Skeleton on ice

Two members of the U.S. Olympic team discuss what it takes to win in one of the Winter Games' most dangerous events, where competitors shoot headfirst down an ice track at autobahn speeds.

By Dimitra Kessenides
Published February 8, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Tristan Gale, 22, and Chris Soule, 29, of the U.S. Olympic team, are sliders. Their sport is skeleton, a solo event, which requires them to whip down an ice track of deep curves and straightaways, face down, headfirst, on a torso-sized sled (the name comes from the look of the first sleds, made in the 19th century, a metal framework that vaguely resembled a skeleton). During practice runs at the track in Park City, Utah, Soule, who stands 6 feet and weighs 167 pounds, has reached speeds approaching 85 miles an hour. "I'm in control of the sled just about the whole way down the track," he says, "unless I hit a wall or lose my focus. I'm in control every 100th of a second. You have to be very precise and be on top of your game when it comes to keeping that speed going down the hill." Gale, who, at 5 feet 2 inches, 108 pounds, is significantly lighter than Soule, pokes along at a mere 80 miles an hour. "I have total control of where I am," she says; "I can't come to a stop at any point until I come to the finish line, but I can choose to be anywhere I want on the track."

Soule started racing in the skeleton event 10 years ago. Gale was a ski racer until four years ago when she got a taste of sliding. "Someone who hasn't done this can do it; it just depends on how scared they are of the speed," Gale says. "If you know you're definitely scared of speed, there's no way you'll ever like this. Because it doesn't slow down at all, it only gets faster."

Men's skeleton returns to the games this year as a full medal sport after an absence of 54 years; it's the first time ever for women's skeleton. A typical run lasts just seconds; hundredths of a second separate the winners from the rest. And there's considerably more to skeleton than meets the eye. In this conversation Soule and Gale discuss just what it takes (in addition to fearlessness) -- from the starting push, to the steering, to understanding the aerodynamics and precisely navigating the curves -- to prevail in one of the Winter Olympics' fastest and most unforgiving sports.

Chris Soule: It's all about entrances and exits to curves. We're lying flat with our shoulders pushed into the sled and our knees doing most of the driving. So we're trying to control loops and curves. A lot of the curves have pressure points that pull you up, and then, when they release you, you fall down on the curve, and then they pull you up again in another section. You want to make the straightest line through a set of curves. So you drive by pushing your knees down on the sled. In a straightaway you can drive the sled left or right by driving the same way that you would in a curve. Too much control takes away potential speed, and not enough puts you in the wrong position when you're exiting a curve or a section of curves. That basically scrubs off time, by being out of control.

Tristan Gale: I'm probably a lot more out of control than Chris is. I have a big bruise on my hand to prove it. I seem to smack the wall quite a bit more. You can tell when you're going fast. I can usually hold my head up through just about anything. If I can't hold my head up, I can tell I'm going really fast, especially on race day. It'll hit the ice and just drag along it for a minute. And I think, "Oh, man, I'm going fast." I can sense it. I can't necessarily control how fast I go. I don't see much, except for the ice that's right in front of me. That seems to go at the same speed. So I can't tell if I'm going fast except with that one way -- with my head hitting.

CS: I've gone down a hill where I don't remember the run afterwards. Those runs have been really fast. I've also had runs where everything seems like it's going slow and I'm right there in the moment and everything's coming at me, but I know precisely what I want to do. Those runs have been fast also. There's a straightaway in Calgary. It's long, probably 150 meters or so. Once you're tucked into your sled and you're in position you just hear the wind whipping by your head. You can feel it pressing against your body as you get ready to go into the next curve. That's one of those moments where it just feels right and the speed is right there. You get to mid 70s on that one. It's not as fast as going down the Park City track. But it's a long straightaway, and you don't have to do anything except to make sure you're going straight down there. Everyplace else, you're concentrating on what you're doing, how you're driving, you're sensing the track and you're reacting to it. When you get down to doing nothing, when you're going straight, then you can concentrate on aerodynamics and form. You get the sense of the speed coming at you.

TG: That's for people who go straight through the straightaways. They're the hardest thing for me. I just don't go straight real well.

