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Georgie Cohen dreams of a dream finish to skeleton fairytale at Beijing Winter Olympics

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Skeleton racer Georgie Cohen at St Moritz. Picture: Georgie Cohen (40933237)
Skeleton racer Georgie Cohen at St Moritz. Picture: Georgie Cohen (40933237)

A quirk of fate or destiny, it is difficult to know exactly where to place Georgie Cohen’s sporting odyssey.

When you take the time to hear the story behind how she became Israel’s first female skeleton slider to compete at the BMW IBSF Bobsleigh & Skeleton World Championships last year, it cries out to be made into a movie – but the finale will not be known for another two years.

Parallels have already been drawn between the Jamaican bobsleigh team that appeared at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, immortalised in the film Cool Runnings, and the 31-year-old from the flatlands now competing up in the mountains in elite winter sport.

But really, that is just the tip of the iceberg.

As Cohen explains what led her from Bassingbourn Village College and Hills Road Sixth Form College to targeting qualification for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the twists and turns seem like they could match those of a skeleton downhill course.

What shines through the most, though, is the burning desire and passion to succeed – and achieve what was cruelly denied to her grandfather, Maurice Cohen, at the Summer Olympics.

“He was born in India to a Jewish family, and they originated in Baghdad,” says Cohen.

“He represented the Indian national water polo team, but they were heading for the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and it was deemed too dangerous for him as a Jewish person to go to Berlin at that time.

“Whilst he contested the decision, and really wanted to go with the team, the Indian team said it was too much of a risk for his safety.

“They were too worried about him, so he ended up staying at home. He ended up competing at the Maccabiah Games, which is a big Jewish sporting event.

“He captained India in hockey at that point. He didn’t make his Games – but I’m now heading towards trying to qualify for mine.”

You can see how the sporting genes were inherited, and Cohen’s parents were always eager to make sure that there were no boundaries and nothing was out of reach.

A footballer with the boys at primary school, became horse riding as a teenager and then at university the calling was boxing – the fearless attitude and gung-ho nature has clearly always been part of the DNA.

“Sport gives me a certain element of freedom,” says Cohen. “It’s a very natural feeling of pushing yourself.

“It’s that physical element, but also with sport there are goals as well – everything is collected together.”

But there is still some leap to go between that and throwing yourself on a glorified tray, better known as a sled, and hurtling at speeds of up to 90 miles per hour.

You could say that her father was the catalyst. For his 50th birthday, he went bobsleighing with some friends in Lillehammer and when he went to go a second time, Cohen decided that a family member should probably be on site.

Skeleton racer Georgie Cohen
Skeleton racer Georgie Cohen

“He was talking about this amazing sport he was trying, bobsleigh, and I thought he was mad, ‘what’s he doing?’,” she explains.

“I went and watched and didn’t change my mind on that.”

But, she says: “I think I was 20 when I first saw it. I regret at that point not getting on a sled that first time. It was offered but I think I had seen far too many crashes.”

Her father had been training with the Forces team while Cohen, then 24, was, in her own words, “on the hamster wheel of life attempting the ‘London thing’.”

A chance phone call on a busy street in the capital then changed her direction.

“My dad had been called by the coach of the Navy team saying one of their girls would be on ship for the first week of their training period so they had a spare sled. He asked me if I wanted to take it,” says Cohen.

“He said to me ‘this isn’t going to happen again, if you want to have a go at skeleton, now is the time’ – as I had expressed a little bit of interest.

“I remember battling on the phone, ‘if I say I’ll think about it, I won’t do it’ so I gritted my teeth and said yes.”

Austria was the destination, and she was adopted by the Navy team as the only civilian on their ice camp.

Walking the course for the first time, Cohen describes looking up at the huge walls of ice as unimaginable and, as there is no way of replicating it, the only thing to do was have a go.

“What went through my head the first time was that I’d better do what the coach told me to do as there is no way of stopping,” she explains.

“It was the first time I think I’d ever experienced an adrenaline hit. As you do it more and more, it becomes a lot more controlled but the fun and exhilaration never goes away.

“It was so far away from anything I had done before, and I think part of it was that I was surrounded by such motivated people.”

How much bravery was and is involved though? After all, to many people it still seems a little extreme, maybe even foolhardy.

“I think there is such a big mental element to the sport, and it gets more so as you go through it,” says Cohen.

“There is the first step where I didn’t even realise I was scared until I was getting on to it.

“You do look down the track and know it is going to take you for an absolute ride, but there is an excitement that starts to happen when you start to get better.

“Every new track you race comes with its own new apprehension.”

But just what is the appeal?

Though from the Fens, Cohen says she found her calling on the mountains after a gap year in Canada aged 18 working on a ski hill in Banff as a lift operator.

Maybe this was part of the attraction of the skeleton?

“A lot of it has probably been experience based, but I think I just fell in love with the sport itself,” she explains. “So many people say why do you do it, it looks crazy, are you not terrified?

“Maybe it was that progress that feels very rewarding. When you get it right, it just feels amazing and it’s you against yourself as well. I’m quite a competitive person with myself.

“Historically, I’ve been part of individual sports anyway with horse riding and boxing so that translated quite well. It sounds odd to say, but there are translations between horse riding and skeleton.

“The idea behind the steering is very similar with the way you move and shift your body. As well, when ou’re walking a track it’s very similar to either learning a dressage test or a jumping round.”

Cohen was invited back to train with the Navy, and then the RAF and Army as what she describes as a “civvy ringer”.

She had returned to Cambridge and started working for the Judge Business School as an online communications officer, but had always kept up the sporting element of life as an after-work activity.

It was just that skeleton had become a bit more than that, using holiday time to go and do it, and the physical demands mean you have to be very fit so that required more devotion. It is where you can see Cohen’s drive, in order to sustain training and work.

Skeleton racer Georgie Cohen
Skeleton racer Georgie Cohen

“Some of the days that you have are absolutely crazy, but I think you have to have a lot of focus and passion for what you’re doing,” she says.

“You can’t waiver on it. You have to have a really positive mindset towards it. I’ve come up on the amateur side of it because I’ve really enjoyed it and keep pushing towards where I would love to be.

“Being at the World Championships was dream stuff – I never imagined I would be there.

“To surpass that and say what’s next has always been a drive and a question of ‘can we get a little bit further?’.

“You just do what you have to do, to be able to do what you want to do.”

That has meant dedicating herself full-time to the sport last year, and working part-time remotely for the Judge to part-fund herself.

The motivation is reaching the Winter Olympics, and fulfilling what you could consider a rite of passage that her grandfather had started.

“It’s going to be a big challenge to do that, but it’s something I’m very motivated to succeed in,” says Cohen. “I’m working very hard to position myself well as pre-Olympic season is a good one and quite an important phase now.

“Every day is a development day and it will be up until that race – everything is a practice until that race.”

You would not bet against Cohen making it to China, and let us just hope that she will then get the choice of who to play her in the movie.

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