Saturday, February 15, 2003

February 4 - 7, 2003

It's hard to believe that we have to get back on the ice this week. For our group, those seeding races were like the Super Bowl, and after the disappointment of my 11th place finish, it's a bit hard to stay motivated. But, we've got ice time, and there is the matter of the final club race at the end of February, so I might as well suck it up and get out there. Besides, I was getting much faster those last three runs, so maybe this is a turning point.

I'm not the only one feeling a little sluggish, everyone in the start house seems pretty drained after sliding almost every day last week. It seems almost counterintuitive that a sport which requires less than five seconds of aerobic activity, and less than a minute of overall activity could be so taxing physically. Perhaps it's because I'm so beaten up courtesy of the right wall before turn seven. Or maybe it's all that emotional energy I expended last week, but I'm really exhausted.

Apparently, however, exhaustion is a good thing, because in the first run of the day on our first day back, I had the second fastest time of the whole group. It was almost a full second behind national team member Ryan Geertsen, but who cares -- I beat Stokes, Steve, Walt and Adam. The phrase "too little, too late" comes to mind, but hey, I'll take it. It was only one run, but the speed would continue all week. On Friday, I had perhaps my best day ever - three runs in the 52s -- including a personal best - 52.11 (OK, so the top guys that day were running in the 51s, but still - six of my last eleven runs were in the 52s, so that's a big plus).

I needed something to go right this week -- as the season comes to a close, I realize even more that I need to find a regular job. It's been easy to sort of push things to the side with all the sliding conflicts, but soon, I won't have that excuse anymore. To top it all off, the gourmet market where I've been working isn't doing so well, and my hours have been cut back even more than they already were. Good thing Lori continues to be busy beyond belief, because right now, we really need her income.

Now that I have more of a "sports resume," I'm going to try and get some sponsors, and hopefully, I'll get a nibble somewhere along the way. Perhaps Smith Sunglasses (makers of the "Slider" series), or better yet, White Castle. I'm open to suggestions.

Friday, February 14, 2003

February 2, 2003

And so it all comes down to this. I needed to win the race, AND have the top eight guys crash and get zero points. In other words, I had as much chance of making nationals as J.Lo and Ben have of reaching their 50th anniversary. But on the bright side, I had finally put down the run I knew I was capable of, and with no pressure left, I could just relax and have fun.

Plus, it had snowed all night, and it was still coming down at race time, so I knew that the track would be a little slower than usual, and that’s where I usually do better. Starting in 14th position, I quickly knocked off six people ahead of me, including the usually unflappable Steve Mayer, who hit something in the track, a rock, snowdrift or something, and wound up in 23rd place after one run. My 55.42 had me in 8th place, and my second run was even better, as I blasted to a 54.78, good enough for 7th fastest (and the fastest speed of anyone on the day – 75.8 mph). Overall, I ended up in 6th on the day – quite the improvement on the 16th that I started with. Ahhhh, what could have been.

When all the points were added up for the three races, here was the top 8:
1 Stokes Aitken 1237
2 Curtis Brimley 1076
2 Adam Ohlinger 1076
4 Justin Stoddard 937
5 Walt Harrison 861
6 Jason Askins 840
7 Steve Mayer 787
8 Tell Hendren 745

My comeback attempt was valiant, but just a little short as I ended up in 11th place, a mere 91 points out of the money. Doing some rough math, that’s five places I needed to pick up – so take away the tantrum, and with a decent second run on that first day, and I’d be going to Lake Placid as well.

Talking with Colleen after the race, she said how proud she was that I hadn’t given up despite the poor results, and that I’d found a way to come out of the weekend with a positive feeling about the sport, and my position in it.

What does the rest of this season hold? We’ve got four days of training this week, so hopefully I can capitalize on my improvement and start that performance curve back on its upward slope. At the end of the month, there’s going to be one more club race, and then we hang the sled up until next fall. It’s not clear if there will be an Elite Development team next year, some of that may be based on how our guys do at nationals in March. Some of the guys are talking about taking a road trip up to Calgary this summer to work out at the Ice House (an indoor push track that allows you to work exclusively on your start without having to do the rest of the run). Randy has said you can get better faster by traveling to some of the European tracks independent of the national team, so that might be the plan for 2003. Finally, the way things work in this sport, the powers that be may decide to change the entry standards to the push camp/team selection races next year, so who knows, I could end up with an invite after all!

