Skeleton, in the flesh, is a real thrill
The 'new' sport at Winter Games is actually old, but athletes are still learning how to steer.
SALT LAKE CITY — Sitting in a room with America's five Olympic skeleton sliders, the question inevitably arises: So what is it like careening down the swerves and straightaways of a bobsled track, head first, feet flailing?
A few try to explain it, and stream of consciousness comments ensue - as fast and dizzying as a gold-medal run. In the end, each concludes, "it's like nothing else."
Finally, Lincoln DeWitt, last season's World Cup champion, offers a colleague's assessment: Imagine driving down a highway at 85 m.p.h., then opening the door and sticking your head out so it nearly skims the asphalt.
The others nod, and you get the feeling that if that were an organized sport, they might give it a try, too. Today, skeleton arrives as the Olympics' newest sport, and its cast of characters is among the Games' most engaging. Perhaps that's no surprise, given the kind of person it takes to hop onto a three-foot-long sled and accelerate to the speed of a locomotive - all while your chin hovers two inches off the ice.
There is Lea Ann Parsley, the 1999 Ohio firefighter of the year, who saved a mother and daughter from a burning building and is currently pursuing her PhD in nursing. There is Chris Soule, who worked as a stuntman in the film "G.I. Jane," and counts cliff diving among his past exploits. And there is Jim Shea, the third-generation Olympian who switched from bobsled, in part because he felt - like any normal human being - that it was just too boring.
All say they don't think of themselves as daredevils. Instead, they are missionaries for a sport that was actually a predecessor of bobsled and luge, yet for decades has been all but forgotten by all except a few enthusiasts ensconced deep within the Alps. Now, more than 50 years after it last appeared in the Olympics, it returns as - in some ways - the Games' ultimate thrill ride.
"Everyone has to take at least one run in their lives," says Tristan Gale, more animated and insistent than a grade schooler throwing a slumber party. "You will experience something you have never done before. You finish, and you're eyeholes are huge. It takes days to process it."
Watch one run, and the allure of skeleton is obvious: its kamikaze style. Although luge is fractionally faster, the fact that skeleton sliders go down head first with no steering mechanism has given it a reputation as the crazy uncle of sliding sports. To some degree, the reputation is warranted.
Shea recounts tales of broken noses and punctured lungs. Parsley, who read about the sport on the Web and had never actually seen it before she took her first run, once applied shoe glue to her face so she wouldn't have to go to a hospital to stitch a cut. Soule wrapped himself in duct tape so his sweater wouldn't be ripped off when he hit the walls.
Indeed, in earlier days, when today's Olympians were new to the sport, skeleton seemed as much a dare as a technical discipline. Technique was an ongoing experiment; steering was an afterthought. Merely making it through a run unscathed was a victory in itself.
"I remember looking up and seeing how much speed I'd gained," says DeWitt about his first run. "The turn looked like a wall, and I remember thinking, 'I have no concept of the physics of what is about to happen.' " At the end, though, undaunted, "I asked if I could get a refund on my season ski pass, because I knew I wasn't going skiing anymore."
When he talks about his sport now, it's as if he's speaking of the Rosetta Stone - an artifact that has been unearthed, studied, and is only now starting to be comprehended.
Invented by British tourists in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 1884, skeleton is considered the first organized sliding sport. The first bobsled was simply two skeletons lashed together.
An earlier form of skeleton was a part of the two St. Moritz Winter Games - in 1928 and 1948 - with Americans taking three of the six medals. But over generations, the science of skeleton was lost in the haze of history. The sport faded entirely from North America and clung only to a few European clubs in countries such as Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Even the origin of the name "skeleton" was lost - although most believe it comes from the fact that the early frame sleds looked like skeletons.
It wasn't until the early 1980s, when a couple of travelers from upstate Vermont visited Europe and saw the modern version of skeleton, that it returned to the United States. For years, though, even the most basic information - like how to steer - remained a mystery.
"When we started, we provided comic relief for the Europeans," says Terry Holland, a coach of the US Olympic team, who began sliding in 1982. "For all the violence, it really is a subtle sport."
Dewitt acknowledges that he went through his entire first year on the skeleton circuit without really knowing how to maneuver his sled. "Whenever you saw someone who knew something about skeleton, you'd ask, 'How do you make the sled do this, or turn to the right?' " he says.
Now, after experimentation and interrogation, such knowledge is more widespread: Sleds can be guided with pressure applied by the shoulders or thighs, as well as by dragging the feet - though that is a last resort, since it slows the slider down.
"We can teach someone something in three weeks that took us three years to figure out," adds Holland. Today, the rest of America gets its first lesson.