WHAT THEY SAID: It’s all downhill from here

The following is an excerpt from an article posted at stuff.co.nz:

Manly posturing aside, a slide down Utah Olympic Park’s bobsled track is a screaming white 130kmh assault on the senses.

Snowflakes on fir trees and the gentle hiss of our sled’s runners sliding over the first few metres of ice at the top of the world’s fastest bobsled track have lulled me into a state of unreal calm. This bobsled malarkey isn’t half as frightening as our sliding guide Jon Green had warned us in the warm briefing room just minutes ago.

But brace yourself: at the first left hand bend, our four-body fibreglass coffin is wrenched violently on its axis, a grating roar destroys the silence, and crushing forces compress my spine and try to prise my grip from the single wire handholds. We’re 10 seconds into the Utah Olympic Park bobsled track, rocketing towards 130kmh.

We’ve got an interminable minute of inhuman pressure, fear, pain and uncertainty to come, and all I can think about is who will call my next of kin.

Olympic Park in Utah, half an hour out of Salt Lake City and the venue for the first Winter Games of this century (2002), has a spartan, other-worldly feel in the still of dusk. The glass and steel buildings, soaring parabolic curves of the ski jumps and the winding ice tracks of those nutty sliding sports – luge, skeleton and bobsled – are silent and coated in late winter’s snowy blanket.

The park is used summer and winter for state and national competition and training, and has a fascinating three- story ski and Winter Games museum documenting the 2002 event in video and interactive exhibits.

At the safety briefing near the top of the bobsled track on this March evening, the fresh spectre of the Romanian luge pilot’s death on the Whistler track hangs in the air as Green explains the risks of bobsled – spinal injuries, blood pressure surges, bruising and muscular pain and the worst, sled rollover. He confesses that, despite his strapping six-foot (1.83 metres) physique and mountainman’s courage, he won’t be riding again. “It hurts,” he says.

Like most visitors and paying guests at Olympic Park, I’m wearing ski gear and gloves, and the standard issue full- face motorbike helmet. Our “pilot”, Pat Brown, looks like an IndyCar racer in a one-piece jumpsuit and driving boots. The only giveaway about the career choice of this bobsled ace and Olympic sliding coach is the broad-backed belt favoured by weight lifters that will keep his spine from dissembling under the 4-5G pressures of the track’s tightest turns.

Brown coached the Jamaican bobsled team at Calgary (1988), so he’s nominally the inspiration for the John Candy character in the comedy Cool Runnings that taught us, in bobsled, “bones don’t break, they shatter”.

But Brown is more serious about his sport: “Nothing in that movie was true,” he says. And more reassuringly “no-one has died while bobsledding with me”.

It’s only after the fourth blood- draining turn on the 1.3-kilometre track that I remember to take a breath. But any thought of relaxing, preparing for the next curve or adjusting my seat is impossible. I’m riding number two, behind Brown, with a charming Oregon park ranger straddling my back, and her fisheries officer husband straddling hers. We’re sitting on a thin rubber mat, wrists and knees are smacking the sled sides, and although our eyes are open, we can’t see anything even vaguely recognisable.

Click here to read the entire article.


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