CS: I think it might be because you don't have the G-force pushing down on the sled and holding you in a position. You're one of the lighter sliders, so if the sled's going sideways, it's going to stay that way. Someone heavier pushing down in the sled makes the grooves in the runners grip onto the ice and you can steer better.

TG: Yeah, I'm tiny. I'm not real tall. And during these races I dip down to under 110 pounds. I'm trying really hard to fight that. Skeleton is a gravity sport. You need some kind of weight to take you down the hill. But Chris, you're not huge either.

CS: But I get to put a lot of weight in my sled. Sliders with less body weight are allowed to have a maximum combined weight of body weight with sled weight. The men are allowed to have up to 150 kilograms including themselves, the equipment that'll go down the hill -- helmet, spikes, speedsuit, underwear and the sled. That's one of two ways to make up for being a smaller person. We're allowed a little more weight than the women. That's partially why the women don't have the top speed that we do. If you know your physics, you know that heavier things go faster. You can be 300 pounds and do this. But aerodynamics comes into play. That's another factor.

TG: That's what I have going for me.

CS: There are so many different parts of the sport that are important to speed. We've broken everything down to gain an extra 100th of a second here and an extra 100th there. There's the push right at the top, that brings in your athleticism. And then you've got aerodynamics, which brings into play body type. Then driving skills and the mental side of it. And the equipment, the technical side of it. A 100th of a second is the difference in a race. I've tied in World Cup races for places with a 100th of a second difference. If I had that extra 100th of a second, I'd take it.

TG: And I lose out on the weight, but I just try and make up for it with something else. My driving skills are a plus. And my start's been equal to that of others. You have to make the most of what you have and you can do well. There are so many different combinations available in skeleton. For me, definitely, the driving skills and the aerodynamics are my two advantages. I've worked the hardest on improving my start time.

CS: I'm in the same boat. I work regularly on my push. I can see results from a push. A lot of the things have to be worked on regularly.

TG: I picked two tenths [of a second] up this summer. That's all I thought about all summer long, my push, my push, my push. I woke up every day thinking that. I did six days a week of training specifically for that.

CS: I made up about the same amount of time. You don't take it for granted when you have the push. I had it and then I lost it. Now I'm getting it back, and it's one of the things I'm really proud of achieving this year.

TG: It's so hard. You run bent over. It's not an upright sprinting position. And your hands are fixed on your sled, so you don't use your hands for momentum at all. It is 100 percent created by your lower body. So you're asking your legs to push your body and the sled really fast. My sled weighs roughly 80 pounds. I'm asking my legs to push me, and something that weighs almost as much as me, as fast as some of the girls who are twice my size with a lighter sled.

CS: You have to have the speed starting off. So we train like sprint athletes. The biggest thing is the odd position we're in when we start the push. I used to snowboard and I competed in downhill mountain bike racing, so I do have a background for speed. I think it's one of those things that I picked up easily.

TG: I was a downhill alpine ski racer before I was a skeleton athlete, and I switched over so easily. I can read the ice and the lines before a lot of my other teammates. I picked it up quickly because it's just like ski racing, only in skiing you go up instead of staying flat.

CS: It does have to do with your mental makeup. I mean, there are studies that show that people who are used to adrenaline and used to speed have a different makeup. That, partially, might be a reason for who does it. We're different. When I first started sliding, I noticed the adrenaline and the rush all the time. What really appealed to me was whipping down the hill that fast. Now it's gotten to the point where it's pretty technical. The thing that's giving me a rush now is pushing myself to the limit, being able to go down the hill as fast as I can, and knowing that I did parts of the track, or most of the track, correctly and pushing those things.

TG: It's still a total endorphin rush every time I go down. I'm not over it. I could be having the worst day ever and be fighting with everybody and go up the slide and just be so happy.

CS: I still get that, too. I jump off the sled every once in a while and I give a scream because it's like nothing else. Man, I hope it'll just get faster.

We're very conscious of what's going on the whole way down the track. It's not just like we're lying on the sled and not thinking. You have to fix things when they go askew, either oversteering or dragging a toe or something. With experience you learn how to fix little things. You can tell when things are going wrong.

TG: Like when I mashed my hand out at curve six today. I don't like that curve very much. It's one of the more difficult ones on the track here [in Park City].

