High speed at high elevation: bobsled team offers tryouts
May 29, 2015
The course is one mile long. It can be finished in under 50 seconds. No engines, motors, propellers or rockets required, just some ice, a metal sled and two daring athletes. The bobsled course at the Utah Olympic Park is the second fastest in the world, with athletes hitting speeds of up to 90 miles per hour. One of only two courses in the country, the other being at Lake Placid, in New York.
"Looking at it, you think it looks bizarre. Doing it, you know it’s bizarre, but so much fun, and there’s nothing in the world like it" says John Macchione, a bobsled pilot for the G-Force Bobsled and Skeleton team, a feeder program for the national team based here in Park City.
His coach, Valerie Fleming, agrees that the sport looks intimidating. "A lot of people think ‘oh my gosh, I’ve never done this, I can’t come do this.’"
But, the team is not only open to but hungry for newcomers. Starting June 12, they will be holding a series of combines where both novices and veterans can show what they’re made of.
The combine is a physical test, that helps to sort out people with the athleticism to join the team.
"We test your speed and power" says Fleming, "to see if you fit the sport." The combine consists of a series of sprints, from 15 to 60 meters, as well as a broad jump and underhand shotput. Also available is a push camp where participants receive training while they push the sled down an 80-meter track.
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And the training is top of the line. Fleming, who as well as coaching is the Program Manager for the team, and her fellow coach Shauna Rohbock won the silver medal for Women’s Bobsled at the 2006 Torino Olympics. Both are retired from the sport but active coaches on the team, helping prepare athletes for the winter season and ultimately for tryouts for the USA Bobsled and Skeleton team.
For those who do qualify, the summer training regimen focuses on the start of the race, where the athletes push to get the sled moving as fast as possible.
"Every tenth of a second you can take off your start time ends up being three tenths of a second off your final time, so it’s really important," said Macchione, who has been on the team since January. "It’s really all you can do in the summer" says Fleming.
The track is coated in ice for the winter season, but during the summer the only way to experience it is on a modified sled with wheel instead of runners. However, the team doesn’t really use these sleds, Macchione explains, because the steering and physics are different than on ice, and so can train pilots to do the wrong things.
"Nothing prepares you for the actual track" says Fleming, "it’s like driving a car. Yeah you can take the test, know all the rules and theories, but until you actually do it, you don’t know."
"The first time you go down the start ramp, your eyes get really big, like ‘oh man, we’re really doing this now’" adds Macchione.
If you haven’t been training or even thinking about bobsled your whole life, fear not. Most athletes started in different sports, and many don’t start bobsledding until after college. Fleming was originally a track athlete from California. Her goal has always been the Olympics, but "never ever did I think it was going to be Winter Olympics" she chuckles.
After realizing that track wouldn’t get her where she wanted to be, she started bobsledding instead, and competed from 2003 to 2011, and earned her Olympic run and Silver medal in the process.
Macchione, similarly, entered college as a soccer player before an injury sidelined him. After drifting from rowing to cycling to his own startup, he moved to Utah and officially joined the team this January. It’s a commitment, he acknowledges, as the team trains between four to eight hours, five days a week in the winter.
The team is trying to expand, looking for additional sponsors and members. Recently, it has started a new program for high schoolers in Park City, South Summit and Wasatch schools. This brings challenges of its own.
"We have a lot of concerned parents, who haven’t grown up with and don’t understand the sport. They’re trusting us with their children, and so safety is our No. 1 priority, for all levels" says Fleming. The team has optional but recommended testing and baselining for concussions, and a medical crew that checks every athlete after a crash. Crashes are uncommon but not unheard of. Yet as fast as the sport is, it is relatively safe. "I’ve been here all season," says Macchione, "and haven’t seen a single serious injury. As long as your helmet is buckled well, you’ll be OK."
Interested yet? The combine has three sessions, on June 12, Aug. 21 and Sept. 26. People interested in either bobsled or skeleton, and are between 14 to 30 years old, are welcome to register. To register or for more information, go to utaholympiclegacy.com or contact Valerie Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org
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