Speeding through the winter
Even after Aaron Lanningham was paralyzed during a motorcycle race, he knew he never wanted to give up riding. He adapted a motorcycle so he could continue doing the thing he loved most.
However, winter proved to be tough. Motorcycle riding wasn’t possible during the Utah winters, so he needed something to do to satisfy his need for speed.
In 2003, he found a new hobby through a National Ability Center program — bobsledding. He became the first paraplegic to drive a bobsled that year. Now, 13 years later, Lanningham will compete in the first-ever Para Bobsled World Championships, which will be held at the Utah Olympic Park this weekend.
The stakes are high for Lanningham and the other competitors. On the line is a spot in the 2018 Paralympic Games.
"This race, they’re bringing in all the bigwigs and they make a decision in September," Lanningham said. "Everything really comes down to this. For me personally, this is a win because I started this in 2003. I was the first one to do it. From it starting out as a program at the National Ability Center, this is what it’s come to. The goal was always to take it to the Paralympics."
Lanningham hopes to lead the sport into the Paralympics, but he admitted that he probably won’t be competing in the Games if it does earn admission.
"It’s a win for me, but it’s not something I’m going to do," he said. "I’m 53 years old. I’m not going to be doing this when I’m 60. I’m barely surviving it at 53. It’s violent and it’s hard on you."
He said it’s hard to explain the toll speeding down the ice takes on one’s body.
"Just the G forces you take and the abuse you take in the bobsled is the toughest part," he said. "You take two runs and it feels like you’ve played a football game or something like that. You can’t describe to somebody the physical beating you take going down, even if you have an excellent run. Yesterday, I had the fastest run and I got out of the sled and was like, ‘Ow, my back!’ I’ve been training up here for a month and my back’s been fine."
As the sport has gotten more competitive over the years, Lanningham said racers must squeeze every ounce of speed out of the track that they can, leading to rougher rides and more aches and pains.
"To go fast, you have to have some bumps," he said. "Not bumps against the side of the track, but you have to hold the corner until the very last second and then flop off. When you flop off, it’s really hard on you. You have to take more risk to be the fastest guy. You have to be right on the edge of a crash. It’s not the person who looks like they had the smoothest ride down that’s the fastest."
Though Lanningham knows his bobsled competition career is winding down, he’s not exactly sure when he’ll officially call it quits. After finishing in second place at two World Cup races this season, however, he does know he wants to end this season with a bang.
"If you win this World Championships, you get an automatic in to next year’s World Championships so you don’t have to do the whole World Cup circuit and all that," he said.
When his racing career is over, Lanningham said he still hopes to stay involved in the sport. He said he wants to use his experience to help others coming up in the sport.
"I’ve got probably close to 200 runs on this track," he said. "None of these other guys even have 50. I would like to be involved somehow as a coach or a mentor or an official or something. I want to help the guys coming up. I have a lot of experience and stuff like that."
Plus, he added, he’ll still need something to do in the winter to distract him from the fact that he can’t ride his motorcycle. He said he’ll still be a fixture at the Miller Motorsports Park (now named the Utah Motorsports Campus) in Tooele for the foreseeable future.
"I’ve got 25,000 miles at Miller Motorsports Park," he said. "I’m out there all the time when there are motorcycles. I’m still competitive even though I’m in a wheelchair because it’s all throttle and mind. I’m not near as fast as I was when I was racing professionally, but now I’m out riding with recreational guys on the track and I can hold my own."
Much like when he’s in a bobsled, Lanningham said he loves the feeling of being in control on his bike and speeding around a track.
"When I found bobsledding, it became my winter sport, but I’m always looking ahead to summer," he said. "Motorcycling is my passion and my love. You’re getting away from the wheelchair and you’re flying through the air."
The future of the sport
Moving forward, Lanningham said he’d like to see another class added to para bobsled.
"The real thing for keeping this sport going is the amputees running and jumping into the bobsled," he said. "They were supposed to have two different classes this year — a sitting class and a stand-up class where they push the bobsled off and they jump in. It’s more traditional and it looks so much better."
At the moment, the amputees who compete in the sport start in a sitting position, just like the paraplegic competitors. Lanningham would like to see paraplegics and amputees have their own competitions in the future.
When the sport started, an amputee would push the sled from the starting line and jump in behind a paraplegic who was driving. Though Lanningham said that looked more aesthetically pleasing to spectators, it was very stressful for him as a driver.
"The monobob is more fun than a two-man," he said. "In a two-man, you’re always worried about killing the guy in the back. Seriously. It’s never fun until it’s over. It’d be like giving somebody a ride on the back of your motorcycle on a racetrack and saying, ‘Well, I’m only going to go this fast.’ In a bobsled, you can’t do that. You’re going as fast as it’s going to go. There’s no slowing down."
Because of that, Lanningham said it’s much more fun for both paraplegics and amputees to ride solo.
"The first time I went down in the monobob, I got about halfway down the track and I’m hooting and hollering because it was so much fun and I wasn’t worried about anyone else," he said. "It was just me."
The Para Bobsled and Skeleton World Championships will be held Friday, March 18, and Saturday, March 19, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Utah Olympic Park. Admission is free to the public.
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