Skeleton Comes out of the Closet in 2002
by RISA R. WEINREB
“There’s a certain sound your face makes when it’s scraping against the ice,” explains Brady Canfield, a member of the U.S. Skeleton Team.
Definitely T.M.I. — too much information.
Just when we’ve all adjusted to odd Olympic spectacles such as luge and curling, a new test of suicidal tendencies goes on view at the XIX Olympiad: Skeleton. While it’s probably not going to nudge figure skating or downhill racing out of the Nielsen ratings, skeleton scores high for daredevil allure. Traveling at 90 mph, competitors pull 4 g’s in the curves, all on a contraption that looks like a giant cookie sheet on runners.
Oh yes. You’re going head- first and face-down, chin just two inches from the ice. (Hence that pesky scraping noise.)
The 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City marks only the third time that skeleton has appeared at the Winter Games. Competitors will zoom down the bobsled run at Utah Olympic Park, considered one of the fastest tracks in the world, with a 390-foot drop over its 4,400-foot length.
Method to the Madness
“Why is it called skeleton?” I asked Brady, although I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to hear the answer. But the nomenclature is actually rather tame: the sled uses the “bare bones” of a bobsled — a three-foot-long platform with two steel runners. Racers make a running start, pushing their sleds from the rear and then bellywhopping on.
Unlike your trusty old Flexible Flyer, there is no crossbar for steering. Racers maneuver by bending the sled with their shoulders and knees. Brakes? There aren’t any. To slow down, competitors dig their toe cleats into the ice. But any hesitation means probably losing the race. “It’s kind of an emergency thing, not something we intentionally do to steer. But it’s better than being upside-down on your back,” says Tricia Stumpf, one of the top U.S. women’s racers.
Clean ice yields the fastest times, while a snowy track slows competitors down. Races might be decided by one onehundredth of a second, so skeleton racers wear Star Trek– like Lycra body-suits (similar to bobsledders) to increase aerodynamics.
Predating both bobsled and luge, skeleton is the oldest competitive sled-racing sport in the world. The pastime originated during the 1884– 1885 winter season in St. Moritz, Switzerland, when two Brits — George Robertson and Charles Digby-Jones — spent nine weeks tramping out a course from St. Moritz to the neighboring village of Celerina, icing the track with buckets of water. The winner of the “tobogganing” competition received a bottle of champagne.
Today, the famous Cresta Run at St. Moritz still hosts top competitions, and also offers instruction for beginners. The track provided the only previous venue for Olympic skeleton, when St. Moritz hosted the games in 1928 and 1948. Not only does 2002 mark the sport’s official comeback: it also is the first time that women’s skeleton events will be staged.
Some 20 nations currently compete in skeleton. The sport remains far more popular in Europe than in the U.S., with World Cup events airing on prime-time TV.
In contrast to the barricades and bodyguards separating fans from the famed at
figure skating or ice hockey events, skeleton races are friendly and informal. When I attended a World Cup competition at Utah Olympic Park in February 2001, it was easy to mingle at the starting area with sliders and judges.
The U.S. is a current powerhouse in skeleton. Lincoln DeWitt won the overall World Cup title for the 2000–2001 season, while Jim Shea, Jr. finished third in the standings. Among the women, Tricia Stumpf took the bronze medal at the World Championships in Calgary.
Skeleton athletes have a different danger odometer from most ordinary mortals. Brady Canfield, an Air Force major, started out competing in bareback and saddle-bronc competitions at rodeos, but “decided to get into something safer.” (Did I mention that in addition to being daredevils, these guys all have a deadpan sense of humor?) Chris Soule, who finished second in the 2000 Goodwill Games, worked as a stuntman on the Demi Moore film, G.I. Jane, doing stuff like helocasting — jumping out of a helicopter going 30 knots per hour 30 feet down into the water, wearing full scuba gear. “I don’t know, it seemed kind of normal to me,” Soule comments.
A Radical Rush
“The first time I went down the track, it was so much adrenaline, I never had so much fun,” Tricia Stumpf recalls about her first skeleton encounter. While admitting to their need for speed, sliders say that the most challenging aspect of their sport is mental. Stumpf continues, “What makes our skeleton so unique is that you sprint, and you give 100% effort for five seconds, then you dive onto your sled. At that point, you have to completely change and catch your breath, and control your entry into turns at 80 miles per hour.”
For the adrenaline addictive, skeleton can be more than a spectator sport. Utah Olympic Park offers learn-to-skeleton classes, dubbed “Wan-nabe Camp,” slated from No-vember through January. The sessions include two hours of training, a track walk, and 1.5 hours of slide time. No experience necessary — and speeds can reach 45 mph (the practice runs use just the lower half of the track). “Definitely scary — but so much fun. You’d love it!” one woman told me.
For the Layperson
In fact, many Olympics venues — from the snowboarding super-pipe to the harum-scarum downhill runs — will be open to plain just-folks who holiday in Utah before and after the games. Alpine events are scheduled for Deer Valley (slalom, combined slalom, freestyle skiing), Park City (giant slalom and snowboarding), and Snowbasin (downhill, combined downhill, Super G).
