I’ve always had a thing for going downhill fast. In biking season, I’m willing to sweat a bit more, and pedal a little longer and harder, if I know the reward at the top will be a screamingly fast downhill spin. In wintertime, there is that sustained anticipation that builds as you trek up a hillside, the sled bouncing its way up behind as you yank on the string when a runner catches on an icy clump of snow, because you know that when you’ve finally crested the top, you can sit down on your sled and go for a ride.
When we were planning our activities for a four-day trip to Whistler, B.C., I remembered that the ski area had been the site of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. Were there activities that might bring us closer to some of those athletic venues, I wondered? After some research, I learned it is one of the few parks offering public access to its sliding venue, the Whistler Sliding Centre, location of the Olympic luge, skeleton, and bobsleigh competitions. I ran the idea past Dr. K, telling him that our sliding session (at the cost of $169 per person) could help sustain the venue. He wanted to know if we needed any experience, so I put him through the paces on the Centre’s website. After running through a short list of questions hardly different from those one might be required to answer when deciding to ride the Hollywood Tower of Terror at MGM Studios, we were certain that since we were:
(a) between the ages of 16-75, not terribly overweight, of average height; and
(b) had the dexterity to climb over a three foot high barrier (fine, as long as we didn’t have to jump it) and enough physical strength to grip the sides of a sled; and
(c) certainly were not pregnant (at age 51) and did not have any neck or back injuries which had kept us off roller coaster rides in the past;
(d) and because there was no check off on the list asking us to provide a notarized statement from a mental health provider certifying that we weren’t crazy;
we decided it would be safe to enroll in the two-hour program.
Yes, it did mean we would have to take the day off from real exercise, and probably wouldn’t go cross-country skiing, since our sliding appointment began at 12:45pm. It was okay. We were on vacation. Never mind that there were warnings of bumps and bruises. We were tough. In my anticipation, I must have forgotten about the time, back when I was a fledgling lawyer, a Sunday afternoon tubing outing with friends earned me two bone chips, three torn ligaments, and a nine-week stay in an elegant orthopedic boot. I hadn’t minded it. The look of astonishment on my boss’s face Monday morning as I hobbled into a deposition on crutches was worth it; he’d never seen a foot so grotesquely swollen.
Before we arrived, I knew very little about the sport of bobsledding, or bob sleighing. While it had all begun as boys’ fun in Switzerland, a smart hotelier in St. Moritz in the 1870’s developed a sled with higher sides to entice wealthy English visitors to spend winter vacations in the spa town. His purpose was to transport people from one place to another, but once the grown up boys got their hands on the blades, it gained a competitive edge and went downhill from there.
St. Moritz built the first natural half-pipe track, all made of ice, which still exists, and has been used in two previous Olympic Games. The sport broke off into divisions of luging (one person on an unprotected sled), skeleton (going head-first downhill at breakneck speed on what has been termed a “cookie sheet”), and 2 and 4 men’s or women’s teams. Snow in your home country is not a requirement, as evidenced by the participation of the popular Jamaican team, poster children for the movie, Cool Runnings.
Tracks have changed since that first one built back in 1902. Now constructed of concrete and steel, the icy tubes are usually about 4,200 feet long, with one straightaway, one labyrinth consisting of three, tight turns, and at least 15 curves. They’re cooled by sophisticated refrigeration systems run on ammonia.
I knew it would be a fast ride, lasting no longer than 30 seconds or so, because that’s what they told us in our prep “class.” I knew we would reach speeds of about 128 km (80 mph), but that sounded like a roller coaster experience, just a bit faster. I had survived the Dragon Challenge at Universal Studios last summer, right? So what if my eyes were screwed shut for that entire two and a half minute ride? Would you really want to watch a Hungarian Horntail dragon battle a Chinese Fireball dragon, especially if you’re precariously perched (and often upside down) inside one of them? I think we were in the Fireball (because it was red), but my main recollection was of squeezing my toes tighter into my sandals so they wouldn’t fly off and hit someone riding the Horntail in the head. That, and trying not to throw up.
On the Whistler Bobsleigh Ride Experience, you don’t have time to think about throwing up because you’re moving too fast. That, and you’re too worried about Curve 16, named Thunderbird for the sound of thunder in the air after a runner finishes on the track. All but four of the curves are named, most related to effects you encounter as you pass through them. Turn 13 in the labyrinth, collectively called The Gold Rush Trail, has the simple appellation 50/50, so named by American bobsledder Steven Holcomb when fifty percent of the teams crashed on the first day of training for the World Cup in February 2009. Thunderbird, though, was the curve where Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili crashed and died on the day of opening ceremonies for the 2010 Winter Olympics. At the time, the track was determined to be too fast, too dangerous.
Olympic athletes spend their lives gearing up for their chance to compete. The expenses incurred for equipment, time spent training away from jobs that pay, and travel can run as high as $250,000 a year, for years on end. While some elites acquire lucrative corporate endorsements, most go into debt pursuing their dream medal. Some have tapped into the new fundraising method, Crowdfunding, to make their dreams a more hopeful reality.
The corruption and price scandals involved in Sochi, Russia tarnish the gleaming medals, and we scratch our heads at the purported $51 billion Russia has spent footing the bill for the 2014 spectacle. We wonder why we encourage this sort of financial outlay when there are homeless and starving people in every country participating in the Olympics, and yet, once you see the facilities, there is a glimmer of understanding.
Athletes compete in these grueling sports for the personal challenge, to see how far they can push their human frames. There is honor wearing the costume of one’s country, to hoist your country’s flag. But more importantly, there is the global human connection, unrelated to whichever flag you wave. We saw it this week when American Shaun White, two-time Olympic Gold Medalist in the men’s half-pipe, hugged and cheered on his Swiss competitor when Iouri Podladtchikov (better known as I-Pod) won the Gold, dashing White’s dreams for a trio of Gold medals. There was comradeship when the Canadian head cross-country coach rushed to rescue a Russian skier, helping Anton Gafarov step into a fresh ski after his was broken in half, so he could complete the men’s free-style semi-final.
I saw that camaraderie during our Bobsleigh Experience, too. There were 21 of us “competing” that day, with seven sleds, driven by pro’s, sliding down those twisting, spine-rattling curves. It was all in fun, a mixture of Canadians and Americans, some committed athletes trying on a new sport for size, others, like us, curious tourists.
I think the look on my face after the orientation must have been one of sheer terror, because the van driver, the woman who would shuttle us in groups to the Novice Start position, asked me several times before I climbed into the sled if I was okay.
I wasn’t sure that I was.
In 39.98 seconds, it was finished. In that short span of time, I had gained two Olympic medal-sized bruises on either side of my calves where the bobsled ribs ground into my legs on each turn, and I had grown in admiration for the human athletes who push themselves every day to careen down treacherous tracks such as this one. There was immense dedication, with sheer athleticism and skill required to navigate a course, to know its every inch. It was not just going down a hill for the thrill of it; the thrill is ancillary to the acceptance of the task. There is responsibility to team and country, and to not killing yourself.
But unlike on a frivolous roller coaster ride, I kept my eyes wide open. I didn’t want to miss a single curve, or glissé over any rumbling bump as we sheered corners at what felt like lightening speed. Somewhere, subliminally, I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to step into an athlete’s shoes, and see it as they did.
Experiencing someone else’s life and dreams firsthand is ethereal. You don’t want to blink.
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Award-winning author Emily Kemme writes about human nature, illuminating the everyday in a way that highlights its brilliance. Follow her on her blog, Feeding the Famished, https://www.facebook.com/EmilyKemme, or on Twitter @. Life inspired. Vodka tempered.