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Updated Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 09:16 PM

Want to swoop down a mountain chin first? Try Whistler’s skeleton

By Pam LeBlanc
Austin American-Statesman

WHISTLER, B.C. — I signed up for this. Voluntarily.

And here I stand, at an icy tube of a track in Whistler, site of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, about to do my impersonation of a speeding bullet.

This is skeleton, where men and women hurtle face-first down a twisty course on a heavy sled, their chin just an inch or two above the ice.

In all, 23 of us have registered for the opportunity, and I’m the only woman in the bunch. I’m also 13th in the rotation, but I have chosen not to assign any significance to that number.

After arriving at the Whistler Sliding Centre an hour ago, I signed a waiver, assured the crew I had medical insurance and listened to an hourlong briefing by Becca, a Czechoslovakian coach with a thick accent and a dry sense of humor.

“Welcome to the thrill of your life,” she said.

She warned us we’d be screaming down the track at speeds up to 62 mph. In the 30 or 35 seconds it would take us, we were to lie flat and quiet, shoulders pressed down on our sleds, arms and elbows held tight to our sides.

“Don’t lift your arms, don’t lift your shoulders,” she said. “If you poke out your arms and elbows like chicken wings, you may get clipped. If you do different things you will be like a drunken sailor. You must just lie on the sled at all times.”

Go before the ride

After a quick trip to the washroom (we were told the G forces that would press us into our sleds would squash our bladders, too) we marched up to the Maple Leaf start house, partway down the track where Canadian Jon Montgomery won gold two years ago. (It’s also the same track where an athlete was killed during a luge training run on opening day of the Winter Olympics.)

“If anyone changes his mind now, it will be a full refund and we will understand,” Becca tells us.

I test the strap on my white helmet, which has a huge chin guard. I tug elbow pads on over my jacket. It’s snowing hard, and I’m thankful I’m wearing insulated ski pants instead of a skintight speedsuit.

Unlike Olympic athletes, who sprint down the track and leap onto their sleds, we will start from a standstill. The crew will give a gentle shove to start us sliding.

“And we will find you at the finish,” Becca says.

The sliding track drops 499 feet over 4,760 feet, but we’re starting midway down, so we don’t build up too much speed. Athletes at the 2009 World Cup maxed out at 95.6 mph.

Just before the finish, we will whirl through Thunderbird curve, a harrowing hairpin turn on a course that zigs and zags like a roller coaster on steroids.

“You will not be able to steer or brake,” Becca says with a smile. “Everything depends on body position.”

With that, I lower myself onto the sled, grab the handles and say a little prayer. I tell myself to look by lifting my eyes, not my head. And I remind myself not to drag my feet or try to get off the sled, which could send me careening against the walls of the chute.

Someone gives me a push and I begin my descent.

Warp speed

Before I have time to think, I’m shooting down the track, clinging for dear life to the rocketing sled. Before I round the famous Thunderbird curve, I hit nearly 60 mph. Landmarks blur, the sled rattles, my jowls flap. It’s like hitting warp speed in an episode of “Star Trek.”

The ride lasts just 30 seconds. When I come out of that last turn, I fly into the straightaway and blow past the finish line.

That’s when it happens. I zing into one wall, the edge of the sled taking the brunt of the blow. I ping pong back and forth several times, bleeding off speed. Finally I grind to a halt, panting a little and off-gassing pure adrenaline.

Someone offers a hand. I step off the sled and exit the track. My knees wobble. I’m pretty sure I’m vibrating I’m so amped up. Another few minutes and my heart rate slows to normal.

I glance up at the leaderboard. My name is there, halfway down. Just like the Olympics.

If you go

Public skeleton sessions at the Whistler Sliding Centre

How to book

Public rides on the skeleton course begin Dec. 16. Advance reservations required. Participants must be at least 16. Cost is $159 Canadian, plus tax. Each session includes an orientation, helmet fitting, coaching and two runs. Bobsled rides are also available, for the same cost.

More information

www.whistlerslidingcentre.com or 604-964-0040.


Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times, 2010
Katie Uhlaender of the U.S. flies down the skeleton track during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, B.C. Now visitors can try the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre.




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