U.S. para bobsledders return to Lake Placid

Veteran athletes hold training camps at Mount Van Hoevenberg track

U.S. para bobsledder Guillermo “Will” Castillo heads down the combined track at Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid last winter during an international competition. (Photo provided)

LAKE PLACID — The word “veteran” has double meaning for U.S. para bobsledder Guillermo “Will” Castillo of Orlando, Florida.

Like all members of the Para National Sliding Team for bobsledding and skeleton, he is also a military veteran — an Army sergeant, retired. And he’ll be returning to the World Cup circuit as soon as the team is allowed to compete. Castillo began piloting monobobs in 2016.

“A lot of them, like Will, he says a lot … representing his country again means all the world to him,” said Kim Seevers, chairperson of the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Para Sliding Sports Committee. “It’s a different way than when he was a soldier. I like being a part of being able to make those opportunities happen.”

Seevers, 62, lives in Averill Park, east of Albany. Her background is in alpine skiing, having spent more than 30 years as an instructor, coach and educator. She was the director of education and programs for the Professional Ski Instructors of America/Eastern office and a grant writer for the Adaptive Sports Foundation in Windham, New York. She was also a world-class athlete — as a guide for visually-impaired alpine skier Staci Mannella of Randolph, New Jersey, having raced on the Para World Cup circuit and in the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

Now Seevers works with para bobsledders like Castillo, who won a bronze medal in February during the Para Bobsled World Cup in Lake Placid. Castillo was one of five para bobsledders training on the Olympic Sports Complex’s combined track at Mount Van Hoevenberg this week — Dec. 7 to 11. In addition to Castillo and one person who hasn’t made the team yet, there were World Cup para bobsledders Frederick “Rick” Evans of Pooler, Georgia and Tammy Landeen of Caribou, Maine, and push athlete James Klingensmith of Tampa, Florida.

U.S. para bobsledder James Klingensmith pushes his monobob during a run at the Mount Van Hoevenberg combined track in Lake Placid last winter. (Photo provided)

Veteran World Cup para bobsledders Steven Jacobo of Gardnerville, Nevada and Sarah Frazier-Kim of Houston, Texas have made the team but weren’t in Lake Placid this week. Next week, there will be four new pilots taking part in the para bobsled camp at Mount Van Hoevenberg.

“There are three teams,” Seevers said. “The guys that are seated, so they have spinal cord injuries or really, really high above the knee amputations. Those are the ones that are eligible to compete internationally on the World Cup and the World Championships.”

The seated athletes — all in monobobs — don’t push when they start; they’re started by a mechanical launcher made by Mercedes.

Then there are the below-the-knee amputees like Klingensmith — “so they can push” — who currently don’t get to race in international competitions. Veteran push athlete Christ Rasmussen of Coldwater, Michigan is also on the team but was not in Lake Placid this week.

Then there’s the para skeleton team.

Seevers said the numbers of people attending the para bobsled team’s camps in Lake Placid were kept at a minimum due to the coronavirus pandemic. Like other teams, such as USA Luge, they are in their own “bubble,” staying semi-quarantined when they aren’t sliding.

The last time the team was in Lake Placid sliding down the track was Friday, March 13, just as everything was shutting down across the nation. Two days earlier, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic — with the virus likely to spread across the entire globe.

Like every other organization in the world, the pandemic has drastically changed training and competition for the U.S. National Sliding Team. Athletes trained at home with personal trainers, and the team has held weekly Zoom calls since August, according to Seevers.

“They communicate with each other a ton, so they push each other,” she said. “They have the same weight requirements that able-bodied has, so they know they need to come back to their first event ready to slide.”

And a potentially history-making moment in Lake Placid set for February will not happen as originally planned. On May 18, the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation’s Executive Committee accepted a proposal from USABS and the state Olympic Regional Development Authority to include the Para Bobsleigh World Championships with the 2021 IBSF Bobsled & Skeleton World Championships scheduled at Mount Van Hoevenberg. It would have been the first time the para races were being run at the same time as the able-bodied championships.

Yet in September, the IBSF moved the Bobsled & Skeleton World Championships to Altenberg, Germany “to ensure the health and safety of all athletes given the global pandemic.” And the para sliding world championships are not part of the program.

“The para schedule has changed about 14 times,” Seevers said. “We were going to go to Lillehammer (Norway) the first two weeks in February and then go to St. Moritz (Switzerland) and then (La Plagne) France. Lillehammer was canceled.”

As of this week, the competitions are still scheduled for St. Moritz and La Plagne.

While in Lake Placid, the para sliders are taking part in on-ice training as well as track walks to talk about the curves and their driving strategies.

“Track walks are tough on them,” Seevers said. “Taking a wheelchair down the track is interesting.”

Sometimes virtual track walks are held instead, on a Zoom videoconference with a point-of-view video.

“We did that for two hours Sunday night,” Seevers said.

The final roster for the U.S. Para National Sliding Team will be announced in January.