strong results, but more importantly it gave the new and less experienced athletes the chance to get some competition experience before stepping up to the world stage. 

The 2007 World Championships were held in St Moritz, Switzerland at the only remaining natural track in the world. A track well suited to both British 4 Man drivers, it is re-built every year using ice cut from the frozen lake and is the longest and fastest track in the world, with 4 man sleds reaching speeds in excess of 90mph.  The 2 Man event saw Mne Martin Wright make his World Championships driving debut as GBR 2 alongside Mne Lee Johnston, driving GBR 1.  Both drivers were using brakeman that had only come into the sport this season, but despite this inexperience still put in a credible performance, with Lee in 19th place and Martin in 25th place.

The 4 man event had been the main focus for the British team leading up to the championships. This was the event in which both top GBR teams had more athlete experience and better equipment in terms of sleds and runners. GBR 1 was driven by Lee and GBR 2 was driven by 2002 Olympian Cpl Neil Scarisbrick (1RTR).  Bootneck power was provided on the GBR 2 sled by means of crewmen Capt Karl Johnston RM and Cpl John Jackson. The first day went superbly with GBR 1 lying in 6th place and GBR 2 in joint 13th after the first two runs. 

The second race day got off to an even better start with both teams taking full advantage of a late draw in run 3. GBR 1 jumped into 5th place and GBR 2 joined them in the top ten by jumping into 9th place.  Despite a less advantageous draw for the final run both teams managed to hold on and retain their positions.  During the race Lee had clocked the fastest run in the world on run three and both Lee and Neil had produced the fastest top speed through the clocks on different runs.

The final result meant that Great Britain (5th and 9th) joined Switzerland (1st and 8th) as the only two nations to have two sleds in the top ten.  It was Lee, Karl and John’s best ever results and Britain’s best team result since the early 1990’s.  The top six is seen as the world elite benchmark in the sport and as such, Lee and his team enjoyed a lavish awards ceremony on the podium where they received their 5th place medals and trophies.  The result left Lee almost as delighted as the World Champions themselves (Switzerland 1), who were not only presented with their Gold Medals and World Champion Trophies, but also the keys to four brand new Audi Q7 cars, theirs until next years World Championships (maybe next year Royal!).

The top British drivers and athletes then moved onto the World Cup Circuit with the aim of cementing the World Championships results and finishing the season on a high. A team change saw Karl step up to GBR 1 to push Brother Lee, putting two bootnecks on the GBR1 sled for the remainder of the season.  Unfortunately Martin suffered a knee injury during training for the Winterberg World Cup Race and had to fly back to the UK for treatment.  The injury proved serious enough to require surgery and he was unable to take any further part in the season. The new 4 Man GBR 1 combination was still gelling together for the Winterberg World Cup Race, but still managed to finish in 11th place in an extremely competitive field. 

The World Cup Final Race was held in Koningsee, Germany.  In 2 Man, the injury to Martin opened the door for fellow bootneck John to make his World Cup debut as GBR 2 driver. He put in an excellent performance to finish just outside the elite World Top 20, in a very respectable 22nd place.  In 4 Man, the athletes had settled into the new combination and training had been going extremely well.  The first race run saw Lee, Karl, Smudge (PARA) and civilian athlete Julian Hughes-John start much better than they had the previous week.  Lee drove the first run near perfectly to tie with Latvia 1 for 3rd place going into the final run.  Things were extremely close both ahead and behind and we could easily have dropped half a dozen places should we not produce a similar performance on the final run.  The run started well with our start time faster again and Lee drove another excellent run, ensuring none of the chasing pack could overtake us.  A very quick run by the Latvians saw them pip us to 3rd place, leaving us in 4th and once again GBR 1 found itself in the top six and inside the winner’s enclosure. 

This result was the best British finish since GBR 1 (including RM Officer Paul Attwood) won a bronze medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games.  Having just achieved the best ever results at world level just a few weeks earlier, Lee and Karl had done it again in the final race of the season.  The atmosphere on the podium was electric and as we stood absorbing the atmosphere of the thousands of German fans, the significance of the result began to sink in.  Not only were we only seven hundredths of a second from third place, but we had beaten some of the very best teams in the world, including reigning double Olympic Champion Andre Lange (GER 1) and reigning World Champion Ivo Reugge (SUI 1).  In fact we had beaten all three top German teams at their own track and all three top Swiss teams.
 
With the World Cup Season at an end all the RM athletes travelled to Austria, the venue for the 2007 British Championships.  In 2 Man, Lee retained his British Champion Title for the 7th successive year, pushed by civilian athlete Julian Hughes-John.  Fresh from his World Cup debut and in only his second British Championships, John Jackson put in an excellent performance to finish in second position in an all bootneck pairing with Karl Johnston. In the 4 Man event GBR 1 (including Lee and Karl), fresh from the World Cup 4th place, won the 4 Man event, with John making his British Championship 4 Man driving debut to finish just off the podium in 4th place. 

This season has been the most successful season for British Bobsleigh in almost a decade and sets the national team on a sure footing as we look towards the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The 5th place at the World Championships and 4th place at the final World Cup race should secure UK Sport funding to help keep the progress going over the next few years.  The involvement of four Royal Marines in the national squad would not be possible without the support of the Corps and our respective chains of command. The athletes would particularly like to thank and recognise the support of Brig A Salmon OBE ADC, Col M J D Noble, Lt Col R A MacGawon MBE RM, Lt Col D P MAY MBE RM, Maj J T MORAN RM, Lt Cdr P Fraser RN, Maj C Hazelwood RM and WO1 (RSM) E A Conway MBE RM.

Bobsleigh and The Royal Marines