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Mark Lewis-Francis targets place in history after bobsleigh switch

Create: 11/30/2015 - 19:10
His last act at an Olympics ranks highly among the most iconic moments in British sprinting history. His next could very well see him standing at the top of an icy chute with a bobsleigh handle, rather than a relay baton, in his clutches.
And if he pushes fast enough, then Mark Lewis-Francis just might etch his name into the history books as the first person from this country to win medals at both a Summer and Winter Games. 
Known as the Darlaston Dart after the area of Walsall from which he hails, Lewis-Francis was last month named as a brakeman in Great Britain's “strongest-ever” bobsleigh squad ahead of a 2015-16 competition season that will feature a series of World Cup races before the World Championships take place in Innsbruck, Austria.
At the age of 33, he hasn't hung up his sprinting spikes just yet and says his recent sporting switch can only help him in his bid for one last hurrah on the track at Rio 2016. Injury has prevented Lewis-Francis from representing his country at an Olympics since he anchored a British 4x100m  squad also featuring Jason Gardener, Darren Campbell and Marlon Devonish to a sensational triumph over the fancied Americans at Athens in 2004.
He is now training at the revamped bobsleigh/skeleton push-track facility at the University of Bath's sports training village – the only one of its kind in the country – and declared “I feel like I'm 14 again”.
“Before I came to Bath I wasn't feeling too confident but with the extra gym and track work I am doing, I am feeling better,” said Lewis-Francis. “As a youngster I was a talented athlete and didn't really have to put in the work. I believe the talent is still in there and  I just need to find it and nurture it and make sure my body is in one piece. With the support of the staff, I believe I can get to where I need to be for one last [athletics] season. 
“In 2008 [before the Beijing Olympics], I had a ruptured Achilles when I was in the shape of my life so it was devastating for me not to make that team. In 2012 I actually made the team for London, went to the holding camp and tore my hamstring.
“I'm at the age now where my legs are turning over but my body can't keep up. It's a bit depressing so at the end of last season I sat down and thought about where I was going with athletics and then received a text from [bobsleigh performance coach] Michael Khmel asking whether I wanted to get involved in bobsleigh. I thought about it for five minutes and said I'd come down and see what it was all about.”
 

Need for speed

Lewis-Francis broke UK age-group records at 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18 and was only denied a world junior record of 9.97secs by a faulty wind gauge in 2001. His official personal best of 10.04 ranks him joint eighth in the country's all-time list. The man immediately above him, Simeon Williamson, has already established himself on the Bath-based British Bobsleigh programme, while Joel Fearon – no slouch with a PB of 10.10 – helped the four-man squad finish fifth at the last Winter Games in Sochi.
That marked a massive improvement on 17th spot at Vancouver four years earlier and performance director Gary Anderson says speed demons like Lewis-Francis and Co will be key to the country's hopes of challenging for a medal at PyeongChang, South Korea, in 2018.

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“Bobsleigh is attractive to sprinters,” said Anderson. “Two or three of our guys would hold national records in other countries, like Germany and Switzerland, so we have speed in abundance.

“We haven't finished yet and there are others we want to bring in. Everybody in the squad knows we want to bring in fast athletes – that's the nature of our sport. We are in a fantastic position. We are the strongest we've ever been but does that mean we're going to win? No it doesn't, because I can't control what the Germans, the Russians and the Americans do. 
“We now have an Olympic champion in their squad and not many can say that. Joel Fearon, Ben Simons, Bruce Tasker are all fantastic athletes and we have two pilots in John Jackson and Lamin Deen who have shown they can finish in the world's top five. What we have to do now is bridge the gap from fifth to third. It's a huge step but one we believe we are on the way to making.”
Simons, who acted as a brakeman to Deen's GBR2 sled at the 2014 Olympics and is now being fast-tracked as a pilot, said Lewis-Francis' arrival had lifted the squad.
“Mark has taken to it really well,” said the 28-year-old, himself an ex-long-jumper and sprinter. “Growing up in the Midlands, Mark was on local TV almost every week during the summer and I did the same league meetings as he'd done – he always had all of the unattainable records so he was a real hero that every kid looked up to.”
 

Mission possible

There is rather more to the sport to running quickly and leaping into a moving vehicle at the right moment, however. So can Lewis-Francis, who will be 35 by the time the Games in South Korea come around, really break into the top British crew – who have no ice track of their own – and help them see off the winter sports superpowers on the greatest stage of all?
“I wouldn't do it if I didn't think it would be possible,” said Lewis-Francis. “There would be no point. I'd like to think where I am with bobsleigh is shocking a lot of people – I've just stepped into the sport and am moving towards where I need to be.
“The guys are stupidly talented and, with their strength as well, there is no doubt about us getting down the track quickly. I have to learn about the technical aspects, like how to push the bobsleigh properly, but I am a quick learner and embrace what the coaches have to say.
“You just don't realise how fast that thing moves. It's a good job my legs can still move quick so that I can jump in there. It is a new lease of life for me after the injuries and disappointments. 
“Most of my successes have come from team events, like the relay – it takes the pressure off myself as an individual – and helping push the guys that tenth, that thousandth of a second quicker. Once I'm on the start line I am focused and I'd like to think others can feel that energy.
“We can be the best in the world, there is no doubt we can go to the World Championships and Olympics and achieve a medal. If I make the team, then I want to take it to the top. I believe with my strength and speed I can do that.”

About Author

Neil Beck
Neil edited XtraTime magazine across all 11 issues from September 2015 to the spring of 2017. He is a vastly-experienced West Country sports journalist who cut his teeth at the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald before moving on to become head of sport at Bath News & Media.