Lamin Deen will soon begin his bid for Winter Olympics glory in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The Team GB bobsleigh pilot has manoeuvred through a series of twists and turns in his life – both on and off the ice – that could’ve easily led him along the wrong track. Instead, Deen steered himself away from jail, accelerated through the army and recovered from British bobsleigh’s recent implosion.
Born in inner-city London, Deen’s parents separated when he was young. In 1990, he moved to Moss Side, Manchester, with his mother. Amid the civil war in Sierra Leone – his parents’ homeland – Deen regularly flew there to see his family. He recalls such visits as being pleasant. Instead, it was on the streets of Manchester where he encountered danger first hand.
“They were very fond memories but, on the flip side, there were loads of shootings and stabbings. It was the stuff out of films,” says Deen, 36, the second youngest of five children. “As a child, you don’t know any different but, looking back, growing up in Moss Side in the 1990s was rough. We were right on the interface between the two main rival gangs: Doddington and Gooch. They were frequently attempting to recruit us every week. It was quite daunting.”
Deen says he was “out of control” as a youngster in London but avoided trouble for the most part in Manchester. However, on moving from Moss Side to Withingon he made new friends and wandered down old paths. “We used to get up to all sorts of mischief together, dodging the police left and right,” he says. “Car crime was big back then – that’s what the older guys around used to get up to – and with us being the younger faction they wanted us to get involved. We would dabble in that sort of area.”
But after several precarious years, he left school in 1998 and began studying PE at Stockport College. A classmate dragged him along to an Army Careers Office. Despite initially being uninterested, Deen agreed to attend a week-long training session at Holcombe Moor, Lancashire, lured by the opportunity to complete the assault course used on the Krypton Factor. It was enough to persuade him and within six months he completed his infantry training before joining the Grenadier Guards.
“I made so many friends and the discipline changed me as a person forever,” says Deen, who served in Bosnia, Kosovo and Northern Ireland. “If it wasn’t for that guy from college I wouldn’t have joined the Army. It wasn’t on the list of things to do but it led me down what I consider to be the right path.
“Being the type of person I was, I would follow the group a lot. I reckon there would have been a very high chance of me being in jail, so the Army certainly turned things around.”
Deen embraced his love of sports, becoming a physical training instructor and representing the Army in athletics, basketball, and boxing. “There were some bobsleigh recruiters attending and they asked me to come down to try-outs. I did well in the trial and that was it – we carried on from there.”
Deen joined the British Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association (BBSA) and was selected as a runner for Team GB but his first attempt at Olympic success was short-lived. “My aim was to get to Vancouver 2010 but we had quite a serious crash in Winterberg, Germany, in the four-man competition, which put us out for six weeks. Our shot at competing was gone.”
While watching his teammates compete from his home in Manchester, Deen decided he wanted to become a bobsleigh pilot. He put his own team together due to funding restraints within UK Sport. The same team that had crashed out of Olympic contention reconvened ahead of the 2010-11 season. Fittingly, the Army’s bobsleigh squad – a regular source of Team GB athletes over recent decades themselves – assisted them.
“We borrowed a sled and started going around, competing at the very lowest level, just getting experience and seeing how everything works,” says Deen, who now lives in Lincoln. “Most of the time, we were coming last or second to last.”
But in 2012, Deen secured UK Sport funding and became a full-time bobsledder whilst remaining in the Army and his second attempt at Olympic qualification was successful. At Sochi 2014, he represented Team GB as a pilot in both the four-man event (finishing 19th) and two-man event (finishing 23rd). “Just qualifying for the Olympics was winning the gold for me. That Olympics was purely about gaining experience and learning how to deal with the bright lights. It certainly puts me in good stead ahead of Pyeongchang.”
Last November, Deen came close to obtaining gold. He led his four-man team – alongside Toby Olubi, Ben Simons and Andrew Matthews – to a silver medal win at the World Cup in Whistler, Canada. They were narrowly beaten by the Russian team but were compensated by setting a new bobsleigh speed record (156kph) and a new track record time. “I’ve always had banter with the other pilots around the world. For years I said that my sled is the fastest but now it’s been proven.”
This podium finish ended a difficult year for the BBSA, funded by UK Sport. Shortly before the World Cup, it was reported that Lee Johnston, the recently appointed head coach, had previously been disciplined following allegations of racist remarks made during a training session in 2013.
Deen publicly backed Johnston, who retained the support of the BBSA. “I’ve known him for a long time. I understand him on all levels – as an athlete, a coach and a friend. We get on and work very well together so for me personally it was an easy decision.”
Nevertheless, he acknowledges the challenges faced by athletes since the last Winter Olympics, including reports that the BBSA spent £500,000 on a McLaren-designed bobsleigh that turned out to be not up to scratch.
“When I went to Sochi the team had camaraderie. It was a really nice atmosphere but that deteriorated for a number of reasons. It was just a great mess. There were loads of allegations and equipment problems which took their toll on the team. Luckily, now we’re back to where we were – better – and morale is higher than I’ve ever seen it before.”
Deen will compete only in the four-man event in Pyeongchang, which he says involves more precision, more speed and is more team-oriented than the two-man version. There are three Germans and two Canadians in the top 10 international rankings, with Deen at 11.
He admits emotions will run high. “We’re playing with hundredths of a second – any mistake loses you half a kilometre down the track. Everything is precise. At the World Cup, all the guys we beat, we beat by two-tenths of a second. They were the frontrunners – the favourites to win medals at the Olympics – so we know we’ve got what it takes.”
What would be the dream outcome? “To be in the mix: the medal zone. Once you’re in that zone, anything is possible. We’re a very strong team and we’re hoping for a medal. That’s all we’ve been about for the last four years. What colour it is, we don’t know, but that’s what we’re aiming for.”
How many events are there?
There are three events: four-man (men and/or women), two-man, two women. Four-man bobsleigh teams consist of a pilot, brakeman/woman and two runners. Two-man/women’s bobsleigh teams have just a pilot and brakeman/woman.
What do events consist of?
Athletes ride a sled down an ice half-pipe track as fast as possible from a standing start. They push the sled for up to 50m before boarding. There are four heats (timed runs along the track) held over two consecutive days. The total time over four heats – recorded in hundredths of a second – determines the final standings. The three lowest aggregate times are awarded medals.
How does the bobsleigh work?
Pilots steer the sled with the inner steering rope whilst the brakeman/woman brings it to a halt after passing the finish line. Runners assist with acceleration at the start of the four-man event.
What are the track dimensions?
The average track length is 1,200-1,500m. The average slope is 8-15 per cent. The curve radius is 20m minimum.
How fast do they go?
Track speeds vary significantly but the average maximum speed is 135kph (84mph) with forces of up to 5g.
When do events take place?
Has Team GB won Olympic bobsleigh medals before?
Yes. Silver for the four-man event in Chamonix 1924 – the first ever Winter Olympics. Bronze for the same event at Garmisch-Partenkirchen 1936, followed by joint bronze with France at Nagano 1998. Britain’s sole gold medal was won in the two-man bobsleigh by Anthony Nash and Robin Dixon at Innsbruck, 1964.
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