The dream is still alive.
February 1, 2003

Inauspicious beginnings to the day. First, I wake up to the news of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, and the terrible loss of the astronauts. Then, while attempting to change back to my new runners in order to give them a nice polish, I stripped one of the adjustment bolts and wasn’t going to be able to get my sled together. After an hour of hammering, twisting, filing, and anything else I could try to get the rusted bolt out, I was at my wit’s end. Attempting to get more leverage on the bolt, I cut the sled open in order to move the padding out of the way. In my frustration, I pulled on the wrong part, and pulled the fiberglass pod right off of the frame.

This was bad.

Three hours before I had to have my sled ready, and it’s in pieces on the living room floor. In a panic, I called Randy Parker and asked him for help. He said to bring it in, and he’d see what he could do. Forty minutes later I’m at his shop, and we go to work with the power tools, drilling the stuck bolt out and replacing it with a stainless steel (no rust) one. He sent me off to Lowe’s to get some glue to reattach the pod to the frame, and when we realized that it probably wouldn’t dry in time, we popped some rivets back in to help hold the thing together, otherwise my sled was literally held together with glue and some tape.

I raced back home, just in time to grab a sandwich and get back up to the park. Randy had given me some longer adjustment bolts, so I cranked the rock up to 7.5 just to see if I could get comfortable on something a little higher before going way up.

It didn’t work. I skidded into four, banged out of six and generally held on for dear life as I posted an 18th place finish in run #1. If I had a slim hope of coming back before the race, that hope was now gone. Rather than fly into another rage, this time I just dropped my head, shrugged and said, “it just wasn’t meant to be.”

With nothing left to lose, I upped my rock to 9 for run #2. Once again, Colleen was right, and with my mind finally free of any pressure, I could relax on the sled and stop fighting it, which is the best way to go fast. 52.42 seconds later, I was at the bottom with a personal best, and a huge smile on my face. As it turned out, the second runs for a lot of people were a bit rough, and my time was the 7th fastest of the round, leaving me in 12th place for the day. Make that first run a little bit better, and a place in Placid was still a possibility.

Turns out that’s what was happening to Tell Hendren as well. Despite the fact that he hadn’t slid in nearly a month after going back to USC to finish school, and despite his 20th place finish in race #1, he somehow managed to turn it around for today’s race, finishing 5th overall with two great runs. Maybe it was concern for his brother Ivan that inspired him to go so fast.

As I wrote earlier, driving had suddenly clicked for Ivan since switching sleds, and he seemed to be a lock for a berth at nationals. He had a disappointing 7th place finish in race #1, but was putting together a great first run to start race #2, with the second fastest time through the first four splits. Then, something happened. He hit hard coming out of turn 11, slamming his left arm and his head into the wall. At the finish, he had fallen all the way to 12th. When he got back up to the start house, the medics had given him an ice pack for the arm. What they hadn’t done was give him a check of his head. His eyes were unfocused and glassy as he sat and waited for run #2. He was distracted and when he started to put his gear back on, he forgot to put some of his pads back on. It was obvious to anyone who looked at him that he’d suffered a concussion.

Some folks tried to convince him that it was better to be safe and just scratch his second run, that with a clear head for race #3, he’d be able to get enough points to make up for the day. Others told him that it was just a mild concussion, and that he’d be fine. In the end, it was his decision, and he chose to take another run. He made it down in one piece, but in talking with him at the finish, he said he got halfway down the track, and realized he had no idea what he was supposed to do in some of the turns. It’s scary to see something like that, and to know that there’s no official physician to make a decision like that. We’ve seen the damage that concussions can have on football and hockey players, and now those leagues are much more reluctant to let a player with “his bell rung” back out onto the field. Perhaps it’s time for skeleton to take some similar measures, and get someone more qualified than an EMT working trackside.
January 31, 2003

After a night’s restless sleep, I think I got rid of most of the anger, if not all of the great disappointment. Today was a training day, time to clean up all the mistakes of the day before, and get ready for races two and three.

Colleen mentioned that on my new X White Swiss runners, I should set the rock (the amount of bend in the runner – higher rock = more bend = less runner on the ice = less friction = faster. Unfortunately, it also means less contact of the grooves on the ice, and therefore less control) up to 9 or 10, despite the fact that I never ran my old runners higher than 8. I figured with today being training, I’d give it a shot, as well as doing one run with my old runners, and one with the new to see if I was really faster on the fancy ones.

Alas, when I went to set the rock up to 9, I found that the bolts I had in my sled were too short, and wouldn’t let me get it up past 7. Sigh. Then, on my second run, I came out of the start groove, and therefore was too slow to really make a true comparison. Double sigh. The runs were pretty slow and rough, so it was with great trepidation that I head into race #2.
January 30, 2003

Have you ever wanted something so much that you can’t think about anything else? Ever since I made the decision to make a go of this sport, I’ve been focused on these seeding races as the first step on my way to the Olympics. The way I saw it, the ladder goes like this: Qualify for nationals. Compete in the push camp/team selection races next fall. Compete on America’s Cup in 2003-04. Travel to Europe for the 2004-05 season, then make World Cup for 2005-06, culminating with a spot on the Olympic team going to Torino in the winter of 2006.

