Small nations get in the driver’s seat at UOP
Call it driving school. Call it "Cool Runnings." Call it whatever you want, but the Utah Olympic Park’s International Sliding School is trying to make true competitors out of an international group of athletes this week
The track offers the opportunity to learn bobsled and skeleton to smaller nations without ice tracks so they can develop teams that will be ready to compete in the Olympics. This year, the UOP welcomed Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Korea, France, Mexico, Belgium and Israel.
Pat Brown, head coach of the school, knows a lot about teaching the sport to rookies. He was the head coach of the Jamaican Bobsled Team at the 1988 Olympics, which the movie "Cool Runnings" is based upon. These days he is continuing the tradition by holding the week-long training camp. On a typical day the athletes meet in the morning and take a walk on the track, noting key parts of each curve, and then take numerous runs throughout the day.
Most of the athletes are relative rookies. Some have limited experience, but most are either new to the sports or new to driving a bobsled.
"They’re trying to grow their programs and so they send new people every year," Brown said.
He said that, for many teams, being competitive in the track sports is important. Jamaica, for instance, proved at the Summer Olympics this year that it has some of the best sprinters in the world. Fast starts are half of a successful bobsled or skeleton run, so Jamaica has an advantage. The goal is to get these teams competitive enough to be a part of international competition America’s Cup, World Cup and the World Championships, but especially the Olympics where countries want to stay competitive in as many sports as possible.
"That’s the hope if we do our jobs," Brown said.
This is the biggest driving school the UOP has ever had and mimics a similar one held in Lake Placid, N.Y., each year. Brown is joined by fellow long-time coach Joey Kilburn. Both men work for the International Bobsled and Toboggan (Skeleton) Federation, or FIBT. They are joined by German Gerd Grimme who is coaching the New Zealand team and another coach from Belgium. Each coach is stationed at a different point on the track and watches each sled go down. At the end of the run, the athletes talk to the coaches over a two-way radio and discuss where they need to improve. After the week is up, most of the teams will stay and compete at the America’s Cup race that starts Thursday and continue on the competition circuit in Calgary and Lake Placid, hopefully collecting enough points to qualify for the World Championships and next winter’s Olympic Games.
For Aussies Beau Lewis, Sam deVries, Travis Sheehy and Duncan Pugh, the week has been very beneficial. Sheehy and deVries are spending the week learning to drive a bobsled and Lewis and Pugh are working on their brakemen skills. All are volunteer lifeguards in their hometown of Perth, Western Australia, so the group has the strength and energy needed to make the multiple runs down the track.
"Were like Baywatch," said Pugh, with a twinkle in his eye.
After a lifeguard friend of the men competed in bobsled at the Games in Nagano, they all became interested in the sport. Driver deVries said his days have been spent learning the curves of the Utah track and trying to memorize what to do when.
"That’s the hard part," he said. "Getting the feel."
The team has only driven on one other track — in Igls, Austria — and is excited to try the North American tracks. Once they are done with America’s Cup circuit in a few weeks, they will head back to the Australian beach where summer will be in full swing. Then, more off-track training so they can continue to improve.
Pugh said the coaching has been top-notch. All four of the coaches have taken a non-partisan approach this week to make sure all of the teams improve.
"They’re all for the betterment of the sport," Pugh said.
The Aussies are joined by their neighbors from New Zealand, Willie Treu, Mike King and Tom Davy. King and Treu are learning to drive and Davy will be joined by a few more Kiwi breakmen in the coming days.
New Zealand has made a commitment to get the country on the bobsled map. It had an Olympic team in the past and wants to continue to get better. This year, the Kiwis held a recruitment camp for the team and selected ten potential sliders out of a group of 40 applicants. All had a sports backgrounds and the team was chosen from those who promised the most success. Treu, King and Davy the country’s top sport of rugby and Davy is a long-jumper and basketball player as well.
And King, well, he is also a sheep-shearer.
That’s right, the furry farm animals outnumber the population of both New Zealand and Australia and the sport of sheep shearing is very popular. Its takes a lot of speed and a lot of strength two things that are also important in bobsled.
All three are thoroughly enjoying their time in Park City comparing it to the Kiwi resort town of Queensland. They have also had the opportunity to interact with some members of the American teams, who are generous with advice andletting the newbies watch them drive down the track.
All of the teams will have a few more days to hone their skills before compete against the U.S. national team at the America’s Cup. Brown expects that some of the nations will soon adopt the Park City ice as their own track and stay and train in the area year-round.
The America’s Cup competition will begin this Thursday with a bobsled competition at 9 a.m.
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