Gillian Cooke

30th March 2012 at 01:00
An eccentric English teacher who swerved convention brought humour and wonder to the bobsleigh champion's lessons

I did absolutely everything at school. I would be running from orchestra to athletics to table tennis to the next thing. My one goal was to represent Scotland at sport - I didn't care which one. Maxi McLaren took me for English in second, fourth and fifth year.

He was a little eccentric in the way he dressed - pastel-coloured vintage, more tweed than sharp suit. His classroom was different. Everyone else had modernised theirs with standard plastic tables and chairs, but he'd kept the wooden desks with inkwells; it was like stepping back in time. We'd always have lunch in the classroom so we could play with his black labrador, Bonnie, who lived in the corner.

One day he decided he wanted a different viewpoint, so he lay down on the table in the middle of the room and did the entire lesson staring at the ceiling. There was the fabled time he came in on rollerskates, and one day in fifth year he arrived with a nightcap, a candle and a teddy bear, and told us all a bedtime story.

He was always such a character and just injected a bit of humour. He was mixing what we needed to know with stuff so off-the-wall that you'd always be wondering what he was going to do next. But even if you didn't think you were learning at the time, it was still relevant. Most people got very good grades.

He gave me a love of writing. It's probably partly down to him that, although my degree is in science, my last job was in media and communications for Scottish Athletics - combining the two loves in my life, writing and sport. I'd like to write a novel at some point, when I have more time.

I was very quiet at school. All my reports say: "Gillian knows the answer but never puts up her hand." Because I was so shy, sport was kind of the way I got accepted and felt confident.

In sixth year I was vice-captain of the athletics team and did a little bit of coaching with younger pupils. There's no way I'd have put myself forward to lead a session in anything else.

There's a strong sporting tradition at my old school: Gavin and Scott Hastings are former pupils, and Chris Hoy. I was always going to be sporty, but George Watson's definitely introduced me to sports which I wouldn't have thought of doing, like fencing and rowing. It was a real opportunity to find out what I was good at. If I had gone somewhere else I might have been restricted to the real mainstream sports - hockey, football, tennis - but being exposed to minority sports back then means that nothing seems strange.

Even though bobsleigh might not be very well known here, I gave it a try - despite my entire knowledge of it coming from the film Cool Runnings. It's the most bizarre feeling. Some say it's like being inside a washing machine on spin cycle, or a rollercoaster. But a rollercoaster's designed to be fun and safe, and with bobsleigh there's human error. In some corners the pressure is 5Gs - the Apollo 15 launch had 4Gs - which is like someone throwing a piano on your back.

Because I was so new to the sport when we won the gold in 2009, I wasn't even in the media guide and people were saying - "Agh! Who is this person?" We crashed at the Olympics, at Whistler. It was the fastest part of the track, we were going 90mph, and I knew it was going to happen from two corners before. I'm the brakeman, who has to know each track inside out, as you're sitting behind the driver with your head between your knees and can't see anything. After my injury I had nerve damage and couldn't go up stairs for a year, but I'm back on the circuit now.

Gillian Cooke was talking to Henry Hepburn

Personal profile

Born: Edinburgh, 1982

Education: Craiglockhart Primary; George Watson's College; physiology at University of Glasgow

Sporting career: Represented Scotland in the Commonwealth Games (pole vault, 2002, and long jump, 2006); took up two-man bobsleigh in 2008 and won world championship gold five months later, in 2009, with Nicola Minichiello; out of the sport for 18 months after a serious crash at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Canada.

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