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ON THE SCENE: Para bobsledding coming on strong in Lake Placid

December 8, 2017
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Lake Placid held its first Para Bobsled World Cup at the Olympic Sports Complex sliding track at Mount Van Hoevenberg this past week, and by all measures, it was a great success.

In all, 15 athletes from seven nations participated. Men and women competed against each other riding in single-person, universal-designed sleds, modified to meet the special needs of these athletes, such as thigh straps to help them stay more firmly connected to the sled as they go through 3 Gs to 5 Gs on corners or when they hit the sides of the run.

As all the sleds are identical, critical is the driver's ability to maintain a clear run down the track where winning can often be determined by fractions of a second. Unlike two- or four-man sleds, where drivers often move up from being the brakemen, in para bobsled, learning is more like skeleton or luge where one starts lower on the track and works their way up as their skills improve. The first step, though, is saying "yes."

Article Photos

U.S. Para Bobsled Team
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

"I never thought in a million years I'd be bobsledding," said Jason Sturm. "I was messaged on Facebook by one of the other sliders. He suggested I give it a shot and told me I'd be a brakeman. I came up, and they taught me how to drive. It was from the very second that I first got down, it was, 'Yup, I'm in love!' The speed is fun. Driving down the track is fun. But what I love the most is the camaraderie. While we are all competitors on the track, we are very much brothers and sisters."

Para bobsled can be dangerous. Zipping down the run at 60-plus mph is not easy. These athletes take their sport seriously and at times have to overcome a bit of fear, especially in Lake Placid, which is rated as one of the toughest runs in the world.

"Bobsleigh is very big in Latvia," said Annija Krumina. "I never imagined I would be a bobsled athlete, but now I am." Krumina is a very slight woman with a build more like a figure skater than one would imagine of a person driving hundreds of pounds of steel down a run. She lost the use of her legs following a car accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. What she may lack in strength, she makes up in skill and ability to set any fears aside becoming the first woman to win an International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation (IBSF) World Cup in Calgary this fall.

"It's not about your body," she said. "It's about your mind."

On Thursday during training, two sleds tipped over coming out of a curve. No one was injured, and the track crews quickly got the athletes out of the sleds and the course cleared. In such cases, the athletes are brought immediately back to the top, get back into their sleds, and try again.

"It's like falling off a bicycle," said team captain David Kurtz. "In an elite sport, finishes are decided in hundredths of a second. You can't let anything sit in your head too long. So, it's get back up to the start, get in the sled, get on down, and do it again. Chris had an 81 in his second run. I was thinking of pulling the sled and saving it for competition. I said you have to talk me into a third run. He did. And he then had his best run ever."

Meeche White, director of the National Ability Center (NAC), came up with the idea for para bobsled in 2002 following the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Her thinking was, as bobsled athletes race seated, why not adapt a sled for seated amputees? Starting with a couple of two-man sleds received from the Virgin Islands team, the sport was launched, eventually featuring weekly events held at the Park City, Utah track along with demonstrations in Calgary, Canada. Unfortunately, in 2005, during an economic downturn, the program lost funding, its champion Meeche White retired, and NAC put para bobsledding on a back burner.

Dave Nichols, then a wheelchair ice hockey, rugby and bobsled athlete for NAC, along with Aaron Lanningham, Matt Profit, and Gary Kuh, refused to give up. They decided they needed to get organized establishing the U.S. Adaptive Bobsled Team, a nonprofit agency. Its purpose is to promote, fund, recruit, train and advocate for physically challenged athletes in the sport of bobsled racing with a goal of establishing it as a Paralympic sport.

An early advocate was Kurtz, a past USA Bobsled & Skeleton chairman, skeleton athlete and then vice president of international affairs for the IBSF, who at the time was doing color commentary for the media. He was impressed by the para bobsledders and decided to help them, eventually arranging an opportunity for Nichols and Lanningham to forerun a World Cup two-man bobsled race in Park City in 2005.

In 2009, the IBSF got a letter from the Russians, who were awarded the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, proposing they host an international para bobsled event. It wasn't approved, but it helped stimulate increasing acceptance for the sport on both the national and international level. It was an acceptance aided along by Ivo Ferriani, the incoming president of IBSF, and John Rosen, then chair of USA Bobsled & Skeleton.

An added boost was Adam Pengilly, a former British skeleton Olympic champion recently elected International Olympic Committee athletes' representative, commissioning Jeff Erenstone of Mountain Orthotics & Prosthetics in Lake Placid to create an exoskeleton so amputees could take up skeleton. This resulted in the first para skeleton ride by an amputee, Bob Balk, held in Lake Placid in March 2011, which now open the doors of both bobsled and skeleton amputees.

In short, USA Bobsled & Skeleton decided to back both sports in 2013, naming Kurtz team captain. Leading up to that, para bobsled teams shifted from using two-person to mono sleds, first designed by the Swiss and now maintained by the Latvians. The mono sled broadened the appeal and opportunities for participation in bobsledding by both men and women para athletes.

"I am so happy to see the sport growing and all the new faces, new people coming in," said Nichols, now the only one of the founding four still competing. "I just hope I can make it a few more years to the Olympics because I'm over 50 and AARP already sent me my cards. We have to thank all the people here in Lake Placid, especially Tony Carlino and his crew. The coaches like John Napier and Sara have been amazing. We could not improve without their eyes."

"I have grown to love bobsledding just this week," said U.S. Air Force veteran Lee Kuxhaus, a former para skeleton athlete who recently took up para bobsledding. "I had a couple runs last March, but this is my first real week of sliding, so every run is new. Steering a bobsled is different than steering skeleton. It's when to steer and to not. In skeleton, the ice moves by you so fast. You get used to not seeing but feeling the ice. So now I can see the ice, and that enables me to focus on learning how to drive the sled. Bobsled is a bit different, but gosh, is it ever fun!"



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