Relatively new to bobsleigh, Private Gleeson had been brought into the sport through the military, yet his focus suddenly switched to gaining selection for PyeongChang when his name appeared on the Olympic long-list. As Nick rightly reflects, ‘in bobsleigh, if you get given an opportunity, you’ve got to take it, or that’s it, it’s gone’.
Today (30 January) he’s boarding a flight to South Korea.
A member of the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment (3 PARA), Nick made his World Cup debut in the 2017/18 season and is known as ‘the baby’ of the team at just 21-years-old. The Epsom-born athlete wants to be challenging for medals in PyeongChang, after such an impressive year for the team, and has his sights set on becoming a pilot by 2022.
Here, Nick reflects on his selection for the Olympics, balancing life in the army with bobsleigh, and the support he has received from SportsAid over the last year....
How did you feel when you were informed you’d been selected for the Winter Olympics?
“The week that we knew we were going to be selected, we were in Konigssee in South Germany, and they told us we’d find out on a certain day. That day came along and we hadn’t heard anything. It got to about a quarter to midnight - everyone was in bed – but an email popped up with the list of the athletes that were going. It was bit of an ‘am I dreaming?’ moment. ‘Am I actually going to an Olympics?’. It ended up being real! We share a room but as you’re in a hotel you obviously can’t make too much noise so we had to save it [celebrating] until the next morning!”
What’s the current feeling like within the bobsleigh camp looking ahead to PyeongChang?
“Excitement. It feels like everybody is working twice as hard now. Our attitude is that we’re going to go there and win medals. We’ve got every possibility of doing that. We’ve got some of the best athletes in the world and we prove that time and time again so we’ve got no excuse not to bring those medals home. Last season, results weren’t too good but jumping straight into the World Cup this year, out in Park City, where we managed to set track records and speed records, and Whistler. It’s phenomenal. Europe is always going to be hard for us because the Germans dominate their home tracks. For what we’ve done, being a country which has no tracks at home, we’re doing considerably well. Going to a neutral track like PyeongChang, where no-one has had a lot of practice apart from the Koreans, we’ve got every chance to win medals.”
The Olympics weren’t on your radar this time last year. How have you achieved selection?
“Last season, I was sharing a room with one of our other athletes and was having a conversation with him. I was basically saying to him that as I’m so new, same as him, we didn’t have much hope for these Games, and not being as athletically capable to compete with the guys on the World Class programme. I had already accepted that I was going to scrap 2018 and just purely focus on 2022. But then out came an Olympic long-list with the selected athletes who could go towards the Olympics and I was on it. That was an opportunity. And in bobsleigh, if you get given an opportunity, you’ve got to take it, or that’s it, it’s gone. I took it and literally had to work my arse off. I was right at the bottom of that list and have had to work my way up.”
What do you think changed?
“Initially, I went up to the strength and conditioning coach and said to him that I don’t think this training programme is working for me. He said ‘I completely understand – every athlete is different’, and we sat down, tweaked a few things, and from there, every lift, every rep, every set, you do it religiously. You put the effort in, you get the rewards, and that’s exactly what has happened.”
What has been the reaction of your family and the army?
“The reaction from the lads back at the army, and the army bobsleigh team, was great. The army team is pretty good but for somebody to make the Olympics, they were ecstatic really. You’ve just proved that an ordinary bloke from the army can make it to the Olympic Games. Hopefully that will inspire a few more people. Family was exactly the same. Everybody was over the moon. A few of them still can’t believe they’re going to see me on tele!”
How did you first get into bobsleigh?
“British Bobsleigh was actually founded by the military. It is a military sport. I finished my training, I got to my battalion and we got sent straight out to America. Steve Smith, or Smudge, is the coach for the army team. I was walking round and he collared me and asked me my name. I thought he was the rugby coach. I said to him I can run, I’m pretty fit. At the end of the year, when the season started, he said ‘right, I want you to come along to these trials’. So I said ‘OK, I’ll do that’. So I got there, and he was like ‘lift this weight, run to there as fast as you can’, and then he pulled out a bobsleigh! I thought ‘what the hell?!’, and he said ‘these are bobsleigh trials’. So I just said, ‘OK, I’ll give it a go’. I managed to get myself on the team and it’s all just spiralled upwards from there really.”
How do you find your life balancing your commitments with the army and your sport?
“Luckily, I had a chat with my commanding officer and he agreed to let me off work for a year once I told him I have the opportunity to go to the Olympics. He was completely understanding. He said they would want me to repay the army by competing for the army bobsleigh team when I get back as well as doing a promotion course so that they could get me up the ranks at the same time. It’s a bit of an ‘I’ll do this for you, if you do this for me’ situation. As long as you keep that deal, it’s a very good organisation. It did take a bit of persuasion to allow the initial process to start but once you get the news come back from your coach, that’s it, you’re gone now. Go down to Bath and start training hard. That was the first step towards getting to the Games.”
What are you looking forward to most about getting out to South Korea now?
“I think the Olympic Village is going to be pretty overwhelming. That’s it when you’re there. You’re not going anywhere else apart from training and going to race. Once you hit that, that’s your final stepping stone. You have to put your training first but there will be time to go out and socialise a little bit. There will be world-class athletes and Olympic medallists around, so you want to take the chance to speak to them, pick up tips and tricks. The highest I’ve ever competed at is the World Cup, I haven’t managed to do the World Championships, so I’m pretty much being thrown in at the deep end at an Olympic Games!”
You’ve been supported by SportsAid over the last year through the GLL Sport Foundation. How much of a difference has that made for you?
“It’s nice to know that there are charities and companies out there who are willing to help people like me get to where we want to be. Bobsleigh isn’t the biggest sport, and then to hear that somebody wants to help you to achieve your dream, it gives you a warm feeling inside. I’ve got people behind me now and it gives you even more of a reason to do this.”
What is your main sporting ambition for the future?
“There is lots I’d like to achieve in PyeongChang but my long-term goal is to be back at the Games in 2022 and driving. You need a lot of patience to be a pilot. You need to know every square inch of every track. You’ve got to be so much more organised. It’s a completely different world to being a brakeman – it’s a lot different to thinking ‘I’ve got to push this 30 metres and jump in’. You’ve got to push it, jump in, relax yourself, and then get down the next kilometre. There is that extra responsibility. You don’t want to be tipping over three blokes!”
What will you do to #SupportTheNext generation of British sporting heroes? SportsAid needs your help to ensure talented athletes like Nick can continue receiving the backing they rely on. You can make a regular donation to the charity and have a significant impact on the country’s sporting future.