Commentary

Bobsledding is tougher than it looks

It takes athletic ability and years of training to careen down an icy track inside a sled

Updated: February 14, 2014, 10:44 AM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

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.

[+] EnlargeBobsled Push
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesBefore you're allowed to even ride in a bobsled, you must pass several elite athletic tests that combine strength and sprinting, then learn how to push the sled.

"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."

The U.S. are driving new two-man sleds designed by BMW that are quieter and have better aerodynamics than the older sleds. Asked to compare it to his previous sled, Holcomb said, "That's like asking what's the difference between a Mercedes and a BMW. They're both cars. They both have their proprietary stuff that makes them different, it's just a lot of design stuff, different engineering."

Meyers said the Sochi track also rides a little differently in curves than other courses, particularly curve 10, where the sleds goes up and down three times.

"It's not going to be as fast as in Vancouver," Langton said, "but it's technical enough that we can take advantage of having the best driver in the world."

So keep all that mind as you watch the bobsled competition that is so precise it often comes down to hundredths of a second, and you're convincing yourself you could do it, too.

Oh, and one more thing. If you do take up bobsled, you'll be asked to sign a waiver clearing the track of all liability for any injury incurred in the bobsled -- up to and including death. And just to be clear, death is printed in capital letters. DEATH.

"You sign your life away," Meyers said. "We sign those every year."

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.