That journey took a little detour today.

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who reacts well under pressure, rising to the occasion when there’s a deadline, or picking my game up a notch when the team needed a boost. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well in these races, and I cracked under it.

From almost the very beginning of the day, my mind wasn’t focused on the task at hand; it was off in a thousand different directions. We had been told that the officials were going to follow the rules to the letter during these races, and when Stokes showed up five minutes after his sled was supposed to be at the start, I thought there was one less competitor for me to worry about, as that would normally be a disqualification. Instead, the jury decided to give him a verbal warning and let him race. Everyone agreed that it was a very soft ruling, and most of the folks let it go. I just couldn’t, and I started to stew over the “injustice” of allowing a “cheater” to race.

The track had been prepared beautifully, and looking at some of the early racers’ times, I had put myself down for something in the 52’s, which would be a personal best. As I sat in the start house waiting for my turn, nervous energy had me running back and forth to the bathroom every 10 minutes. I went through my regular warm-up, and when it was time to go, I had another good start with a 5.18. Then, the fun began. When I usually look at my splits down the course, I tend to pick up speed and time as I go down, the sign of a good driver. Today, however, the splits went in reverse.

I skidded into turn four, something I haven’t done in weeks. Went in way late into six, sending me hard into the wall before seven. I’d really cleaned up curve 11 at the last race, but today, it was a disaster as I slammed hard into 12, bounced into 13, and then tapped the wall twice in low point. While a 53.75 would have won the race on Saturday by nearly two seconds, today, it was good for 17th place, more than two seconds off the pace.

Now, there were still five runs left to go in the series, and one bad run shouldn’t be enough to put me out of the running. Unfortunately, my brain couldn’t process that fact, and I went into an angry funk, flinging my equipment back into my bag and generally acting with the maturity of a two-year-old, despite the fact that I still had another run to go in this race.

I believe that the body has a limited amount of energy that it can store at any given time – both mental and physical. During the hour I had between runs, I burned up so much mental energy raging at my inability to perform, that when it did come time to get back on the ice, the physical side was just as drained. Knowing that I needed to have a fantastic run, I had my worst start in weeks – a 5.42, and while I did pick up some time at the bottom, I hit in a lot of places and finished with a 54.31, sending me into further paroxysms of rage as I watched my dreams fall by the wayside.

I drove home in silence, and after a shower, all I could do was sit down and cry. In a torrent of tears, all my frustrations poured out into Lori’s shoulder. For months, despite not having a job or income, this skeleton dream kept me going, and with every bit of success I had on the track, I reminded myself that this decision was the right one. In one fell swoop, I had to face the reality of my situation, and it suddenly didn’t look quite as rosy.

That night, I didn’t sleep very well. Going over the runs turn by turn in my mind, trying to figure out where it all went wrong. I knew that I needed to put all of this behind me, as there were still two races to go, and anything could happen. If I could put together four solid runs, maybe 8th or 9th place finishes, with a little luck, I might be able to squeak in.
January 29, 2003

Two runs of official training today. Colleen has told us to just take it easy. Push about 70% at the start and just make it down safe and sound because nobody needs to risk getting hurt before the most important races of the season. I had two decent runs that had me in 11th overall, right about where I was expecting to be. The new runners didn’t feel any faster, and I sure as heck didn’t knock two seconds off my time as Randy said I would (once again, Ori is a sucker for advertising), but I’m trusting that once I’m used to them, I’ll start flying.
January 28, 2003

It rained most of the day yesterday, and they were filming a commercial for Zion’s Bank at the track (with my friend Miriam Epstein-Footer on the film crew, and my other buddy Tom Raty playing Jimmy Shea’s stunt double), so the track crew didn’t have much time to do any work on the track before today’s session. It showed, as the fastest time of the day was 59.97. In other words, today isn’t worth describing.

