Bobsledding is tougher than it looks

Bobsled Blur

SOCHI, Russia -- So you watch the bobsled on TV and you say, "Damn, that looks like fun. That looks easy. You jump in a sled and just let gravity do the rest. I could do that.''

Ummm, maybe not.

As U.S. driver Elana Meyers explains, if you want to join the bobsled team, first you must go through a series of physical tests to see if you have the athletic skills to be a bobsledder. Like NFL stars Herschel Walker and Willie Gault in past decades, or Lolo Jones and Eja Evans this year. Jones, of course, is an Olympic hurdler, while Evans is that rare athlete with such great upper body strength and leg speed that she was a sprinter and a shot-putter in college.

Once you prove you have what it takes, then you must learn how to push a sled. By now, you're likely getting pretty excited about the bobsled and getting inside for a ride.

"And then," Meyers said, "all the other athletes start telling you what it's going to be like on ice. They tell you the absolute worst stories ever. They tell you horror stories about all these crashes and all these things that will happen. Then they send you up to the top of the hill and they say, 'OK, get in and go down.' And you're like, 'What? No other warnings? I think I need more information.' 'No, just go.'

"Then they push you off."

What's it like riding down a bobsled track? Imagine cramming into a Smart Car with three large athletic friends and then speeding down an icy mountain road with no brakes. Imagine the wildest, most bone-jarring roller-coaster ride you've ever been on.

Or, as Jones said, imagine being in a car crash or a plane crash. Or perhaps being stuffed in a metal garbage can and kicked off the summit of Mount Everest.

"The very first ride I ever took in a bobsled, I was convinced after 50 meters that the sled was broken,'' American bobsledder Steve Langton said. "I thought there is no way this can possibly be the sport I've chosen to compete in.

"On TV it looks so smooth and calm and nice, and it was the complete opposite of all three of those things. It was loud. It was uncomfortable. It was violent. I actually thought I was going to shoot out the bottom of that thing."

Meyers said that at the end of her first run, she slowly got up out of the bobsled, wobbly and completely disoriented. Her clearest thought, however, was "I want to go again."

You have to feel that way, otherwise you never will gain the experience to be comfortable and good in a sled.

As Jones and Evans show, becoming a brakeman/pusher can be a relatively quick process. But becoming a driver takes much longer. It takes years. You must learn the nuances of the position, how to drive by feel as much by sight because you are going so fast. Gold medalist Steven Holcomb essentially drove on feel alone when he nearly went blind due to keratoconus, a condition that fortunately was corrected.

"My sensations are in my feet and knees, butt and hips, my hands on the side," he said. "The sled became a part of my body. It's just kind of the feel of it."

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