Inaugural Emerging Sports Writer Program participant Courtney Hagen makes her Siren Sport debut with her exclusive interview with Australian Women’s Bobsled Team captain, Ash Werner.
Ask me what I know about Aussie sport and I’d tell you sunshine, passion, grit, halftime oranges and underdogs. Tell me one of the most exciting Aussie underdog team competes in what is referred to as ‘rollercoaster races on ice’ requiring the strength of an Olympic lifter, the speed of an Olympic sprinter and the body control of a gymnast, I’d say you’re dreamin’.
Before recently, the only thing I knew about bobsled was the rainy school day movie selection of Cool Runnings. Then I was presented an opportunity which opened my eyes to an incredible story that has all the makings for a Hollywood film; drama, heartbreak, adversity and even love—all surrounding the Australian Women’s Bobsled Team’s journey to compete in the Olympics.
Before we dive in, I’m sure there are a million questions already. How in the world could there be an Australian team representing our non-icy country in winter sports? And what in the world is bobsledding? And should you watch Cool Runnings later?
The answer is yes, Cool Runnings always—but Australia joined the bobsled party in 1986 with male competitors, and the addition of women’s teams is as recent as 2002. Invented by the Swiss in the late 1860s, bobsled was the invention of the ingenious kind to put two toboggans together, “to see what happens”, as you do, then came along a global 19th century boom.
But the best person perhaps to bring me up to date with Australian bobsleigh and the history of our women’s teams is none other than current Aussie captain, Ashleigh Werner.
I yarn with Ashleigh Werner—known to her teammates as ‘Weapon’—she is a 28-year-old multi-athlete and captain of the Australian Women’s Bobsled Team (also referred to as the Ausbobtribe).
While in Korea in quarantine in December 2020, Ash shares her incredible story of how she found the love of bobsled and the preparations for the upcoming 2022 Winter Games.
Where did the Olympic dream start?
“Both my parents were very big sport enthusiasts when they were younger. As soon as I could essentially walk, breathe and move, I was in a pool or a running track. So, I started off my athletic career as a swimmer from the age of four, which I know kicked off my Olympic dream. I was watching the Olympics and my mum and all the women on my mum’s side of the family dating back to Hungary have all been like Olympic swimmers up until World War Two.”
After taking a break from Swimming, Ash took up netball, touch football, representing Australia at the Jewish Olympics for the netball and national touch football sides, winning multiple state and national titles—the nickname is starting to make sense.
Ash further went on to be drafted into rugby 7s, then rugby 15s then “accidentally got into bobsled”.
That “accident” occurred during a weekend off rugby and clearly having no ability to sit still, Ash joined a mate in some trials, “And then at the end of the weekend, they’re like, ‘yeah, we think you’d make a great addition to the team’. I was like, ‘What team?’ and they were like, ‘ah, the Australian team’. These were national trials. And I was like, ‘Oh, okay, um’, and he’s like, ‘we leave in three weeks. So, the decision is yours’.”
Best way to get through a breakup? Take a chance in a sport you’ve never done to become an Olympic athlete, obviously!
“Basically, I was having a problem with my relationship with my (ex) boyfriend, and I was trying to find a reason to not have to handle the fact that we’d like just broken up that week. So, my friend said, ‘don’t bother spending a weekend by yourself, let’s go do more training’. And I was like, yes okay -that’s a great distraction. I can be sad in Australia and dye my hair, or I can leave the country and change sports—I don’t think I would look good as a blonde! So I was like, yes, fine. Let’s go!”
You will never play competitive sport again
“My first day in a two person sled I was in a crash and I broke both my shoulders.”
Not an ideal start but not a deterrent. Ash’s physio told her the injury required surgery and a year of recovery and that she was never going to be playing competitive sport again.
To no shock to any of us reading so far, of course Ash was back in the sled only six weeks after surgery, the Olympic dream fuelling her drive to push her body beyond its perceived limits.
A year after the major crash, Ash shared the moment she fell in love with the sport.
“One year later, I was in the exact same position, but with both shoulders intact [thinking]… ‘This is amazing! I’m doing what I love, I love pushing myself. I love trying new things, I love travelling, and I want to go to the Olympics’. And I just had fallen in love with it pretty much overnight and since then it’s just been this love affair where there is just no sport like it, there’s nothing that you can have back home that recreates it.”
A dream ripped out moments before it’s reached
In 2017, Ash and her team qualified for the 2018 Winter Games, however the dream was short-lived when the team were withdrawn from the Games despite their male counterparts being permitted to attend.
“It was just obviously the most heartbreaking moment of my life that you can’t really put into words what that feels like. Especially because we’ve been told the whole way that we were going… we even had ID badges—that is your pass into the Olympic Village. We’d met with the Australian Olympic Committee, they had brought us ‘congratulations, welcome on the Olympic team’, like ‘here’s your visa. Here’s everything [you need for] Korea, you’re going.’ and then, two days later we found out in training just before Junior Champs that we weren’t going to the games.”
The young bobsled team were chosen not to be nominated by Sliding Sports Australia ‘on developmental grounds’ for the South Korea Winter Olympics, despite meeting international selection criteria and support from the Australian Olympic Committee.
Don’t fight gravity
Following that heartbreaking year, the Australian Women’s Bobsled has been through it all, with Ash herself changing positions from brakeman to driver, team injuries, a broken collarbone, time clashes, equipment damage, race disqualifications then a global pandemic—the Ausbobtribe then were placed in a very time sensitive predicament to make a decision impacting their 2022 games qualifications. Would they go to the Olympic qualifiers in Korea in the midst of a pandemic?
At the time of this interview, Ash was spending time in quarantine with teammates Tia-Clair Toomey—literally the fittest woman on earth—Peta Tobin and Jackie Narracott, reflecting on the journey to qualifiers which has put so much more on the line than her and her teammates’ health and safety in this difficult time.
“I’ve spent the last four years and are probably over $100,000 with my sport, I’ve been completely self-funded the whole way through. And here I was kind of looking down a barrel of a gun where you might go to a country that could go into lockdown, we might get sick. I’m asthmatic, another one of my girls is asthmatic, and try to qualify for the Olympics by going to Korea. Maybe there will be races, maybe there won’t be, but we could get some training time and at least make sure your team is the best that they can be leading into next year and try to solve that next year. And I just struggled with that decision for weeks and weeks, and we kind of couldn’t really get any help from anyone during a pandemic. No one could say that they were supporting us going overseas. So, it was really a decision on me to make and that weighs out of my entire career and entire life.”
Ash describes the best life lesson Bobsled has taught her which is ‘don’t fight gravity’.
“Things are going to happen. And you can’t change them once they’ve happened. If you make a mistake, you can’t focus on the corner behind you, you can only focus on the corner ahead of you. And that’s because everything happens so fast on the bobsled track. Once it’s happened, it’s happened, the only thing you can do is make sure that it doesn’t affect what happens next. And for me that’s been a great parallel to control what you can control.”
For me, despite never seeing snow—let alone a bobsled in my life—it’s a great mantra for 2021.
The underdogs to get around in 2021
Ash is now out of quarantine with her teammates in Korea and is training hard. This incredibly resilient team—with a remarkable journey—are the underdogs Australia can get around. I, for one, have become an instant fan and can’t wait to see these legends compete in the 2022 games.