It’s Bobsled Time

Feel the rhythm!
Feel the rhyme!
Get on up,
It’s bobsled time!

I know, too easy right? I couldn’t help it. Like most children of the nineties, my relationship to bobsledding is inextricably and pretty much exclusively linked to the 1993 Disney flick “Cool Runnings,” the true story of the first Jamaican bobsled team to compete in the Olympic Games. But not to worry, this is not a story about a Jamaican bobsled team.

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This is a story of a group of TEDActive attendees ready to face their fears. I, along with my new friends, ventured over to the Whistler Sliding Center, preparing to channel my inner Chris Hadfield. “So, what’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?” he had asked, after regaling us with his tale of being temporarily blinded in space, which makes racing a bobsled feel a little bit like braving the kiddie ride at a carnival. Despite that, the only thing running through my head was the thought of shooting down a swerving, curving ice slide of doom in a giant tube of metal. Well Astronaut Hadfield, in case you’re still wondering, this definitely makes my top 10.

At the sliding center, I warmed up my courage with some gold-medal distractions, including a sled-side chat with Kaillie Humphries, two-time Olympic gold medalist and reigning Olympic champion. The average bobsled athlete begins around age 24, but Kaillie started as a brakeman when she was 17 and eventually transitioned to a pilot, and a winning one at that. After watching from the sidelines as an alternate on the Canadian team in the 2006 Games in Turin, Kaillie went on to win the gold medal in Vancouver, and then again in Sochi last month.

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Clutching to our enormous helmets and our last shreds of sanity, we listened as Kaillie explained the ins and outs of the bobsled, or the bobsleigh as it’s called in Canada. Here are the basics: Men compete in two-man and four-man bobsleds. For now, women compete only in the two-man (women’s bobsledding made its debut in the 2002 Olympic Games, and the sport still continues to grow). In bobsleigh, mass equals speed, so the heavier you are, the faster you go. The sled itself weighs a lot; as an athlete, you want to make yourself as heavy as possible so that big hunk of bobsled feels light as a feather, so to speak, as you push it past the start.

Sled technology in the last five years has taken off, in particular for the Canadians, the Americans and the Germans, as top auto companies invest and contribute to the development and innovation of building better, faster sleds. For example, in the United States, BMW has created a state-of-the-art sled for the men and women’s teams that is shorter, lighter, and distributes weight more efficiently across the carbon fiber body. Sleds are about 50% faster than they were even just five years ago, Kaillie notes, also pointing out that although these new technologies and opportunities have won her a pair of gold medals, they are limited to countries with the resources to invest top dollar in the program and the equipment.

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Kaillie walks us outside and over to Corner 16, the fastest curve on the track. The sky is a deep royal blue, with the last remaining bit of light reflecting off the snowpack piled around the course. The track is lit like a bright, white glowstick spiraling down the mountainside.

This 1,450-meter (nearly 5,000 ft) track makes 16 turns, and has about 80% vertical and 20% horizontal-to-vertical surfaces, accepting forces exceeding 3,150 kg (7,000 lbs.) and up to 5Gs. The ice varies from 2-5 cm  thick and is formed by specialized ice makers known as Ice Meisters (great name, eh?). It takes about 10 days to make the ice for this track and requires pumping ammonia up Blackcomb Mountain through a system of embedded pipes in the concrete track, cooling the concrete track. The Ice Meisters then spray thin layers of local mountain water, waiting for each layer to freeze before adding another. The ice on the track is kept up by hand 18 hours a day, seven days a week.

It’s not long before we hear a rumbling down the track and it isn’t more than a second or two before a blurred vision of a bobsled has come and gone, the sound of scraping ice and muffled yelps along with it. I look at my fellow attendee next to me. “You ready?” he says. You better believe it.

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The next thing I know, an Olympian bobsled brakeman is buckling my helmet, tucking me into the cold, metal bobsled, and beginning the final push. It seems inopportune to make a Jamiacan bobsled joke at this point, so I let the moment pass. That’s alright, since I’m absolutely terrified. Bulk up, he says. Shrug your shoulders up, flex your muscles, channel your inner Hulk, and don’t let go. No problem.

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The first few seconds are quite lovely, like a nice, tame roller coaster at some stepsister-version of a theme park. And then the thing begins to pick up speed. A lot of speed.

75 miles per hour.

4 G-force.

40.32 seconds.

Check it out.

By that 16th turn, we’d hit our fastest point. I was laughing and screaming and petrified all at the same time. The G-force at that speed felt like the weight of my body times five, sitting right on top of me. Had I wanted to wiggle my nose or close my mouth or do anything else for that matter, I would have needed to actually be the Incredible Hulk. To remain composed, in control and able to make decisions within tenths of a second while hurtling down this track at what might as well be warp speed is an absolutely staggering feat. Kaillie Humphries, you’ve got my respect, big time.

And Chris Hadfield, you were right. Within moments of jumping out of the bobsled, dizzy with delight, it was clear this was an experience I would always remember.

Next up? Make the Olympic bobsled team.

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