When Hayden Smith reached the bottom of the track after his first run in a bobsled he had one clear thought go through his head.
“I remember thinking ‘oh no, I just quit my job to do this’.”
Now, less than four years after taking up the sport, Smith is about to become an Olympian.
Smith and teammates David Mari, Lachlan Reidy and Lucas Mata will represent Australia in the four-man bobsleigh event at the 2018 PyeongChang winter Olympics, starting on Friday. Sochi 2014 Olympian and pilot Mata will also team up with Mari for the two-man event.
The Australian crew have gained some experience on the track at the Alpensia Sliding Centre, racing twice on it at the test event and again during a training week in South Korea in October.
But how did Smith, an aspiring sprinter from Loftus in the Sutherland Shire, reach the pinnacle of a sport so obscure to most Australians?
“I’d actually just come back from a university exchange in Canada. I was disinterested in my job at the time and I was looking for any way I could get back over to Canada,” Smith told the Leader from the team’s holding camp in Calgary.
“So after competing in a 100-metres race in Sydney back in 2014 another coach was chatting [to] me afterward and said I was probably on the ‘too heavy’ side of being a successful sprinter. He then recommended that I get in touch with Sliding Sports Australia to see if I would be a good fit for bobsleigh. When I found out the team was based in Canada I was sold.”
There has been much time and dedication gone into Smith’s pursuit over the last four years. Countless hours on the track and in the gym, pushing make-shift sleds of weights across the floor. Then there was the sacrifice of putting his career on hold to be away from his family and friends for half of the year braving the freezing Canadian winter.
But while it has been tough at times it has also been equally rewarding. With the ultimate reward earning the right to wear the green and gold at an Olympic Games.
“Competing at a games has been a goal since I was eight years old,” he said.
I remember thinking ‘oh no, I just quit my job to do this'.Hayden Smith
“During Sydney 2000 my parents took me to every event we could get tickets to. I just remember the atmosphere and excitement and thought how cool it would be to be at something like that as an athlete one day. It's a little surreal to be honest.
“I think we knew at the start of the season that as long as we held together as a team and stuck to the plan we would get there. Having no spares and no support staff definitely made things difficult at times but I think we were all pretty confident throughout.
“I was extremely excited and honoured [when we qualified]. To be honest there were some feelings of relief as well. After four years it is kind of relieving to reach your goal. In the week since nomination I've just been trying to get in contact with all the people that have helped out along the way, you start to realise there are so many people who have contributed.”
Smith has had plenty of support from back home, with a handful of family and friends making the trip to South Korea to watch him in action, making the experience even more special. There is also his nan who will be cheering loudest from home.
As for competition, it isn’t about winning or losing, gold medals or world records. It is simply about putting together the best runs they can and feeling satisfied in the knowledge they have done their very best on the global stage.
It is also hard for Smith and his crew to have a fear of bad results when they overcome the very real dangers of their sport on a consistent basis, flying down a narrow, twisting and banked ice chute in a gravity-powered sled at more than 140km/h.
“Naturally [it] comes with it’s fair share of nervous moments,” Smith said.
“I’d have to say though the most nervous I have been was after my first run… the only way I can describe it would be like being in a frozen washing machine on spin cycle going faster than 100km/h. I ended up going back to the top of the track straight away and liked it a whole lot more the second time round.
“It isn't a comfortable ride in the back, there are a lot of bumps and unfamiliar pressures. Nothing can really prepare you for your first run.”
The Australian men’s bobsleigh team will start their competition with their first heat at 9.30am (AEDT) on February 24.