Surviving bullying, bulimia and her brother’s death

Injury woes: Having physiotherapy for her knee problems
Injury woes: Having physiotherapy for her knee problems
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Staring into a cup of household bleach, Nicola Minichiello dared herself to drink it and end everything.

She was just 12 years old; she couldn’t bear the misery of being merciless bullying any longer - and she believed her life would never change.

Difficult childhood: Nicola Minichiello with her mother Yvonne, sister Amanda and brother Andrew whose life was cut short by drugs aged 20.

Difficult childhood: Nicola Minichiello with her mother Yvonne, sister Amanda and brother Andrew whose life was cut short by drugs aged 20.

She was mixed race. Her Jamaican grandparents had come to Sheffield in the Fifties. She had never met her white father - he had walked out before she was born. And she was poor; her mother Evonne’s subsequent marriage to the father of Nic’s sister Amanda and brother Andrew had failed. “We lived in Southey Green, which was very deprived. It was understood that if you lived there, you weren’t going to achieve anything in life,” she recalls.

Then the family moved to Dronfield, where Evonne mistakenly thought her kids would have a better life. But the Gautiers “got absolutely tortured”.

Says Nic: “Adults would shout at mum to go home. We would get chased by kids on the way to school, bullied in the playground and then chased home. They were horrible.

“I remember pouring that cup of bleach to drink. What stopped me was fear it would be too painful.”

We did it: Winning the World bobsleigh title

We did it: Winning the World bobsleigh title

She found another way out - the sanctuary of Dronfield School’s lunchtime clubs. But she wasn’t sporty; she struggled to be any good at anything.

So she tried and tried. “I had no natural ability, but after a year, I got into the netball team. I was so thrilled; all my life I’d been told my family were scum and there I was, representing the school.” She says: “I desperately wanted someone to be proud of me. To say: well done.”

The desire to win medals made her switch to athletics. And at 16 she was doing three paper-rounds to pay for bus fares to training sessions at Don Valley Stadium. On the 90-minute journey there, she did her homework.

“At Don Valley I felt accepted and safe; there were people of all skin colours and with the same goals,” she explains.

She became a heptathlete, picked up work as a coach - and at 18, set up the City of Sheffield Athletics Club to which little Jessica Ennis turned up.

By then, Nic was studying for a P.E. teaching degree at Sheffield Hallam and had become Britain’s Number 2 heptathlete. Sport had lifted her to another life. But her little brother had gone down a very different track.

“He tried to fit in by being the class clown and started taking drugs at 13. By 18, he was on heroin and stealing, even from mum, to buy his smack. There was nothing we could do,” Nic recalls with great sadness.

There was a brief respite; a drug detox clinic and a morphine implant. But one more hit changed everything.

Nic was in Stoke training with the GB quad when she got the call telling her Andrew had died, aged 20. “I remember collapsing, then throwing up. Truth be told, for a couple of years I had been bulimic. Making myself sick was the way I tried to get control of my life.”

Nic was the one who had to plan the funeral; “At 23, I owned a piece of land; my brother’s grave.” She blamed the bullies and the dealers, but most of all, she blamed herself. “Was there more I could have done to help him? I still ask myself that question,” she says.

Plagued with guilt that she had found a better life while her brother hadn’t, she shut down. “I stopped training and going to university. The bulimia got worse and I had totally lost my way.”

But a phone-call out of the blue, just 12 days after her brother’s funeral, changed everything. It was an invitation from the GB bobsleigh team.

The first day, her only training was being told to run like hell and jump aboard. She hated the cramped claustrophobia; the terror of hurtling at 100mph in what felt like “a washing machine.”

But the bobsleigh accelerated her to another place. “I realised that, for those few minutes, I wasn’t thinking about my brother. Or my life. It was cleansing. In that tiny little bubble, I actually felt free,” she explains.

“They asked if I wanted to try for a place in the first ever women’s bobsleigh event at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympics in four weeks’ time, I said yes.”

She didn’t give any thought to the risk; bobsledders put their life in jeopardy in every single race. She got her Olympic place, her team came 12th and her sporting career changed course.

She decided to train as a driver - one of the hardest roles. It normally takes eight years to perfect the skill of finding the optimum line in a split-second. It took Nic four months; at the European cup in Germany in 2003, she steered her team bronze.

In 2005, she won silver at the World Championships in Canada; it was the first time a British woman had picked up a such a bobsleigh medal.

But at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy, as her two-year marriage to Jessica Ennis’s coach Tony Minichiello fell apart, favourite Nic caved in under pressure and finished ninth. “The little girl no one thought was any good came back,” she reveals.

It took almost two years to claw her way back. But even that she is grateful for; along the way, help from Olympics sports psychologists rid her of her bulimia and enabled her to come to terms with her brother’s death. Nic Minichiello was back on track.

At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics Nic got back to health in time to compete on the Olympic track deemed the most dangerous in the world, where a luge racer had died just days before, and she went for it.

But she misjudged a bend, the bobsleigh hurtled into a full-circle smash - and Nic the history-maker, Nic the indomitable, was out of the game.

Today she is undergoing her eighth knee operation in seven years. The joint is tram-tracked with scars and so damaged, she can hardly walk. Oh, and she is still £18,000 in debt.

But diminished? Never. She dreams of going back to bobsledding, but is ploughing her limitless energy into helping children find self-esteem. She is a Youth Sports Trust mentor, her company, Exercise for Champions, is inspiring Sheffield children and in November she becomes head of youth development for the International Federation of Bobsledding.

She may even become a local politician, she reveals. “I want to help kids find the route that got me away from the hardest of places. And to stop them taking the one that my brother did.”