News Staff Writer
LAKE PLACID — “The key is to look with the corners,” Don Hass said. “If the turn is going left, look to the left. If it’s going right, look to the right.”
It was about 5:30 on Saturday night. The sun had slowly sunk beneath the mountains and temperatures dropped to below zero.
Hass’ instructions seemed all too brief, too simple for an amateur. I had absolutely no previous experience, yet I found myself laying face-down, inches from the slick ice on a small sled with two steel runners. My shoulders were square to the front of the padded sled and my arms were stretched straight back along my sides, putting me in a vulnerable face-first position. I’m a regular guy who can’t even throw a football so well, about to take a crack at the Olympic sport of skeleton.
I stared down the mouth of the combination bobsled, luge and skeleton track at the Olympic Sports Complex, with a butterfly or two in my stomach. Light-bulbs hung overhead, swinging with the breeze and casting shadows down the ice. I let out a deep breath that leaked out from under the visor of a snug-fitting helmet and hit the cold air, wisping away.
Hass, short and lively with a mustache-framed smile and foggy glasses, had given similar instructions to about 30 other thrill-seekers before I got the nerve to step up and take the slide. I had heard a variety of screams ranging from joy to terror as people with as little experience as I slid down the track, taking part in the “Lake Placid skeleton experience.”
Once a national champion in skeleton, few are better suited to push naive tourists down the chute than Don Hass. Now the development coach for programs offered by the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (USBSF), he has been around Lake Placid as a slider, coach and race director for the past 25 years.
On most Saturdays, from 4:30 to 6 p.m., Hass is on the track giving tips and instructions to amateur skeleton sliders who want a little taste of the sport.
“This is really a fun thing that exposes people to the sport of skeleton,” Hass said. “It’s less technical than the other sliding sports, so we’re able to give brief instructions and get people down the track safely.”
Originating in Switzerland, skeleton appeared in the 1928 Olympic Winter Games and again in the 1948 Games, before taking a long hiatus. It returned to the games in 2002 with men’s and women’s competition in Park City, Utah, ending its 54-year absence from the world’s most prestigious sports event.
Skeleton ride origin
The skeleton experience offered at the sports complex was opened to the public under the direction of the New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) at the beginning of the season in December 2009. ORDA began to assist the USBSF with all of their programs last year and the partnership has continued to evolve.
“We saw the Federation going through a real financial struggle and offered to step in to see if we could help out in anyway possible,” said Tony Carlino, ORDA’s manager of the Olympic Sports Complex.
The skeleton experience, which is designed to expose people to the unique sport and bring awareness to the USBSF, has helped to bring in resources for other programs at the sports complex such as the pee-wee and junior bobsled program, the development program — for older athletes who show promise in the sport — and fantasy camps.
The skeleton rides are open to anyone over the age of 13, which is the only restriction.
“Alot of sports really discriminate when in comes to physicality,” Carlino said. “With skeleton, you don’t have to be 6’6”, 250 pounds. You can be smaller, bigger, thinner, wider and still have a great time.”
Skeleton ride for
an average person
Which brings us back to the training complex and my situation on the icy track.
“Just remember you can scream like a girl if that’s what you need to do,” Don Hass said, looking down with a grin.
Without much warning, he grabbed my ankles firmly and gave me a light push down the track.
I was off.
My grandmother would not have approved of the language that spewed from my mouth as I picked up speed down the first drop, into a quick right turn, then left. The sled scraped across the ice, sending white noise into the air.
Teeth-chattering, bone-rattling, adrenaline-pumping cliches came to mind as I continued to pick up speed, sailing into the next wide turn followed by a long straight away — known to racers as the Chicane.
I focused on centering my weight but my shoulder bumped into the high wall of the track as I rattled along. Wind rushed by, seeping into my jacket and I couldn’t help but smile wide, laugh, curse to the heavens.
The force of accelerating through the turns pushed my head down, and as my wool-knit hat began to slip over my eyes, I gave in to gravity — careened down the icy track hoping I would survive.
I did. No big deal.
After making it down, I stood in the lobby of the Olympic Sports Complex and looked up at a map of the track, realizing I had only covered a small portion. The skeleton experience begins at start five, which is fairly low on the mile long track as a whole.
I had gone at speeds up to 35 miles per hour, wearing loose jeans and a puffy winter jacket, while Olympic racers usually hit speeds near 80 miles per hour — feeling the force of 5GS — in skin-tight aerodynamic suits. I was an amateur getting a small taste, just a glimpse of what Olympic sliders train hard to perfect and master everyday.
Bobsledding for kids
The following afternoon, I met Don Hass at the top of start three on the bobsled track — much higher up than I had braved the night before. A group of about a dozen kids, ranging from age 8 to 16, moved around a wide platform, messing with helmets, putting on gloves, getting ready to speed down the track in bobsleds.
The junior bobsledding program through USBSF has been incredibly successful in the past, feeding the ambitions of athletes such as John Napier, a bobsled pilot from Schenectady and resident of Lake Placid, who will race for the U.S. Olympic Bobsled Team in Vancouver.
“John Napier is a shining example of how this program succeeds,” said Don Hass, who coached Napier in the pee-wee program when he was just 8 years old.
With the recent help of ORDA and additional support from The Shea Foundation — whose vision is to provide an Olympic Legacy for today’s youth — the bobsled programs are stronger than ever.
“We’ve picked up several athletes (from the youth program) who are now in the developmental program,” Don Hass said. “There are a few sliders with really bright futures.”
Among the young bob-sledders edging at the top of start three was Josh Rabideau, 15, who sped down the track with driver Hunter Church.
“I started about a year ago,” Rabideau said. “I’ve tried both driving and brake-man. They are both really fun.”
Tom Church, Hunter’s father, stood along the sidelines watching his son soar down the track while cheering on.
“This is really a great experience for the kids,” Church said. “I’m mean, all this is right in the back yard.”
According to Tony Carlino, a major goal of the youth programs and development program, is to bring athletes up from a young age to the world cup level, by giving them easy and affordable access to the facilities at the Olympic Sport Complex.
“We want to give kids from every walk of life a chance to try out the sport and succeed,” Carlino said.
Zach Lund of the United States Skeleton Team takes off on a run during last years World Championships held at Mt. Van Hoevenberg. Visitors can experience a ride on the same track ... if they dare.
Lake Placid News file photos/Lou Reuter
If you go ...
Lake Placid Skeleton Experience is available most Saturdays from 4:30 to 6 p.m.
For reservations call: 518-523-4436
or e-mail: OSCReservations@orda.org
The skeleton ride includes:
¯4 by6 photograph
¯one year membership to the USBSF.
The cost is $60
To get the kids involved:
or contact Assistant Coach Leah Ford
at LFord@orda.org, or (518) 523-2061