Previewing the venues, I skied all three areas in February 2001. As someone who becomes an Olympics couch spud every two years, it was thrilling to carve the same runs where Picabo Street and Daron Rahlves are slated to compete next year.
While Deer Valley is known for lap-of-luxury indulgences (marble-trimmed wash-rooms, brie on the buffet line, and butler-like attendants to tote your skis from the car), Park City grew from a 19th-century silver-mining town — you can eye the remains of the old California Comstock mine off the Keystone run.
Meanwhile, Snowbasin is the dark horse, the enigma, the upstart. Once the private powder patch of Ogden locals and straight-lining racers, the mountain was bought by publicity-shy billionaire Earl Hold-ing in 1984 (he also owns Sun Valley, Idaho). Currently, the ski area is completing an estimated $100 million in improvements.
Located about 50 miles north of the Park City/Deer Valley/Canyons nexus, Snow-basin is part of the Wasatch range. The mountain looks different — craggier and steeper — lording it over the flat Ogden Valley and Great Salt Lake basin like some imperious eagle.
Old and New
It’s also one of the most schizophrenic mountains I’ve skied. On one hand, the on-mountain infrastructure is spectacular: computerized snow-making (one of the largest systems in the U.S.) and a system of gondolas and high-speed quads that can beam you up 2,400 vertical feet in just nine minutes. One gonzo regular often logs 75,000 vertical feet in a day.
On the other hand, the current base lodge dates to 1940, when the resort opened with two rope tows. It would even look outmoded at a suburban slope in New Jersey or the Poconos, with lots of Formica and a cafeteria that greases out hot dogs and burgers. Furthermore — when was the last time you piled your walking shoes in a corner of the lodge while you went out to ski?
But that bit of Big Band-era memorabilia will be mothballed by the time the Games roll around. A new 43,000-square-foot base lodge is under construction, glamorously faced with stone and logs. Three other, equally impressive on-mountain day lodges are also scheduled to be completed by Fall 2001. Strangely enough, I think I’ll miss the old joint.
Once you hit the slopes, you realize that the magic of the mountain can be summed up in one word: freedom. Despite all the high-tech doo-dahs, Snowbasin still feels untamed, with granite-edged chutes and snowy bowls so limitless, you’ll almost be looking over your shoulder for penguins and polar bears.
And there’s (practically) nobody there — on a bluebird morning in February, I was sharing 3,200 skiable acres with just 500 other snow enthusiasts.
For a dusting of Olympic gold, I rode the John Paul Express Quad and Olympic Tram to the summit of Allen’s Peak, site of the men’s downhill on a run called Grizzly. Up top, the panoramic views sweep from the Great Salt Lake to the snow-frosted Wasatch range.
As I stood at the start, the 74-degree pitch was so steep, I couldn’t even see what my skis would drop into. Talk about “slippery slopes” — the course is more ice than snow, groomed by special “winch cats” tethered by thick steel cables. “Boy, you really have to trust your ski tuner,” remarked my companion Karen, peering over the slick edge from the start.
Yes, you can ride the tram back down to terra (or is it terror?) less extremis — I sure did. But Snowbasin also has plenty of blue cruisers that swoop through wide-open bowls, such as Elk Ridge and Wildcat.
Although the Olympics will showcase Utah and its “greatest snow on earth” powder, travel industry executives have been worrying that tourists might bypass the state for the entire 2001–2002 season, fearing a blizzard of crowds. (Sydney and Lillehammer both saw visitor declines in the years when they hosted the Olympics.)
“We don’t want that to happen in Utah,” says Nathan Rafferty, Director of Communications for Ski Utah, the state’s winter sports promotional association. “We’re putting together a special Olympics celebration package for the 2001–2002 season. Skiers and snowboarders will enjoy a really great deal with significant discounts at Utah hotels and resorts.” Centerpiece of the program: $20.02 off each adult daily lift ticket, with purchase of a three-night lodging package at a participating hotel.
Next February, over 3.5 billion TV viewers worldwide will be tuning in to the Winter Olympics. I’ll be one of them. And when they show the runs for the slalom at Deer Valley and the downhill at Snowbasin, I’ll say to my friends, “I skied that.”
The Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games will be held at various venues in Utah from February 8 to 24, 2002. And yes — event tickets and accommodations were still available as we went to press. Target Sport Adventures offers packages that include accommodations in condos and private homes, tickets to events, ski lift tickets, and ground transportation. For details: Tel. 800-832-4242 ext. 1, or 617-562-1300; Fax: 617-254-7277; Website: www.skiparkcity2002. com.
For information about winter sports in Utah, including mountain resorts and accommodations, contact Ski Utah: Tel. 801-534-1779; Fax: 801-521-3722; Web-site: www.skiutah.com.
The Utah Olympic Park hosts Wannabe Camps for bobsled ($200 per person) and skeleton ($150 per person), plus two-hour ski jumping lessons for intermediate and advanced skiers. Tel: 435-658-4200; Website: www.saltlake 2002.com.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under “Utah.”