February 4, 2006
Skeleton not for the meak
GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

THE SPORT

American Eric Bernotas first tried the sport of skeleton four years ago at age 30. Now he is a medal contender for Turin.

Fellow American Tristan Gale won the women's gold medal in 2002 at Salt Lake City after spending only one (unspectacular) season on the World Cup circuit.

So, who said getting to the Olympic podium was a lifelong journey? But if you think that the sport of skeleton racing is easy to pick up and gain high success, think again.

To explain what skeleton racing is all about, you have to visualize yourself lying on your stomach and speeding down an icy track at speeds of up to 130 kilometres per hour (80 m.p.h.)! Going around the run's turns, you sometimes feel pressure equal to 5-G forces.

The steel-framed sled you're lying on (if you are male) weighs as much as 95 pounds while a women's sled checks in at nearly 77 pounds. What is perhaps most fascinating and frightening is the fact that despite its speed, the skeleton sled has no steering wheel or brakes!

You'll do all this on a track that is 1,200-1,300 metres long, with downhill gradients up to 12%. The track also has elements of varying technical difficulty. Particularly demanding elements in terms of driving technique are set up in the first stretch that accounts for two-thirds of the track.

To make up for the lack of brakes, competitors can slow down their sleds at the end of the run with their feet using shoes that have a maximum of eight spikes on the soles.

Sleds do come equipped with bumpers on the front and rear to absorb shocks and protect the competitors from the icy walls of the run.

The frames are comprised of steel with specific material percentages and, in the early days of the sport, bore a vague resemblance to a skeleton, giving rise to the sport's name. Handles are used primarily for the starting push.

Racers get to wear helmets of hard plastic that are equipped with a chin guard and visor and a racing suit that is tight-fitting and made of elastic fabric with padding sewn into the elbow.

Roaming through the library of the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland, one ascertains that skeleton (sled racing) owes its origin to St. Moritz, a Swiss winter sport resort for the rich which boasted its famous Cresta Run. Modern skeleton sliding is an adaptation of cresta, which itself evolved from traditional tobogganing.

The first run was built by a group of English tourists in 1884 in St. Moritz in the Cresta Valley - hence the name of both the sport and the run.

The original Cresta Run was a modified toboggan run with curves and tight corners added to liven things up. It stretched about one kilometre and with a vertical drop of about 150 metres. By 1885, the first major competition, The Grand National, was held on the run.

Not surprisingly, skeleton appeared for the first time in the Olympic Games in 1928 in St. Moritz. Then the sport was promptly dropped from the Games only to reappear in 1948 when, you guessed it, St. Moritz again hosted the Olympics. The sport then disappeared for more than 50 years from the Olympic scene until 2002 at Salt Lake City when you could say that the IOC pulled its skeleton out of the closet.

The first international women's sanctioned event took place in 1996 with the first world championship for women occurring in 2000.

QUALIFICATIONS

Skeleton has two Olympic events: Men's and women's singles. Each nation can enter up to three men and two women and the allowance is predicated on how each nation does in qualifying events.

The U.S. lost a key competitor in Noelle Pikus-Pace, last year's reigning world champion, when she suffered a compound fracture of her right leg after being hit by an American four-man bobsled during a practice run last October in Calgary, with Turin only 114 days away. Noelle and five other skeleton competitors were waiting for a truck to pick them up at the finish area and were unaware the bobsled team was taking a practice run.

Pikus-Pace was the unfortunate victim of the accident and had to be rushed to a nearby medical centre where a titanium rod was inserted in her leg during emergency surgery. Doctors told her that her recovery would take up to six months.

Amazingly, she returned to action in December but could not finish high enough to qualify on her own. The Americans were unable to enter two women because they finished ranked fourth in qualification and only the top three nations got the second entrant allotment.

The skeleton event takes place on one day and involves two runs by each competitor with the total time determining the winner. The order for the first run is determined by a draw the day before the event. The top 20 men and top 12 women from the first run advance to the second run and start from slowest to fastest based on first-run times.

A competitor has 30 seconds to begin his/her race after receiving the audio and visual signals to start.

Every Canadian competing in Turin is a possibility to win Canada's first ever skeleton medal.

Jeff Pain, a 35-year-old landscape architect, is the two-time reigning World Cup champion. Firefighter Duff Gibson, 39, won the 2004 World Championship event while finishing third last year.

On the women's side, Melissa Hollingsworth-Richards, the 25-year-old wife of rodeo cowboy Billy Richards, just won her first overall World Cup points championship while teammate Lindsay Alcock, 28, won the title two years earlier.

OLYMPIC GOLDS

2002

MEN: Jim Shae (USA)

WOMEN: Tristan Gale (USA)

Did you know?

Canadian Ryan Davenport was a three-time skeleton world champion in the 1990s.