A group of us begged and pleaded with Randy Parker to let us buy some of his latest and greatest runners so that we might be able to get that technological advantage, or at least keep up with the competition, so we went up to his house and helped polish runners for about seven hours. It’s total drudgework, and we didn’t even come close to finishing the five sets we were trying to get ready for training tomorrow, but Randy promised to work on them all night so we could have them in the morning. The guy is truly dedicated to this sport, and to making sliders go fast. His technology has been at the center of some political battles over what’s legal in a runner, leading to some talk that next year the FIBT is going to get a huge stock of some material, and make all the runners themselves. People will be able to put whatever cut they want on them, but there will be no more fights about which material is faster, which is legal, etc. To my mind, that’s what the sport should be about – who’s got the fastest push, and who’s the best driver, not who has more money for the latest technology.
January 25, 2003

Race day. Twenty-six men competing today. Most of the elite team, a couple of juniors who weren’t invited to the Junior Worlds race, and a bunch of club sliders who haven’t been sliding in a while. Should be a good day, though it’s hard to concentrate and relax when there are fifty people up in the start house. Thankfully, I’m starting in the second position, so I won’t have to sit around too long watching what everyone else is doing.

Curtis gets the race started with a solid 55.64, so it looks like the track is a good bit faster than it was during training yesterday. I follow him up with a 56.37, less than a second behind, thanks to a personal best push time of 5.17. Looks like those TOSH sessions are really working as that’s about 0.15 faster than what I usually push. I hope that will keep me in the top three for a while (ahead even of Steve who has an uncharacteristic 56.76), and it does until out of nowhere, Adam Ohlinger, a Californian who thinks and acts like Vinnie from Brooklyn (he’s a huge NY Jets and Yankees fan, and has that same sort of “big” personality), lays down a 55.30 from the 18th spot. Still, when the first run is over, I’m in 5th place, behind Ivan (told you so), Adam, Curtis and Jason Askins, one of the juniors.

The second run goes in reverse order by time, so the first run leader knows what he has to beat when he goes down. I go off fifth from the end, and once again, I’m flying (for me at least) down the start ramp with a 5.16 push. I pick up the pace as I make my way down the track and drop a 55.09 for my second run. It’s enough to put me in first, with four sliders left to go.

Jason shaves 0.11 off his first start, but has trouble at the top of the course, and finishes almost two seconds behind me. Curtis puts up the fastest run of the day, and moves ahead of me by 1.17 seconds. Adam had almost a second on me, so it was going to take a miracle if I was going to end up on the podium.

Wish granted.

Adam was cruising along, and would have easily had me nailed, but some big trouble in 7 dropped him all the way from 2nd to 6th. Ivan had another solid run, but who cares, my two fifth place times somehow added up to a third place finish. Just goes to show that consistency pays off – a good lesson to learn before the races start counting next week. In the last two official races, I’ve got two bronze medals. OK, in the first one, the juniors were in a different class, and in this one, the top juniors weren’t even racing – but still, hardware is hardware (though all I got for this one was a t-shirt, but you get the point).
January 24, 2003

Our final day of training before the race on Saturday, and I have an average run. Nothing spectacular, and probably a little worse than expected. While the rest of the country is busy getting socked with snow and frigid temperatures, Park City continues to sit at a spring-like 50 degrees. Now that’s great if you’re out strolling around Main Street, hoping to catch a glimpse of some celeb in town for the Sundance Film Festival (I saw a lot of directors, and sold a sandwich to Roger Ebert – that was the extent of my star gazing), but it’s not so good if you’re a slider.

When the temperature is warm like that, they have to really crank the refrigeration down just to keep the ice from melting. If you’ve ever taken a mug out of the freezer and put it on the counter for a minute or two, you see a nice layer of frost develop on the outside. That’s really great for keeping that beer cold, but on the track, that layer of frost is like glue on your runners, plus when the ice is that warm and soft, the runner grooves sink into the ice more, which creates more friction, which means slower times.

A brief technical discussion now. Sliders are constantly discussing the alchemy of the oxymoronic “warm ice” and redundant “cold ice” as they try to determine what sort of runners to use for each race. A warm ice day (ice temp between 0 and –8 degrees, say) calls for a shallower, groove and a wider spine on your runner which won’t cut in on the ice as much. Vice-versa, if you use a warm ice runner when the ice temp is below –8 (as often happens up in Calgary which can get down to –16 or lower), that wide spine won’t have any bite at all and you’ll do nothing but skid across the ice like a car with bald tires.

On top of all of the various “cuts” that are available for runners, with names like “Swiss,” “swallow,” “wild thing” and “big wheels,” there is a virtual chemistry book filled with metal alloys that the runners are made of. The FIBT says only that they must be a certain minimum and maximum diameter, the grooves can’t be any deeper than a set depth, and that they must be made out of austenitic steel. With such a wide open rule book, runner manufacturers like Randy Parker have built up an industry creating runners with exotic metallurgical alloys and secret chemical treatments. Again, different metals are allegedly faster on different tracks. The “Olympic Gold’s” might be good for Park City, but the “F’s” could be faster in Lake Placid. To say that trying to figure out exactly which runner will make you faster (Olympic Gold Swiss vs. Olympic White Swallow) is complicated is quite an understatement (not to mention expensive as top of the line runners go for upwards of $800).

