ON THE SCENE: Flying on ice with Keene Valley’s Maddy Cohen
Not many high school biology teachers suggest their students try the sport of bobsledding, but Maddy Cohen’s teacher Matt Roy at Northwood School did just that.
This past week, the 2020 Lake Placid High School graduate and current first-year student at the University of Vermont, 17-year-old Maddy of Keene Valley participated as the youngest athlete in the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation’s North American Cup. Held at the Mount Van Hoevenberg track, placing sixth the first day in the monobob and fifth the second day.
Lake Placid was the second leg of the North American Cup. The first was in Park City, Utah, earlier in January.
“I encourage my students to give bobsledding a try,” said Roy. “At the time, Maddy told me she was doing some high-risk sport, so I thought that she, in particular, would like bobsled.”
Like it she did. Maddy has potential. Competing in the women’s monobob event, she’s raced in the 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games at St. Moritz, Switzerland and the Omega Youth series in Lake Placid, Lillehammer, Norway and Park City, picking up two second-place finishes on her home track and two third-place finishes in Park City. Growing up as she did in New Jersey, bobsledding was not on her radar, but hiking was. Her parents have been coming to the Underwood Club near Keene since 1996, leading to Maddy and her sister Harley becoming Adirondack 46ers. Her parents purchased the Pell House in Keene in 2016 initially as a summer home. Maddy then enrolled as a boarding student at Northwood School, which has a robust winter sports program and teachers like Roy, a former Olympic bobsledder. Doors opened for her.
No less important was having an enthusiastic mother, Vikki Michalios, who fully backs her daughter’s sliding ambitions.
“It’s inspiring to see her dedication,” said Michalios. “Maddy’s making great progress. I’m proud of her. The women bobsledders are very supportive. They call themselves the mama bears, and they call Maddy their baby cub. I have a picture of them all lying on the bellies together to create a large star shape. It’s so cute. They are all rooting for her. For somebody whose 17 years old, loving bobsledding and feeling so supported is a pretty awesome experience. Who would ever have thought?”
Thought indeed. Not Maddy, not her parents, not her friends. Vikki and her husband, Dylan Cohen, bought the Pell House in Keene initially to enable their daughters to participate in the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society so they could hang with other youth who love canoeing, camping and hiking. Deciding to make Keene their home, they bought the Baxter Mountain Tavern and Outpost Wine & Spirits in Lake Placid. Now with one daughter at Northwood and the other at Lake Placid Central going gangbusters with Nordic sports, the family was embedded in the community in ways unimaginable four years ago.
No less thrilled are the bobsledding coaches. Maddy is the only under 25-year-old U.S. woman sledder on the circuit. Her driving coach Bryan Berghorn said that, like him, Maddy has benefited from Lake Placid having a Junior Bobsled Program.
In the past, a problem for youth in the Junior Bobsled Program was what do you do after you are too old for the program. Now with the Junior Winter Olympics launched in 2012 at Innsbruck, Austria, and more recently, the Omega Youth races, emerging talent like Maddy have a path forward if they have the talent and desire.
“It’s been great to see Maddy make that progression,” said Berghorn. “She’s very dedicated, focused and young enough. … She’s already signing up for the track and field program at UVM that will be very beneficial for getting fast at the start. Maddy’s planning to continue coming back to Placid whenever training and races are available. With that, she can get in the run volume and on-track experience, and, being only 17 years old, the sky is the limit.”
Berghorn said that being a good bobsled driver requires staying composed under pressure and the ability to keep looking forward. If you’re thinking about hitting a wall, taking a skid or anything like that, you’re thinking behind you while the track is coming at you. There’s no way to slow down. He said being a good driver requires the ability to psyche yourself up, give it everything you can at the start, and then go into a Zen-like mentality heading into the first corner so you can focus on the track ahead. Berghorn feels Maddy understands what it takes and is doing her best to continually improve.
Maddy followed Roy’s suggestion of trying out bobsledding through the Junior Program, where she participated for a few years. John Napier, a graduate of the program and then leading it, suggested Maddy participate in a Youth Olympics camp. Maddy said that experience set the hook; bobsledding became very exciting. As Roy implied, Maddy describes herself as always having been an adrenaline junkie out seeking a thrill. That said, what she likes most about the sport is the people.
“The sport is not a very common one,” said Maddy. “Thus, it really takes a village to get anywhere in this sport. The athletes, the coaches and everyone around me have made such a difference in my life. They’re family. On top of that is driving. I love the feeling; it’s a race car driving on ice, but you can’t brake and you can’t stop. You just go and hope for the best. There is nothing like the sheer thrill and joy of having a good run. The high you get after a good run is unbeatable. It’s amazing.”
One challenge is finding other young women willing to brake for her, a challenge she plans to pursue with the UVM track and field team. Her pitch is, “Do you like adrenaline? Like to run? Then come ride with me.” Maddy started in monobob, a sport she enjoyed until she had the chance to drive a two-man sled last year.
“The difference floored me,” said Maddy. “The speed and the power of the sled was immense. It’s so, so crazy. The monobobs are very forgiving. I can tell if I’m making a mistake, correct it and emergency steer my way out of a situation. A two-man is not forgiving whatsoever. On top of that, you don’t always get a response out of a monobob because they are so light; you can skid out a lot. If you put a penny in the track and say you want to hit that penny, you can hit that penny in a two-man. I love the power going down in a two-man. It’s immense.”
Maddy feels blessed to develop her skills on the Lake Placid track, one of the world’s most challenging. She praises the support and advice she gets from the women drivers like U.S. Olympic medalist Elana Meyers Taylor, who coached her last year. She sees them as mentors and role models. Her praise is even higher for her family, especially her mom, who supports her in a multitude of ways. Maddy’s goal is not so much winning the Olympics, which she’d like to do, but to have a great run. She describes an exceptional run as a Zen-like experience where she’s one with the sled, the ice and the course. Under those circumstances, she said you don’t need to look at the time to know you had a good run.
“You feel like you’re flying,” said Maddy.
(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)