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Speed Racer

How I became an Olympic bobsledder—for just one moment.

By |

For one minute and two-point-six-one seconds, I can feel everything. My stomach rolls up into my throat. The wind whips past my face, blowing strands of my hair around wildly. My biceps strain as I force my body to remain as still as possible.

The sensations remind me of being on a roller coaster. Only this ride is in the dark—I can’t see a thing. A blur of blue directly in front of my face obscures everything but the track, which flirts with my peripheral vision. Suddenly, I feel my body tilting at an almost 90-degree angle. I should be falling, yet somehow I don’t. The four G’s (four times the force of gravity) keep me pinned to my seat.

I’m in Park City, Utah, in a bobsled, with three people I don’t know. We’re rocketing down a 0.8-mile track at 67.9 mph, a speed that would garner me a ticket on many highways. Of course, on a highway, in a car, I’d be protected by metal and airbags designed for my safety. Here, my body is almost completely exposed. But right now, in this moment, I’m OK with the danger because I’m living my Olympic dream.

Nine months out of the year, the folks at Utah Olympic Park offer a small taste of the Olympic glory most of us were never able to realize. It’s simple: Pony up the fee, put your John Hancock on a short waiver, and you’ll earn yourself a spot in a four-man bobsled—on one of the fastest tracks in the world.

Since the Swiss invented bobsledding in the late 19th century, the sport has only grown in popularity. Sixty nations, representing 1,500 athletes, are part of the FIBT (Fédération Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing). Bobsledding began to reach wider audiences when it became an Olympic sport in 1924 (although the first women’s event wasn’t added until 2002). Injuries—ranging from burns and bruises to concussions and death (a rarity)—do happen, but they don’t stop athletes from pushing each other to go harder and faster.

The 400-acre Utah Olympic Park played host to the Nordic ski jumping and sliding (bobsled, luge, and skeleton) events during the 2002 Winter Olympics. The concrete-based track cost nearly $30 million to build, and until last year, it was considered the world’s fastest, with a record speed of 88.8 mph. (That honor now resides with the 2010 Winter Games track in Whistler, British Columbia, where a speed of more than 90 mph was recorded.)

In the winter, the Park City track is covered with a 1.5-inch-thick layer of ice, allowing both amateur and professional bobsledders to take runs that attain five G’s. In the summer, the track lays bare but not unused. Special sleds are manufactured with wheels for the warmer months. The warm-weather sleds, which weigh 700 pounds, are driven with the pilot’s feet and have padding, seat belts, and a roll cage. They look similar—but not identical—to competition sleds, which weigh only 500 pounds, are hand-driven, have limited padding, and lack both seat belts and a roll cage. Eight years after its Olympic debut, the Park City track is still used annually for World Cup competitions in skeleton and luge, as a training facility for national team athletes, and as a place where an ordinary person gets to do something extraordinary, if only for a passing moment.

Minutes before my slide, I’m sitting in a room at the top of the bobsled track, watching an educational video about keeping my arms inside the sled and how to tighten my helmet. The video is surprisingly short and basic, as is the electronic waiver I’m required to sign before I slip inside the sled. I grab a helmet that looks similar to those worn by BMX riders in the X Games, and tug the red, white, and black protective shield onto my head.

Outside, looking at the track, I can’t see much except the first steeply banking curve. After that, the track quickly bends downhill and out of sight. I can feel my heart rate increase and my mouth go dry. I wonder, for just a second, if I really need this Olympic moment.

But the period of hesitation passes, and I’m assigned to a sled with two teenage boys. Our pilot, introduced to us just minutes before hopping in the sled, is Nick, a twentysomething guy from northern Minnesota who looks more like a terrain-park junkie than the well-built Olympic bobsledder I’d been expecting.

I’d been looking forward to the start of the run; I wanted to experience the swift entry into the sled. I find out, though, that there’s no kissing a lucky egg, á la Cool Runnings; no “Feel the rhythm! Feel the rhyme! Get on up, it’s bobsled time!” We don’t get that moment of glory where we push the sled forward, our thighs burning with effort, as we hop in one at a time. Instead, we maneuver slowly into the stationary sled—first the fourth rider, at the back, and then the third, the pilot, and lastly me, the second rider.

Three members of the track crew surround the sled, manning their positions to push us forward. I form a death grip around the wrist straps attached to the inner sides of the sled and stick my legs straight out in front of me, on each side of Nick. “Be careful not to squeeze your legs together,” a member of the ride staff tells me. “You’ll distract the driver.”

Suddenly we’re moving—and headed toward a blind turn. Everything but Nick’s blue helmet goes out of focus. I can feel all the bumps in the track as the wheels careen over them. I sense our speed increasing as I hold my arms steady. My cheeks quiver from the momentum. I clench my teeth. Without warning, I feel the sled moving up, my body shifting sideways. We’re flying around a curve. Then the sled levels out before shifting in the opposite direction. We zip around what I imagine is curve six, the most aggressive bend on the track, and all thoughts leave my head. I give in to the movement, to the exhilaration of speed.

For the next 60 seconds, I become someone else. I’m not a journalist. I’m not an adventure seeker who simply thought bobsledding would be fun to try. I’m an Olympic athlete, listening to chants of my name being carried on the wind as I scream toward the finish line.

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