Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Race One of the Para Bobsled World Cup: Igls, Austria

It’s taken me a while to process everything from the past few weeks, and now I know two very
important things…. First, I still have so much more to learn and so much more growth. I’m just a newborn in this sport and I have to continue to work hard, to learn, and to get my legs (pun intended) under me. Second, I love bobsledding and am very eager to grow the sport.

When I left for Europe, I had never driven a bobsled myself.  I’d only ever been a brakeman for a brilliant driver. British badass Corie Mapp and I roomed together in Igls, Austria. From the first night, without even going to the track yet, we started talking through the turns. He explained driving to me. In a “one driver to another” way, friend to friend.
Corie Mapp (GB) and me joking before the race.

 First up was orientation, where we learned that the races would be seated. I could turn off the push-the-sled-like-you-stole-it part of me and concentrate on learning to drive. (We didn’t have enough drivers for both ambulatory and seated. That’s the next step in the evolution of the sport.) That evening, we had a track walk. Coach Sarah, whom I’d met in Canada, talked us through the points of steering, pressure spots in the turns, and what we should be doing to get the smoothest and fastest run possible on our way down the ice. Beyond the beauty of the track with the snow and the mountains, the opportunity to have so much experience there to guide us was overwhelming.

There were athletes representing several countries in these inaugural races: the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Latvia, Spain, Austria, Australia, Switzerland, and Denmark.

Day one of training runs. I was nervous. Igls is one of the easiest tracks but that doesn’t mean you can take it for granted. I was in the sled, at the Damen (women’s/training) start about 2/3 up the track, shaking like a leaf as they brought me to the edge for my first run as a driver. The monobobs (single man bobsleds) are gorgeous little machines. They look like Skittles. As they let go of my sled, I just stuck to what the coaches told me: less is more. The feeling of my first run was nothing short of exhilarating and I was grinning ear to ear! Now came the cerebral part of the sport. Clean up my runs, listen to my coaches and work towards moving up to the top of the track.

In order to qualify for the race, we had to make a successful run from the top of the track. No crash. Be safe. From the top to the bottom…. After two days of training, I was told I was headed to the top the next day after a final run from the Damen start. I was working hard to clean up my lines on my runs and gaining confidence. There was still a part of the track, the labyrinth, that was giving me problems. I knew why I was having issues, I just needed to fix the issues.

Back at the Damen start, I headed out for what I thought would be my final run before the top. Everything was fine exiting turn ten and heading for the labyrinth, then it happened. I didn’t let the sled settle into the turn and tried to steer off too quickly. The back of the sled rose again, and over I went in turn twelve. The crash wasn’t anything spectacular, but it was humbling. As the sled stopped and the track crew flipped me back over, all I could say was “Send me back up! I’m fine, send me back up!!” I spoke to my coaches, confirmed what I did wrong, then went back to the Damen start for two more runs. No top run for me that day. I was officially nervous that I’d blown my chance.

That night the coaches told me I’d rebounded nicely and that they thought I was ready to go to the top and that I was headed up to the start the next day. Relieved, I retired to my room and Corie and I walked through the track again.

As I headed to the top the next day, I had the same jitters. Nerves are generally a good thing. I tried to climb into the sled and I couldn’t get in. Flustered, I looked into the foot well and saw foot pegs. Foot pegs are installed for shorter drivers.  Since we share sleds and my sled-mate was shorter, they were still in the sled. I’m not short, and so this posed a problem. Growing more flustered, I slid the seat back and jumped in. Another drop start and I was on my way. Here’s the problem…. when you’re flustered, making a run from the top for the first time may not be the best idea. This proved true in turn five as I rolled the sled over and proceeded to make the rest of my run down the track on my side.

Sliding on your side in a bobsled gives you a little time for reflection. I saw the ice sliding by. I thought about what I’d done wrong in the turn. I thought about those stupid foot pegs. Most of all, I thought I may have just blown my chance again.

I flushed those thoughts out of my head as they rolled me back over. “Yes, I’m fine.” As one of the mechanics showed up, I asked (in less of an asking and more of a frustrated four letter demand that I later apologized for) for the foot pegs to be removed as I took off to walk to the finish line. I waited at the finish, watching my fellow athletes make their training runs from the top and wondering when I’d get to go back up.

Little did I know, my coaches were all screaming for me to get to the top for a run so I could qualify. My sled was waiting for me at the start. So I hopped on the next truck and headed up with very little time to get a qualifying run in before the race the next day. At the top, I was nervous, but calm. Focused. I knew I had to do it or I was going home. Visor down on the helmet, drop start, and I was off again. As I drove through turn five, I screamed a hearty “fuck-yeah!” and rolled through the rest of the track to the finish. It was the slowest time of the day, but it was a completed run. As I hit the finish dock, I ran to Kristaps (the Latvian coach and coordinator from the FIBT) and the others to make sure I was indeed racing the next day. I was…..

I walked over to an area away from the other athletes, dropped to a squat and cried. I’m not usually an emotional guy, but I was full of emotions and they had to come out. Brian, another athlete and friend from Canada, came over to congratulate me on the run and it was all I could do to keep calm. That meant a lot to me to have someone I feel is a real driver come and give me praise for just getting it done.

Race day. I’d had clean lines all week but I also had two crashes and a single solid run from the top. My coaches believed in me and while I was nervous, I was calm. Calmer than I’d been all week. I had a good sled draw the previous night (we drew numbers to determine both the sled number and start position for the first heat) and was ready to race. To the top I went. The Para Skeleton athletes had already completed their first heat of the day. I climbed in, helmet on, and off I went. “Just be clean, fast and remember that less is more.” As I crossed the finish and came to the finish dock I was amazed to see I was in third place with the third fastest time so far. I waited for the athletes to complete their run for the first heat. When Corie finished he was in 7th place and was not happy. Nor was I. I left him alone for a moment.  Then we chatted and I told him he was too good for that run to be his first of the day and to go and fix it. In the second heat, he drove the runners off that sled. As I sat at the top, coaches kept grinning at me and asking me where that came from. I felt confident and knew I belonged there.

Into the sled I climbed, helmet on, and off for my second run I went. I just tried to replicate my first run with a minor clean-up at the last turn. As I crossed the finish line and on to the finish dock, I saw that I was sitting in third place. There were two disqualifications for two drivers being over the 100kg max driver weight. One of those was the current first place driver. Suddenly the realization sank in that I was sitting in second place with Corie (Great Britain) in first place and Lonnie (Canada) in third place.

The top six Para Bobsled and Para Skeleton athletes from
Igls, Austria.
In total shock, I gave Corie a hug and congratulated him. Then I sat and thought. Holy shit….. I just took second place in the first ever Para Bobsled (Seated) World Cup race, sandwiched between my friend Corie and my friend (and first driver I slid from the top in Calgary with) Lonnie.

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