Para bobsled pushes for Paralympic inclusion
December 23, 2018
On Dec. 14 and 15, para-athletes from nine different countries gathered at the top of the Utah Olympic Park to compete in the opening Para Bobsled World Cup of the season.
Para bobsled is not yet a Paralympic sport, though it has had four World Championship competitions, and has a 10-race World Cup circuit. To meet that requirement, there has to be a certain level of competitiveness, and a high level of standardization.
John Rosen, former chair of the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation committee to advance para bobsled, said it's getting there.
The sport was granted provisional acceptance into the 2022 Paralympic Games in Beijing, but in September, the IPC deemed the sport unready for Paralympic competition, and pushed its debut back to a possible 2026 appearance.
Para bobsleigh competition is subtly different from its Olympic counterpart. For one thing, it's co-ed. All genders compete against each other with no competitive advantages to consider.
Another thing: it's also quiet. There is no shouting and psyching up before the sleds take off.
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At five minutes until the first run on Dec. 15, the athletes, who primarily use wheelchairs to get around, gathered in the sun outside of the starting area, and visualized their runs in silence. Eyes closed, they took each mental turn of the track, gesturing through the run with their hands.
Then, at the signal of a track official, each of the first 10 athletes got into their single-seat sleds, called monobobs, which were lined up in a row and loaded onto the track like artillery shells into a cannon's breech before each run.
There was a solemnity to it, and with the athlete's helmets pulled down tight, a practicality in their near-silence.
At start time, an official slowly lowered the first sled, with racer inside, out to a starting point, asked quietly if they were ready, then let go of the sled's rear handles as quietly as blinking eyes. Gravity then took over and the sled started its run down the course.
The drop start is one of the elements that is on its way out in preparation for the Paralympics. The low speeds a drop achieves makes it hard for athletes to control the sled through the first few turns, since the corners were designed to be taken at the speed of Olympic sleds.
"Over the years, we have developed an electromechanical launcher which starts the athletes at roughly the same speed as able-bodied athletes," said Rosen. "We've used it for a couple years in Europe, and we have developed one for North America – we had to change the electronics. Unfortunately it wasn't quite ready in time for the start of this season, but we will be using it next season and from all races going on from that point."
He said the para-bobsled athletes love the launcher because it gives them more speed, and therefore better handling.
"The athletes struggle a little with curves 1, 2 and 3 on this track," Rosen said. "By next year they will be driving it the same way as the able-bodied athletes do."
Barry Schroeder, a driver for Team USA, said handling is particularly important on the UOP's difficult subtly winding track.
"It can be a split-second decision you make with your fingers and you're done," he said. "You're spending the rest of the (run) trying to correct that. Especially the monobob, once you get a little bit of a tailspin or a skid up top, you have to hit the rest of the track perfect or you're done. It's hard to make those mistakes and still have a competitive time."
In another part of the sport's push for Paralympic inclusion, all athletes are coached by a pool of official coaches from the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation, headquartered in Switzerland, sent to help improve the quality of competition.
"As the sport matures, eventually all nations will have their own coaches and teams," Rosen said. "But for right now, we have a core set that's just been incredible in bringing all our athletes along to peak performance."
Rosen said the coaches also add a community aspect to an already tight-knit sport.
"They are all my teammates; they are all my friends," Schroeder said of his international rivals. "Of course I'm going to pull for my USA teammates to finish above any other nation, because, you know, we're America. That's what we do. But any one of these athletes will pull you aside, and give you advice or congratulate you on a run. You want everyone to succeed. You want everyone to have a great run – just not as great as yours."
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