Got all of that? My brain hurts just from writing that down. Interesting side note from the actual racing today – Ivan Hendren (the elder of the Hendren brothers mentioned in the last installment) has switched from the more responsive fiberglass sled to an old steel pan sled, and suddenly his times have fallen faster than Anna Nicole Smith’s ratings. He’d never beaten me before this week, and now in the last two sessions he’s trounced me by a second and a half. If this keeps up, Placid’s going to be in jeopardy.
January 21, 2003

Boy, it’s been a loooong time since I’ve been on the track. I missed our last session because I was busy flying off to Arizona for my sister-in-law’s wedding, then we were kicked off the track for a week while the Luge Junior World Championships were in town (screw those backwards sliding kids! I want ice time). Actually, it was sort of nice to get a break. It gave the huge bruises on my biceps and hip time to clear up, and gave me some time to recharge the batteries for what’s going to be a very important couple of weeks. This weekend, we have our last “fun” club race, and then it’s time for the official seeding races – three days of racing, where we’ll determine the top eight sliders in the Utah Skeleton Club. Those eight will receive an invitation to the national championships in Lake Placid the first week in March. Taking a look at my recent results, I should make the cut if all goes well, and if some of the junior sliders qualify for the Junior World Championships in Germany, giving them an automatic qualification for nationals.

The juniors are in Lake Placid this week with their own qualification races for those spots, so Stokes isn’t around this week to trounce the rest of the elite team (except for Steve and Curtis perhaps). It’s a little thing, but it is a nice ego boost to finish in the top three during training sessions, and lately, I haven’t been doing that.

There was a small group at the track today, so some of us got four runs in. I guess the break did me some good, or the ice was still fast from the luge guys because in my third run of the day, I set a personal best down time of 53.25. Now that’s still nearly two seconds behind the best times that Stokes, Steve and some of the juniors have posted, but after my last adventures down the track, I’d have to say that I impressed myself today, heck, I even went faster than Felicia in that third run. Things are looking good for this weekend.
January 8, 2003

The moment of truth. Would I be able to get down the track cleanly or would it turn into another day of pain? The first problem was that I had totally trashed one of my runners on my full brakes run the day before. When you don’t get up on the curves, your sled drives right through all the debris and rough ice that’s down in the belly of the turn. It’ll take a lot of 150 grit sandpaper to get out all the scratches, but that’s just part of the game.

To make a long story short, I left the track with a big smile on my face. My times weren’t the fastest, but I made it down clean, without any big bumps or bruises. Now I’m a little disappointed that we don’t have any more time for almost two weeks. That doesn’t leave much prep time before the seeding races to fix the problems I’ve been having, but at least on the flip side, the guys behind me won’t have any more time either.
January 7, 2003

How quickly the thrill of victory wears off.

Today was scary. Ever since I bounced all over the place in that second run, I’ve been thinking more and more about what I should be doing as I go down the track. Of course, all that thinking usually means I’m analyzing why I hit the wall even as I’m two curves past it (and then hitting more walls). After Sunday’s session, I came home with a big bruise on my bicep, and that would be my downfall today.

We had a small group sliding, so there was a chance to get four runs today – really a time to work on all those little problems. Unfortunately, in my first run, I smacked hard out of curve six, banging my already bruised arm once again. I reached the finish dock in real pain, but thought I could fix it on the next run.

Not a chance. All I could think was “Don’t hit the wall. Don’t hit the wall. Don’t hit the wall.” When I was late exiting curve four, I knew I was going to hit out of six again, so I panicked and hit the brakes, dragging my toes the rest of the way down the track, not even getting up onto the curves in order to avoid the possibility of getting off them late and banging into the wall. I barely made it to the finish, barely having enough momentum to reach the junior finish dock. I left my sled there, walked up to the truck, got to the top, grabbed my stuff and went home.

All I could think was that this was it. For the first time, I was scared to get on a sled. All I could think about was the possibility of getting seriously hurt, and how that would keep me from qualifying for nationals, essentially ending my dream before it really had a chance to start. I called Coach Colleen and told her that I would be taking the next day off because my head just wasn’t in the right place. With no track time until the 21st, I thought that the break would do me good. She didn’t agree, telling me that I needed to be cliché and get back on the horse. “Go through a run in your mind. Imagine it’s a race, and you have the perfect run. See yourself atop the podium, and don’t let anything get in your way.”

