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Ashley Cooney's Olympic Dream Continues
5 April 2013

Former WAIS gymnast Ashley Cooney in her new pursuit - luge

A car crash ended the London dream for gymnast Ashley Cooney, but it couldn’t stop her determination to be an Olympian.


Remarkably, the 17-year-old has just completed her first "bruising and exhilarating” season competing in luge and the Perth local is in with a shot of qualifying for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.


While many Australians were at the beach this summer on a bodyboard, Cooney was travelling from Europe to North America learning how to navigate icy tracks on a small sled at 120 kilometres an hour. She had never seen snow or been in the cold before.


Since the age of four Cooney was an artistic gymnast. She loved it, trained hard and continued to excel. Before she reached her teens she was on a scholarship with the Western Australian Institute of Sport (WAIS) and by 2009 she was the junior uneven bars national champion and was in the Olympic squad training for the London Olympics.


Then in May 2010 a terrible car crash left her with a broken collarbone, serious back injury and her Olympic dream appeared over.


"After the crash I had three months of complete rest and then started the intense and painful rehabilitation to try and get back,” Cooney explained.


"I was so determined and did everything I could with the WAIS staff but my collarbone wouldn’t allow me to do the reverse grip on bars. My spot in the (Olympic) squad was purely for my bars.


"No matter how hard I pushed through the pain I could only get five of the six compulsory elements back.”


Heartbroken and depressed, the coaches at WAIS tried to help Cooney find a new focus. She started coaching but there was no shaking her desire to be an Olympian.


"My coaches knew I was lost. They got me to do the talent identification for skeleton (winter sliding sport head first lying face down) with some of the other girls. My dodgy collarbone stopped me in some of the testing but it got me thinking about luge (feet first on back).”


Cooney contacted dual Olympic luger (2006 and 2010) Hannah Campbell-Pegg and her timing was perfect. Two years after her crash she soon found herself in Sydney at a three-day talent ID camp with a small group of aspiring daredevils. Cooney did well in the assessments of core strength, coordination and upper-body explosive power.


"Suddenly I had a renewed purpose after the camp and I felt the Olympic dream may not be totally over,” Cooney recalls.


She returned to Perth and began working on her weaknesses, and in October 2012 Cooney headed overseas to tackle the fearless sport.


"The first time on a track I really had no idea what to expect. The second run down I was much more nervous and by the end of the session I was buzzing and loving it.”


After four months in the northern hemisphere, with a Christmas break to thaw out in Perth, Cooney raced the first five World Cups of the season in the Youth A division with a best placing of 8th - on the ‘Cool Runnings’ track in Calgary.


For the final World Cup she moved up to the top junior division (Junior Women) and placed 21st from the same starting point as the senior women.


To qualify for the Games, all athletes need a minimum of five eligible races in either Junior Women or Senior Women categories before 31 December 2013- meaning the first four World Cups at the end of 2013 will seal her Sochi fate.


It has been a steep learning curve for Cooney and has not been easy or without further pain. On the Olympic track in Lillehammer, Norway, she had five crashes and ended up in hospital before the competition started.


"It was a hard day but it made me even more determined. I knew I could do it but there were some small errors I had to work through in my mind and I bounced back.”


Campbell-Pegg, who has moved from competitor to manager/coach, has been impressed by Cooney and her spirit.


"She is a great kid with so much potential and definitely she has caught the Olympic bug,” Campbell-Pegg said.


"Ashley’s gymnastics training experience, her strength and determination is definitely helping her out. Last season was all about learning and it is literally a crash course when you start.”


Cooney has been joined on the circuit by 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games competitor Alex Ferlazzo from Townsville, Nick Mides from Sydney and Adelaide street luger Dan Newtown.


"They will be the perfect age for 2018. It won’t be easy to qualify for Sochi but it is possible if all goes to plan at the four World Cups later in the year,” Campbell-Pegg said.


Cooney, Ferlazzo, Midas and Newtown are all training hard around the country off-ice on their strength, wheeled sled starts and practising with video of the tracks to be well prepared for next season. They are also fundraising for their expensive Olympic tilts.


The top 28 women and 38 men on Olympic adjusted rankings (maximum three from each nation) after a minimum of five World Cups will qualify for the Games.


Cooney has already turned tragedy into triumph by changing sports and now competing internationally. If she can qualify for Sochi it will have been one of the most unlikely paths of anyone at the Games.


Campbell-Pegg, Diane Ogle (Albertville 1992) and Roger White (Lillehammer 1994) total Australia’s Olympic luge history to date.


- AOC 
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