Olympians, Development athletes, -2 degrees, 36 degrees, snow, rain, three track records broken, dozens of personal records for downtimes and push starts, and a huge swing of emotions. In short, this is the perfect description of the 2011 US Skeleton National Championships.
Talk about a rush! I have always dreamed of competing in a sport on a national level, but thinking I would be playing soccer or something, I never really believed that I’d get there. Wouldn’t you know it? Here I am, 23 years old and I spent the weekend sliding amongst Olympians, World Cup athletes, and in front of coaches from all the levels of skeleton. That’s crazy right?
I started the week testing out a new set of runners recommended to me by veteran slider Kimber Gabryszak. After going from a “standard” cut of runners (sharp, thin spine for lots of control) to a warm-ice runner (wide spine, shallower grooves for less cut on hard ice and faster times on warm ice), I realized finally that equipment means an incredible amount in this sport. But I won’t bore you with all that skeleton jargon. Let’s just say, I had some good runs on warmer days and some scary runs on colder ice days.
On Thursday, we were sliding in -2 degrees, colder than we have for a while. It was the first time that I actually FELT and ACKNOWLEDGED how cold it was AS I was sliding. I remember going through the Chicane (the straightaway) and thinking, “MAN I’m cold!”.
Just before we began our training runs for the day, we were informed by the coaching staff that the race would be moved up a day due to a nasty storm that was predicted to be blowing through the north country. It’s a good thing they did.
Friday came with perfect ice conditions. The air temperature was slightly below 20, and the ice was perfect. The track crew did a great job getting it prepared for us. As a result, THREE track records were broken, all by veteran sliders. Olympian John Daly broke his own track record, and then about five minutes later, his World Cup teammate Matt Antoine broke it again. For the women, Annie O’Shea broke the women’s track record with a blazing time of 55.38 seconds! As a beginning athlete, it was awesome to see these veterans speed down this track in the times they did!
As for me, I was pumped and excited to slide! I began the races in the 9th position out of 15 sleds. As it was a four-heat race like in the World Championships and Olympic Games, we had two races on Friday and two on Saturday. Hearing my name announced as I stood at the start block with my sled in hand was one of the moments I’ll remember for a while.
My heart was pounding, but I managed to control it. As soon as that green light lit up, I was completely focused on the track and on the start. I didn’t even hear the spectators standing five feet away from me. As I sprinted down the 50m start and loaded onto my sled, I knew it was going to be a quick heat.
One thing I’ve been focusing on in the last week is keeping my head down and my form held. It was one of the only things I was thinking this time down, and it worked, as I held my form and my head down a majority of the run. As I whipped through the curves, I reminded myself to relax. As I flew up the outrun, I looked up at the clock. I had just tied my personal best, sliding a 57.20!
I was confident going into my second run, knowing that if I did the exact same thing, I’d be just fine. I powered off the start, loaded onto my sled, and got into Curve 1. That’s when it went wrong. While I don’t remember exactly what happened, I chatted with Kimber after the heat and this is what we deduced.
I came out of 1 too late, dropping off, and riding the left wall into 2 too early. The pressure pushed me down to the belly of two, and at the last minute, pushed me back up again, so I looped the very end of the curve. All I remember thinking was, “Oooooh hold on!” as I felt one of my runners leave the ice completely and I went airborne. Luckily, my body reacted pretty well, and I came down on top of my sled instead of the other way around, which could have easily happened.
Surprisingly (for my history of moving around on the sled) I got under control quickly, and didn’t break my form. After almost flipping a sled, that’s saying something. The rest of my run, I was completely focused on keeping it clean and holding form. It helped, but the damage had been done. Once one looses time in the upper part of the track, especially that drastically, it is extremely difficult getting it back. I ran a downtime of 57.53, but it wasn’t enough to move me up more spots, so I finished the day in 8th place.
I was frustrated with my place going into Saturday, especially after my poor run through the top of the track on the second run, but I didn’t let it stick. After talking to some of the veterans (mainly Kimber; she did a lot for me this week and I owe her a lot!) I moped that evening, and when I woke up Saturday morning, it was a new day, a new race, new conditions.
One thing I did do was seek the help of one of our coaches, former/current athlete Rebecca Sorensen (for those of you with really good memories, she’s the athlete whose sled I’m renting for the season). My starts have not been as quick as I’ve expected them to be this far into the seasons. With my progression, I should have been running 5.50s or lower, but I was stuck in the 5.60s and 5.70s for my 50 meter start. I’ve switched up my start techniques a couple times, trying to find the right technique, but nothing has fit.
The day of the race, Becca worked with me in the gym, showing me her starting technique when she races. After trying it a couple times on the practice sled, I knew it was a much more comfortable technique for me. Being a former sprinter, this technique puts me in a more familiar track-and-field-like starting pose. When I get the chance, I’ll post video.
Our practice helped, and I blasted off my first start of the final day of competition in 5.55 seconds, a personal best by .05 seconds! In a sport that is times to the hundredth of a second, this PR was huge, particularly in the start. Despite the fast start, though, my downtime was not what I wanted, a 58.88. The track was much slower than Friday night, but still I felt frustrated and upset with my slower downtime. I completed the heat in 8th place. I had one more run to make up time and to move up in ranking.
It was one of the toughest mental challenges in my short sliding career thus far to ignore the times of everyone else and try and focus on my second run. I moved up the rock in my sled, took a couple calming breaths, and sped down the start line again. While I thought my run was calm and controlled, I crossed the finish line with a downtime exceeding 1:00.00. The track was much slower than the first (if possible), but my downtime was not how I wanted to finish the race.
I was extremely frustrated as the next seven sleds moved ahead of me in the rankings, each one knocking me further and further down the list. An emotional athlete through difficulties, I had to move away from the finish house for the remainder of the race, trying to bite back tears of disappointment. I finished the competition in 9th place, which isn’t bad for a national competition, but not what I was expecting. I didn’t perform quite to my standards, and I was disappointed in myself.
Now, 24 hours later, I know that I am extremely fortunate to be where I am, competing in this sport. It has taken a lot of effort, even this early in my career, and it has taken the help of many friends, from Adventure Links coworkers lending me their cars to drive to Lake Placid (thanks, Rico!) to the parents of my Pi Phi sisters (thanks Robinsons!) to the support of my own family. All the support I’ve received has helped me to get where I am today.
As my dad and brother both said following the race, if this sport was easy, everyone would be doing it. It’s not easy, despite what some people say. It takes superb physical and mental strength, driving skills and a very fast transition between exploding for the start to complete relaxation on the sled. During this “relaxed chaos,” it takes a practiced athlete to keep their cool while they speed down a mile long sheet of ice, on the brink of being out of control.
This is the crazy sport I’ve gotten into, and I am loving every minute of it. I’m extremely fortunate in my friends, family and teammates, and fortunate in my own abilities and drive for success. Thank you all for the help you’ve given me thus far. Please pass on my name to your friends and family! As always, the more exposure, the better I will be able to continue to slide!