- By Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
I should be in South Korea right now. I mean, I’ve actually got firsthand experience in a bunch of the crazier events on the lineup for the Pyeongchang Olympics.
And I’m not talking downhill skiing, cross-country skiing or ice skating, all of which I’ve tried, with varying amounts of success. (I’m a pretty good skier for a Texan, tackling moguls and trees when I head west, but am about as graceful as a hippopotamus, so ice skating isn’t my forte.)
Ever tried skeleton, where you swoop down a mountain on a sled chin-first? I have.
Ever ridden a bobsled down an Olympic track? Done that too.
What about ski jumping? Who’s attempted that? Me!
Read on to learn a little more about what it’s like to try these three Olympic events.
During a trip to Steamboat Springs earlier this month, I agreed (what was I thinking!) to attempt ski jumping.
If you’ve seen it on TV, you know that Olympic ski jumpers start at the top of a short, slick and really, really steep hill, going faster and faster until they hit a jump near the bottom that propels them a really, really long distance. (They actually don’t fly that high off the snow; the whole point is to cover distance.)
In a nutshell: Boy, those Olympic-size jumps make the Super Slides I loved when I was a kid look like toddler slide at the neighborhood park. Thankfully, I didn’t go off one of those.
You start with a miniature version of a ski jump, like the one I faced at Howelsen Hill Ski Area on the edge of town. Even though it looks about as big as a mosquito bite from below, the view from the launch point above is impressive.
You can’t see the landing, for one. Which made me nervous. My coach for the day, Todd Wilson, who twice competed in the Nordic combined event (that’s a dual sport that combines ski jumping with cross-country skiing) at the Olympics, let me set the pace. We’d start my “jump” from wherever I felt comfortable and progress as far as I wanted.
Still, a jump that extends maybe a foot high on a gently sloping hill is plenty to shoot you high off the snowpack when you hit it at speed, trust me.
Wilson walked me through the procedure — assume the tuck position skiing up to the jump, rest your ribs on your thighs and flatten your back, lock knees and ankles when you’re airborne and absorb the shock when you land.
A bunch of kids were riding a moving sidewalk up the hill, watching me sweat out the moments leading up to my first attempt.
“Are you going off that jump?” one of them asked.
“Yep, I’m trying,” I told the 5-year-old.
“Well, we’re doing that big jump over there,” he told me. “And we’re only in second grade.”
Thanks, little buddy.
We did the tiniest hill six or seven times, then moved up a step, to the not-quite-as-tiny jump. That frayed my nerves a bit, but I conquered it too, with Wilson’s help.
“Ski jumping is like hitting a golf ball off a flatbed truck going 60 mph, and you have to hit the ball when you pass a sign on the side of the road. And if you miss, something throws you off the truck,” he told me.
It’s all about commitment. Once you start down the in-run, the chute leading to the jump, you can’t snow plow, try to slow down or turn off. You’re doing it.
And I did. I screamed, freaked out a little inside my head and did it.
And it was awesome.
Six years ago, I stood at the top of an icy tube of a track in Whistler, Canada, site of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and prepared to begin my impersonation of a speeding bullet.
In skeleton, athletes hurtle face-first down a twisty course on a heavy sled, their chin just an inch or two above the ice.
A Czechoslovakian coach with a thick accent and a dry sense of humor gave an hourlong briefing before I tried it. “Welcome to the thrill of your life,” she said.
She warned our group (all men but me) we’d be screaming down the track at speeds up to 62 mph. In the 30 or 35 seconds it would take, we were to lie flat and quiet, shoulders pressed down on our sleds, arms and elbows held tight to our sides.
“Don’t lift your arms, don’t lift your shoulders,” she said. “If you poke out your arms and elbows like chicken wings, you may get clipped. If you do different things you will be like a drunken sailor. You must just lie on the sled at all times.”
After a quick trip to the washroom (we were told the G forces that would press us into our sleds would squash our bladders, too) wWe marched up to a start house, partway down the track. I tested the strap on my helmet and tugged elbow pads on over my jacket.
“We will find you at the finish,” the coach said.
The full sliding track drops 499 feet over 4,760 feet. Just before the finish, we would whirl through Thunderbird curve, a harrowing hairpin turn on a course that zigs and zags like a roller coaster on steroids.
“You will not be able to steer or brake,” the coach said with a smile. “Everything depends on body position.”
With that, I lowered myself onto the sled, grabbed the handles and said a little prayer. Someone gave me a push and I began my descent. Before I had time to think, I was shooting down the track, clinging for dear life to the rocketing sled. At peak speed of nearly 60 mph, my jowls flapped like I was hitting warp speed in an episode of “Star Trek.”
When I come out of that last turn, I flew into the straightaway and blew past the finish line. Then I zinged into one wall and pingponged back and forth several times, bleeding off speed. Finally I ground to a halt, panting a little and off-gassing pure adrenaline.
During a January trip to Park City, Utah, I zipped up to Utah Olympic Park, where anyone can sign up to take a spin down the same bobsled track used during the 2002 Winter Olympics.
The only difference? Instead of starting from the top of the track, you’ll start about two-thirds of the way down, to keep your speed in check. And, thankfully, a professional pilot will steer the sleek, torpedo-shaped bobsled. All the three passengers have to do is wedge themselves into the tight quarters, shrug their shoulders tightly to make sure their head doesn’t flop around when the G-forces hit in the banked turns and try not to wet their pants.
As one of the attendants said, it’s sort of like stuffing four people into a bathtub. It’s a noisy ride, too, and we hit a top speed of 62 miles per hour as we whipped through 10 turns on our way down the track. Imagine being tucked snugly into a metal box and having someone shake it briskly for a minute and maybe sling it down a mountain.
That’s kind of what it felt like, in a good way. Not nearly as scary as skeleton or ski jumping, in my opinion. But less responsibility for your own destiny.
At the bottom, we met Carl Roepke, a velvet-voiced announcer who is calling the bobsled event in South Korea. He shared a secret: Sometimes, he plays music on headphones while he’s announcing so he can follow a rhythm while he commentates. It’s his job, he says, to keep the audience entertained.
“Here’s the way I look at it. If you are coming to the games, my job with the production people is to make sure you leave wiping tears away, saying it’s the best thing you’ve ever seen,” Roepke said.