I have a hard time with the mental aspects of this sport. I’ve never been good at seeing the positive in things, but am well trained in finding the negative. Call me the eternal pessimist. Lori has been trying for some time to get me to change, watching me get all grumpy after a soccer loss, or seeing my reaction to another 9-3 Michigan football season. I’m working on it, but it’s tough to change who you are overnight. I stayed up for a good half-hour trying to picture the perfect run, but I kept hitting the wall in my mind. Finally my mind zipped me down the track cleanly, and I drifted off to sleep.
January 4, 2003

Race day. Following full race protocol this time, with judges and everything. I tried to relax in the start house and just focus on stretching and getting ready to race, but the excitement coupled with all the people there (50-plus racers total) made it hard to tune everything out. There were 21 men in the senior club class, and I started 19th, so there was even more time to wait and think about the runs to come. Finally, it was my turn, and there were Steve, Tell and Curtis sitting 1-2-3 in the standings. I had my typical cruddy start of 5.37 that had me in 10th after the first interval. But then things got better fast. I made my all my steers at just the right time, and kept myself off the wall in turn 7. I came through cleanly in 12-13, and was feeling good as I came through Low Point, but then the sled drifted to the right, I tapped the wall just before the finish curve, and as I came up the outrun, the scoreboard flashed up with a 53.65 – good enough for second place. WHOO-FREAKIN’-HOO!!!

The second run would be in reverse order by time, so I’d get to watch everyone except Steve go down the track, and would know just what I’d need to stay on the podium. I tried not to think of potentially winning the race, and tried to just relax and go through my regular warm-up routine. But that’s hard to do when everyone keeps coming up to congratulate you on your run. I was 0.18 seconds back from first, 0.11 ahead of Tell in third, and 0.19 ahead of Curtis in fourth. At this stage of our development, any of us could win this thing.

Curtis put down a good second run, but I still had 0.12 to work with. All I needed was a run just like my first, and I had second place locked up. Alas, it was not to be. I had the tenth fastest (or fifth slowest) start, skidded going into turn four which made me late into six, banged hard into seven, kept it together through 14, but then ping-ponged through Low Point giving me a 54.58. After Steve ran an even faster second run, I had finished in third place. The bronze medal was mine. My total time would have been good enough for sixth place overall including the juniors, so I’m right where I need to be come the end of the month.
January 2, 2003

My one-year anniversary in the sport. A year ago, I was first getting onto a sled up in Placid, which began this whole crazy adventure. Today, my training really begins in earnest. The Elite team has gotten a deal on the Frappier Acceleration Program at T.O.S.H. in Park City, and we started off with some pre-testing today. They measured our leg explosion on a force plate, tested our vertical jump, and ran us through some sprints. Needless to say, I’m weak and slow after being relatively inactive for the past three months. I have always had a hard time motivating myself to work out on my own, that’s why I played so much soccer – it’s a group activity. One thing that was sort of fun, I was finally timed in the 40-yard dash, and I ran a surprisingly slow 5.22. Now that may seem fast to you, but consider that there are 320-pound offensive linemen who can run under 5 seconds. If we were racing, I’m sure I could pass them further down the track, but you get the picture – the trainers are going to have a lot of work to do on me to get me back up to speed.

We had our official training session for Saturday’s race – the first annual Pioneer Cup. Every year here in Utah they have a whole series of competitions called the Utah Winter Games. They have clinics in every possible winter sport – from ski jumping to biathlon, and then they have competitions for the participants. There’s going to be a full day of skeleton racing at the park, with the clinic participants racing, a junior club race, senior club race and a Master’s class. It’s all very exciting, and designed to promote the sport and the great facilities the state of Utah has. Once again, I was sitting in about 4th or 5th position behind the usual cast of characters:

Stokes Aitken: 23 year-old former football player at a small Div. II school in North Dakota. He was so bad when he first started this year that the junior team coach didn’t want him. His first run from the top, he crashed and fell off his sled. Now, he’s one of the fastest at the park, with a killer start. Thankfully for me, he’s racing in the junior class on Saturday.

Steve Mayer: Former national-team cyclist, speed skier, and one of the foremost hang gliding and paragliding instructors in the nation. He’s older than me, but his flying experience really helps him feel his way down the ice.

Curtis Brimley: A Salt Lake dentist, like me, he took up the sport last year in Lake Placid, and also wasn’t recognized by Colleen at first. He’s usually a few tenths of a second ahead of me, but every once in a while we’ll swap places.

Some of the other guys you might meet along the way:

Ivan & Tell Hendren: Tell is a decathlete from USC, Ivan is his brother. They’ve both got great starts, but have a tendency to skid on their sleds down the course. With some more runs, I’ll be in trouble with these two.