CS: There's a curve in St. Moritz called Sunny, because the sun comes up over the hill and just blasts it at a certain hour of the day. The rest of the track isn't really getting hit by sun, so it melts the track at that point. Different track conditions affect your speed in different ways. Having slush on there is a lot slower than having just a thin bead of water. So when the sun first hits it and it gets just above freezing, it creates this thin bead of water right on top and you're able to just glide on top of that. As opposed to frost or any other type of ice where you're kind of pushing through these little fibers of ice the whole time. If there's snow, you have to plough through it the whole time.

TG: That's slow.

CS: Heavy people have an advantage in that type of condition. But usually the refrigeration on the track is controlled so we have the ice at just about freezing. Every place we go to we try to break the track record.

TG: You have to know a track. If I don't, I'm usually up pretty high off my sled. I'm taking in the view, more or less. I like to see what's going on. I won't steer very much. I'll just take the hits and really figure out what the track feels like.

CS: With experience, you can apply some of the things that you've learned from other tracks and different types of curves to the new track. Figuring those things out is half the fun. You go to a new track and find a really cool curve. And you think, "I'd like to know how to get through there as fast as I can."

TG: Every track has something that no other track will have. And that's what's so fun. Like in Altenberg, there's a kreisel, which is a 360-degree turn. And it has this super-long straight going into it, one of my other favorite things. And there is no other kreisel that I've ever been in that's like that. You literally dip up and down maybe five times. You feel like you're in it forever. Suddenly you're in a time warp. You're in the curve, then you look up and you're still in the curve. And you think, "Oh, my God, am I going to come out?" Then you sing a little song, and then all of a sudden, smack, you're out of it. It's totally unique. It's like three seconds, but it feels like forever.

CS: Some of the kreisels go 270 degrees. But it's a curve that loops back underneath itself. There's one in Konigsee which we went to this year. That one's exciting for me. If you get it right, you come whipping out into this little chicane area where there are two bent walls, and you just cruise through those, and then you go and hit a couple of high G curves so your head gets pushed down into the ice. You usually realize afterwards that you've gone through there correctly, and you went really fast. On the track we're going to next in St. Moritz, one of the curves down at the bottom of the track almost goes flat. The track drops down, and you get a moment of vertigo. You're up in the air and you kind of whip right down, and that's the highest speed that you get on the track. You just drop down right out of that curve into the straightaway. I think I had one of the highest speeds there, it was about 86 miles an hour. When you go off that, it's almost like a jump. You feel that speed right in your face. Curves and combinations of curves are it. In Konigsee there's a section called the S's. You loop up, then swoosh down and loop up again. And they're back to back. So they run into each other. And there's no straightaway in between each one of them. They just run right into each other. You go back and forth and back and forth, and then you go down into a straightaway.

TG: It's so fun. They just go right into each other. You shoot up so high. It's the best. You keep wanting to go through them again and again. It's a blast.

CS: You're going the fastest as you enter the curve, because then the pressure that pushes you down into a curve slows you down. The friction increases, and people start putting their heads down and that creates friction, and you're redirecting the sled, that's causing friction also. All those things slow you down. The highest speeds are entering a curve, or on a straightaway.

I'm hoping someone will build a loop-to-loop on a track. You can have enough speed to handle it. I've seen skateboarders do it. They've gone on full circles. Or a spiral; I'm waiting for the first track with a spiral on it. Those will be really interesting.

TG: It's like a roller coaster, except you're not connected. And you control where the sled goes. You're in more control.

CS: People who are good at the planning, the visualization, the mental part of it are able to handle the speed. We're constantly working on the track visualization. Before we even go to any track, we get track notes from our coach. And we get a track map so we know which way the curves go. There's a lot more preparation and training than just whipping yourself down the hill. You're working on the mental part of it constantly.

Nothing compares to skeleton. But any sport that I do I'll apply a lot of what I learned in this sport to. I mean, lugers, they're still lying on their back, and I don't see the appeal in that.

TG: They don't have nearly as much fun. They don't talk about their sport the way we talk about sliding.

Dimitra Kessenides

Dimitra Kessenides is a New York writer and a senior editor at JD Jungle magazine.

MORE FROM Dimitra Kessenides

Related Topics ------------------------------------------