World gold worth debts of £18,000

Just champion: Nicola Minichiello with bobsleigh partner  Gillian Cooke.
Just champion: Nicola Minichiello with bobsleigh partner Gillian Cooke.
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When Jessica Ennis sprinted to heptathlon gold in the 2009 World Athletics Championships, among the Sheffielders proudly punching the air was the woman who had bought Jess her first pair of running spikes.

Nicola Minichiello was just 18 and a budding heptathlete herself when she set up a junior club at Don Valley Stadium to give children a chance to shine. And nine-year-old Jess walked in one school holiday and became her protegee.

But then Paul Scriven, leader of Sheffield City Council, proclaimed Jess’s victory as an illustrious first for her city. And Nic felt she’d been slapped in the face.

It was actually she who had brought home Sheffield’s first world championship gold, some five months earlier.

Only, it was gained in bobsleigh, a sport deemed so niche in Britain, it doesn’t even deserve a track. Hardly anyone at home took much notice.

Over in Germany, where bobsleigh events draw crowds in their thousands and champs retire to a life of sponsorship deals and lucrative coaching posts, she is so famous she has her own fan club,

Yet, despite having competed in the Olympic Games three times, in Sheffield she walks the streets un-recognised and is now so hard up, she juggles up to five jobs to pay off the huge debts the sport left her with.

But the lack of recognition, the debt and a crippling knee injury which today she undergoes her eighth operation for, cannot diminish her love of the sport - and her sheer gratitude at being able to compete in it.

For when, by sheer luck, Nic discovered the bobsleigh, she found her forte and her salvation. It took her away from the problems that had beset her early life. The bullying that took her to the brink of suicide, a battle with low self-esteem and bulimia, and the tragic death of her drug addict brother. If they gave medals for survival against the odds, Nic Minichiello would now have two golds in the trophy cabinet at her home in Renishaw.