Lorenzo Hill: A Navy computer tech based in Seattle, he’s taking a few months leave of absence to train for this. He’s got one of those totally sculpted wide receiver bodies, but keeps letting go of his sled at the start and having to chase it down the ramp. Funny, yet painful to watch.

Walt Harrison: A former arbitrageur, and another speed skier; he’s a huge gym rat, and put up some serious numbers at the TOSH pre-training. He just hasn’t managed to put together two consistent runs.

So now you know the cast of characters, let’s get on with the show…
December 29, 2002

We got about 4 inches of snow this morning before our scheduled session, so times were ridiculously slow. Couple that with the fact that almost everyone is feeling tired following yesterday’s competition, and we’ll just skip today’s results. I sat in my usual fourth or fifth place out of the group, so there’s nothing new to report.

One little side note about technology. Skeleton is an equipment-heavy endeavor. Runners come in a variety of metal alloys and cuts. Sleds are made from different fiberglass compounds and all have different levels of flex and maneuverability. Because I’m just starting out, I went with a low-end sled and runners. Everyone says that if I put some faster runners on my sled, I can take up to two seconds off my time. Problem is, those great runners are going to cost me $500 – 800, which isn’t an easy expense when you’re only making $8.50 an hour. So, the fact that I’m running as high in the standings as I am with the equipment I’m on makes me feel a little bit better.
December 28, 2002

As the year approaches its close, I have to sit back and reflect a bit on what has happened over the past 12 months. Let’s see – I started the year by going up to Lake Placid for skeleton school, and here I am at the end of it sliding down the track. Pretty amazing. Along the way, I went to the Olympics, bought a house, got married in Hawaii, quit my job, and moved to Park City, Utah. WHEW!

And so it is here that I find myself, getting ready for the biggest month of my young skeleton career. Over the next 30 days, we will have six races, including three club seeding races which will determine who gets an invite to the National Championships at the beginning of March. Only the top eight club sliders from both Park City and Lake Placid will get invites, so I really need to pick up my times if I want a shot at the big time.

Our first race is today, and it’s a good benchmark of where I stand, as we’ll be competing against not just the regular club members, but the entire junior team as well. A brief note about the juniors – for some reason, the U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation (USBSF) has decided that youth development is the way to win medals in 2006, and so there’s a group of about 20 kids under-23 who have been sliding three days a week since early November. In theory, I understand the reasons behind it. It doesn’t make much sense to put big efforts into a guy like me who has maybe one shot at making the national team, but when you look at the members of the U.S. World Cup team, it’s got plenty of people over the age of 30, and fewer, and it’s the same thing on the America’s Cup squad. A lot of these youngsters can run like the wind at the start, but it’s the old folks who know how to get themselves down the hill fast. Ahhh, better not to dwell on the politics and just try to slide fast.

Thankfully, I’ve been invited to join the Elite Skeleton program that was started by former World Cup team member Colleen Rush (herself no spring chicken at age 37). She saw this injustice in ice time, and petitioned the USBSF to get some more time for talented “older” sliders. She’s done a good job with it, taking one of the junior team rejects and making him one of the fastest guys on the track. I just hope she’ll be able to do the same with me now.

Anyway, back to the race. I don’t have full times for this one because I had to leave right after to go let out the dogs we were watching (such a busy life I lead now). Long story short, I had two decent runs, and ended up in 11th place, behind four of my fellow Elite team members, and a whole mess of juniors, so I’ll need to pick up about three or four places in the next month to give myself a good shot.
RACE DAY – Saturday, November 16

Two runs into the season, and it was race time. They’re not much for practice making perfect I guess, so this was going to be a consistency race. The winner is not the one who finishes with the fastest time, but the one whose two runs are closest together in time. I guess that my first run was just beginners luck, as I consistently went sideways into turn four on both my runs which managed to slow me down a lot to say the least. On the brighter side, I did pick up my start time from a pathetic 5.48 to a respectable 5.23 – not bad for a guy who hasn’t run or worked out in a month.

Despite the rough runs, I still managed to record the 3rd and 4th fastest times, and would have finished tied for third overall if we were keeping score that way. Unfortunately, I would have been about two seconds behind the first two finishers, which is an eternity in skeleton.

As it turned out, I found out afterwards that I had set my runners wrong, and that one was nearly two millimeters higher than the other. That’s like trying to drive with unbalanced tires, and could explain my difficulties in getting down the track cleanly. I’ve got a couple of weeks to fix that, so hopefully for our next training session, I’ll be balanced and will make my way down a lot cleaner.

