(Ed. Note: As we prep for the Olympic Games in Sochi, look for Pretty Tough Primers on all the winter events and competitions).
Imagine laying on a sled the size of a bath mat wearing head to toe spandex. You grip the metal handles on either side and succumb to the forces of physics as you fly down a long, curvy track of ice at speeds of more than 60 mph. If you’re on your back, feet first, that’s the luge. Head first, face down, hands behind your back, you’re sliding skeleton style.
There are a number of sports that spectators only get to enjoy every four years on the Olympics stage. Luge, skeleton and bobsled are among them.
The three are exciting and fast races where basically a sled speeds down an icy tube to the finish. In order to attract athletes for these sports some coaches travel to seek out younger kids that may have an interest or knack for it. This happened in Colorado where the USA luge team put on a exhibition and got some interested children involved. A couple of the athletes even competed in the 2008 Olympic Games as a result of this exhibition.
Although the sled has been around for centuries as a mode of transportation, the sport of bobsled racing didn’t begin until the late 19th century when the Swiss attached a steering mechanism to a toboggan.
In 1897, bobsled started in Albany, N.Y. and was then introduced to Switzerland. This spurred the growth of the sport in winter resorts throughout Europe. By 1914, bobsled races were taking place on a wide variety of natural ice courses.
The first racing sleds were made of wood but were soon replaced by steel sleds that came to be known as bobsleds, so named because of the way crews bobbed back and forth to increase their speed on the straightaways.
In 1923, the Federation Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing (FIBT) was founded and the following year a four-person race took place at the first ever Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France. A two-person event was added at the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., a format that has remained to the present.
The start of the race is of critical importance and because of this, strong, fast athletes in other sports are drawn to bobsledding. Track and field competitors, handballers, gymnasts and others who can deliver a vigorous push at the start are much sought after.
Today, the world’s top teams train year-round and compete mostly on artificial ice tracks in sleek high-tech sleds made of fiberglass and steel.
In the early 1990s, women bobsledding events debuted in Europe and North America.
For the Sochi Games, the U.S. will be entering the following three sleds in the 2014 Olympic women’s bobsled competition:
Vancouver sled team included:
USA II: Erin Pac (Farmington, Conn.) and Elana Meyers (Douglasville, Ga.)
USA III: Bree Schaaf (Bremerton, Wash.) and Emily Azevedo (Chico, Calif.)
As mentioned above, a skeleton slider races down the icy bobsled tracks of the world head first, face down and hands back, approaching speeds of 80 mph. Skeleton was organized in the late 1800’s in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and appeared in the 1928 and 1948 Winter Olympics. The sport faded from popularity until the late 1970s when a resurgence started in Europe to bring the sport back to the public eye. Since then, over 20 nations have joined the ranks of skeleton sliding nations, with World Cup and World Championships held annually.
The Skeleton sled itself, made of steel and fiberglass, measures three feet in length and 16 inches wide, weighing from 70-115 pounds depending on the sliders body weight. The slider wears a helmet with a chin guard. A skintight rubber suit is used to increase aerodynamics, and sprinter’s spikes are worn for the quick start.
The USA Women’s Luge Team consists of Summer Britcher, Erin Hamlin andKate Hansen. At 27 years old, Hamlin is the reigning world champion, and is racing to end German dominance on the fastest track in the world. Watch the Women’s Luge Final Feb. 16