Bobsledding's Slow Pace to the Fast Track

Before charging down the ice at 70 m.p.h., there's a whole lot of waiting going on

"What you see is not nearly all you get in bobsled racing," says Jim Herberich, one of the top drivers on this winter's World Cup circuit.

Besides the short-lived rush of excitement that accompanies each 60-70 m.p.h. run, bobsledding is marked by endless hours of preparation, waiting, and physical labor.

Herberich, a two-time Olym-pian from Winchester, Mass., says a person isn't cut out to be a world-class bobsledder if he isn't willing to "spend all day doing menial tasks and hurrying up to wait.

"The sleds are big and heavy and we've got to haul them around by hand," he explains.

Besides transporting and meticulously caring for the equipment, a driver must devote considerable time to studying the course.

"By the time we leave the hotel and get the sleds up to the track, a training session can take four hours for just two runs," he says following a recent workout in Cambridge, Mass.

Home briefly from Europe, he returned to his alma mater, Harvard University, to practice his sprinting at the school's near-desolate outdoor running track before finding an empty track team office in which to chat.

Herberich calls bobsledding's push starts "the only time you get to step on the gas," so this aspect of racing gets extra attention.

The United States, which won its last Olympic bobsledding medal in 1956, fell out of power in the sport after World War II but is gradually regaining lost stature. Herberich is at the heart of this American sledding push, which also includes luge racing.

In particular, the top two American bobsled teams (piloted by Brian Shimer and Herberich, respectively) are earning respect on the current World Cup circuit.

Asked his explanation of the encouraging results, Herberich cites driver experience, good equipment, talented newcomers and seasoned holdovers, and, in some instances, good draws for starting position.

The latter is important in getting on the track before it becomes too rutted. "Under almost all circumstances the early sleds down have smoother ice and a faster track," he observes. "It's a gravity-driven sport and if you're not in contact with the ice, you're not going to go fast."

Herberich answered the call of a bobsled recruiting letter aimed at college track athletes in 1985. After his Harvard graduation, he tried out and made the US national team.

In the 1988 Olympics, he was a brakeman on the No. 2 US sled driven by Matt Roy, now the executive director of the US Bobsled and Skeleton Federation in Lake Placid, N.Y. Herberich drove the No. 2 sled at the '94 Lillehammer Olympics.

Today, in addition to competing, Herberich is an athlete representative on the federation's board of directors. In that capacity, he is involved in finding ways to introduce Americans to bobsledding. "One of the problems for anyone interested," Herberich says, "is that they've had to come to Lake Placid, which is five hours from any major airport in the United States."

Even then, conditions are not ideal. The Adirondack facility is not up to international standards and may have to be replaced.

The flip side, Herberich notes, is that last month a new track opened in Salt Lake City, Utah, site of the 2002 Winter Games. Youth programs exist in both locations and the US team uses a portable track and sleds on wheels to let novices check out the sport at various locations.

The track in Utah is important in bringing World Cup events to the US, and the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, will raise public awareness of bobsledding, Herberich says.

While the Olympics are important to him, Herberich is not inordinately focused on them. "That's when the spotlight of the world, especially, in this country, is on us, and I think that makes it more important for bobsledding as a whole," he points out. "But essentially for us [American bobsledders], the Olympics are no different than the world championships. It's the same format, the same time of year. In fact, it just replaces the world championships on our calendar." (Herberich was 10th in the two- man, and 11th in the four-man during last month's worlds in Switzerland.)

Although US bobsledding has in the past opened its doors to marquee athletes from other sports, Herberich says that "none of those guys ever brought us any kind of long-term support, monetary or otherwise." The emphasis now is building strong teams for the long haul.

Herberich is a perfect example. He has worked his way through the ranks.

Finding someone with his level of commitment is not easy, especially in a sport that doesn't pay the bills. Herberich says athlete assistance from the US Olympic Committee is modest and prize money quite limited.

For the past eight years, he has worked as a hydrologist for an environmental consulting company in Acton, Mass. The company allows him to take four or five months off each winter to sled. To make ends meet, he moved back in with his parents a couple of years ago, he says, adding that long stays in Europe hinder his career development.

His gains in bobsledding, however, make him happy to go on competing. "If I was finishing 15th every run and wasn't moving up, I wouldn't go through the hassle," he says, "but I feel like I'm improving."

Besides, as he observes, "On a nice, bright sunny day, I don't think there's anything more fun."

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