So now, the happy-faced shaped bruise on my left bicep is faded, and I’m about ready to hit the gym, so our next trip on the track in December should be even better.
TRAINING DAY – Friday, Nov. 15

It’s the first club night at the track, and my first chance to go down the same Olympic track that Jimmy Shea and Tristan Gale took gold on back in February. Another bit of strange politics – the coach of the junior programs won’t let her kids (some of whom are 22 years old) slide from the top until they’re 100% solid from the lower start points. Meanwhile, I get to go from the top thanks to all of my 15 runs from the top of Lake Placid. Go figure. Side note: the top juniors get to participate in a “gold” or “silver” program and get to slide three days a week. Again, how am I supposed to get better when they get all the time?

Apparently, last year, the club nights were sparsely attended, with maybe 3-5 people showing up. Since the Olympics, interest in the sport has skyrocketed, and we had maybe 20 people out to slide. Many of them were fresh from the first skeleton school of the year, but still, it was more than five. Maybe that will convince the park to give us more time in the future.

But enough about politics. You want to know how I did, right? Well, let’s just say that on my first run on the Park City track, I recorded the second fastest time of the night, just behind Wendy Arnone, who finished sixth at the national championships last spring. Not too shabby I must say. The second run was a little slower as I had some trouble with the 3-4 transition and ended up sideways going into one of the track’s trickier turns. Despite that, I got faster down the course, and ended up in 3rd. It felt great to be back out there. I was relaxed, calm, and thanks to my previous studying, I knew where I was at all times on the track – even as I ping-ponged off of some of the walls.
Year 1 – October 2002

So after four days of driving, Lori and I found ourselves in Park City and our beautifully empty home. The movers were coming in a few days, but there was something pleasing about the stark emptiness of the white walls, and knowing that we would soon fill it with all of our stuff, and make the house into a home.

As it turned out, the movers took a little longer to arrive than we had hoped, so we had a lot of time to kill, and explore during our first few days in Utah. Luckily for me, the first three legs of the skeleton national team selection races were coming up at the track, so I had something to do during the evenings – walk the track, and chat with head coach Tim Nardiello about what we were seeing in the brief seconds the sliders would rush past us.

The question on most people’s minds was “why aren’t you sliding this week?” The truth was, I wanted desperately to be out on the ice again. Feeling the G-forces in the turns, shaking off the bumps and bruises to race down the start ramp over and over. Alas, in order to be eligible to compete, you had to attend one of the official push camps in Lake Placid or Calgary. The Lake Placid camp was scheduled for the same weekend as our wedding “un-reception” so that was out, and the idea of paying for a flight and housing for a week in Calgary so soon after our Hawaii trip and before quitting my job was just a little too much to handle. I wasn’t expecting to make the World Cup team this year, but three runs a day for two weeks would have been nice.

That last point is one that I imagine will come up over and over this season, as it appears I was misled as to how much pull the Utah Skeleton Association actually has. Based on the early schedule, it looks like I’ll get on the ice maybe two to three times a month, rather than two to three times a week as I had imagined. Oh well, it’s all politics, and if I learned anything from my time in Washington, it’s that any political issue is negotiable.

But enough about the back-room machinations, and more about what I’m doing to become a champion. As I mentioned, I got to spend a lot of time talking with the U.S. head coach, which is probably the best thing that could have happened to me. We spent time in curve six, discussing the double oscillation and how best to drive it. We talked about staying relaxed when hitting the bump right before curve two. If I just went in sliding blind, guaranteed I would be all over the place, but these lessons gave me a leg up on some of my competition, and will serve me well when the club races begin in earnest

The other thing I’ve been doing to get ready is sled preparation. I ordered a sled from Don Hass up in New York – he makes the sleds that the schools use, so I figured it would be a good starter model (plus it was about $500 cheaper than other manufacturers). Of course, you get what you pay for, and as I talked with the other sliders who ordered Hass sleds, the reaction was universally unhappy. At least five people were selling their sleds unused – preferring to lose money and buy another model rather than slide on one of these. Not having the ability to just throw away another $500, I took my sled back to school – high school that is.

Turns out that one of the other club members, Tom Raty, is an auto/metal shop teacher at Granite High School in Salt Lake. He has his students building bobsleds and skeletons as class projects, so he’s pulled apart and put back together more than his share of sleds. I took mine to his shop, and together we pulled the whole thing apart, cleaned out the plumber’s caulk, polished the axles, and generally put some flex into the sled so that I’d actually be able to steer the thing. After two days of work, it was like I had a new machine, and once it was padded up, it looked almost like the ones the top sliders have. At the end of the season, we’ll pull it apart again, sand it down and give it a nice new paint job. Maybe someone will buy it, and I’ll upgrade to a snazzier model. Of course, coach Tim says that it’s 90% driving and 10% equipment, so if my times are within 10% of the leaders, maybe I’ll just keep it.