Olympic bobsledders need skill, speed, strength - and fearlessness
A bobsled crew frequently turns out to be as disparate a mixture of athletes as you'll find on one team. The driver is almost sure to be someone who grew up in snow country with roots in the sport. But the rest come from all climates and all walks of athletic life - the main common denominators being speed, strength, agility, and a willingness to hurtle blindly down a steep, winding chute at speeds of 80 m.p.h. or more. A perfect example is USA 2, one of the sleds representing the United States at the Winter Olympics beginning this weekend in Calgary. Driver Matt Roy of Lake Placid, N.Y., has been in the sport for quite a while. His three crewmates, however, are all recruits from other sports who a couple of years ago had no knowledge of bobsledding.
``It was 1985 and we were all graduating from college with no plans,'' recalled Jim Herberich of Winchester, Mass., Roy's partner on the two-man sled and the brakeman on the four-man team.
``All I knew about bobsledding was what I had seen on TV,'' he said in an interview. ``I learned about the opportunity to join the national team from a recruiting letter they sent out to a lot of college athletes, and I decided to give it a try.''
Jim's background at Harvard as a sprinter and hurdler made him an ideal candidate, as did those of Brian Shimer of Naples, Fla., a Morehead State football player, and Scott Pladel of Albany, N.Y., a triple jumper at Northeastern. Not what you'd think of as bobsled-related experiences, but except for the skill and experience of the driver, the key to a successful race is the ability to get off to a good start.
``That's the only time when we can make the sled go faster,'' said Herberich. ``The rest is to keep it from slowing down.''
``Driving the sled is really tough,'' added Shimer. ``I tried it once, just to see what it was like, and it seemed like a controlled wreck! Obviously, the guy who is going to take it down has to have a lot of experience. But the rest of us are just sitting there hanging on for dear life.''
Of course it isn't quite that simple, as Herberich pointed out. ``You have to know the run, because you can't see it,'' he said. ``The driver is trying to find the fastest line down the course. If he makes a mistake, the crew has to realize it and adjust. You have to know when to give up runner pressure. And it all happens in fractions of a second.''
The theory, though, is that athletes can be taught these things, but that you're lost before you begin without a fast start. So hundreds of college athletes were recruited, after which a fitness test involving sprints, jumping, and weightlifting narrowed the field to 40.
After that came training and competing in North America and Europe, the Olympic trials, and selection of the three sleds (including one alternate).
Roy's team, which had done well in World Cup action and beaten all American competition for two years, expected to be the No. 1 US entry, but was beaten out by one driven by Brent Rushlaw of Saranac Lake, N.Y. But it earned the No. 2 spot and thus will race at Calgary.
One worrisome aspect of bobsledding is the danger. Sleds do crash at those high speeds, and people have been hurt. It has to be a helpless feeling for the riders, sitting there without being able to see what's happening.
``It bothers you, but you have to put those thoughts aside,'' said Shimer. ``We crashed twice in practice before a race in Lake Placid this winter, and we were pretty shaken up going into the race. But once it started, we just did our job - and as it turned out, we won and set a record.''
And what are the chances in Calgary? On the surface, not good - especially if one goes by the results of the last several Games. The US hasn't won any bobsled medals since a bronze in 1956 as European countries - particularly East Germany in recent years - have dominated the action. Indeed, the East Germans have won five of the last six gold medals, including 1-2 finishes in both the two-man and four-man events at Sarajevo. And since 1972 only they, the Soviets, the Swiss, the Italians, and the West Germans have won any medals at all.
But things could be on the upswing for the Americans. Even four years ago one US sled, driven by Jeff Jost, came in a surprising fifth at Sarajevo. And US sleds have been consistently stronger in international competition over the last two years than had been the case.
There are still a lot of question marks, though, since the speed of a bobsled depends so much on technology - and in recent years the United States has lagged in this area. The European countries got the technological jump years ago and have traditionally maintained a significant advantage in designing sleds with the smallest amount of aerodynamic drag. The Americans have been going all-out to narrow the gap, however, and feel that, relatively speaking, they now have their best-equipped teams since the 1950s.
This whole aspect of the sport bothers many observers, who feel that the competition should be primarily among the athletes - not the sled designers. Sometimes it almost seems as though the ever-increasing ``technological warfare'' is removing the human element altogether - or at least reducing it to a fraction of what it should be.
``There are merits to that argument,'' Roy said. ``But the human element is still there. The East Germans, Soviets, and Swiss all have similar equipment, so the human factor seems to be what is making the difference.''
Still, the future could see changes. Already there is talk of proposed rules changes to make everyone use basically the same sleds, thus ensuring that the competition would be among the drivers and their teams. But unless and until this occurs, the Americans have to hope that the game of technological ``catch-up'' they've been playing over the last few years has finally brought them to something approaching an equal footing with their European rivals.