Bobsledding and danger are bosom buddies

SLIDING AWAY: Great Britain's brake woman Kelly Thomas sliding down the track with her sled after a crash in the second run during the women's doubles Bobsled World Championships in Lake Placid, NY.
AP
SLIDING AWAY: Great Britain's brake woman Kelly Thomas sliding down the track with her sled after a crash in the second run during the women's doubles Bobsled World Championships in Lake Placid, NY.

Todd Hays knows he's a lucky guy. He's still standing.

"I feel pretty grateful for still being here and being able to participate in life," said the 40-year-old Hays, who retired from the US bobsled team in mid-December, just days after a crash caused bleeding on his brain.

"The way I choose to look at it, it could have been a lot worse."

Despite significant advances in safety since bobsledding became an Olympic sport at Chamonix in 1924, there's no such thing as a safe bobsled run, and the athletes who compete on the serpentine layouts readily accept that. Every time they jump in the sled, they know they're aboard a low-tech rocket ship.

"You're made very, very aware," Hays said. "The first time you go down it's quite apparent that this is a very fast and violent sport, and if you hit something it's going to be bad."

That drivers steer with ropes and crew members never see what's going on during a run - they're tucked low and face-down behind the driver to minimise aerodynamic drag - only adds to the suspense.

"You're always aware that horrible things can happen," said Darrin Steele, CEO of the US Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (USBSF) and a former bobsledder.

"At this level, I think everyone has come to grips with it, but there's a certain fear factor every athlete has to overcome. Some don't even care."

American driver Mike Kohn fits that bill. The son of a former Green Beret, Kohn viewed old movies of bobsled crashes soon after he joined the team in 1990. He wasn't fazed then and isn't now.

"I've had some pretty bad crashes," said the 38-year-old Kohn, who has walked away from more than 20 crashes in his career.

"I crashed four times once and kept wearing the same helmet. (Teammate) John Napier saw my helmet and said, 'What ... are you doing?' I said, 'Well, I've gotta go down.' He said, 'But your helmet's got a hole in it.'"

"I probably shouldn't have been doing that, but I didn't care," Kohn said. "I wanted to win. At the end of the day, you just roll the dice and take your chances."

Push athlete Nick Cunningham agrees.

"If you really let it get to you, you'll hinder your performance," said Cunningham, who suffered a concussion playing pickup football in college. "You have to go into it knowing that it's there but kind of not think about it."

The International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (FIBT), the sport's governing body, has done much to regulate sleds and track design in the past two decades to increase safety. The FIBT is compiling data on all crashes of the past five years, according to Dr Eugene Byrne, the USBSF's chief medical officer.

"There's no published bobsled crash data in the world," Byrne said. "There's a sense of how can we help to make this sport any safer, if possible."

Byrne said there is concern about head injuries, but he said concussions "are a small percentage of all the injuries."

"The majority of the injuries are back and neck and athletic-type injuries - hamstring strains and muscle strains," Byrne said.

The crash that ended Hays' 16-year career was an eye-opener. The CT scan he underwent was the first in Byrne's six years with the team to show any abnormality - and Hays was wearing the best helmet money can buy.

"I'm not sure how much better they (the helmets) can get," Steele said. "We use Nascar or motorcycle racing helmets. These are as good as they get. If Todd had been in a lesser helmet, it probably would have been a very sad story. The helmet did its job."

In bygone days, bobsledders wore leather football helmets, and both the fronts and sides of the sleds were open. Even after hard-shelled helmets debuted in the 1950s, crashes often were gruesome.

Italian star Sergio Zardini was killed in 1966 at Mount Van Hoevenberg when his sled hit the superstructure of the track in the famed Zig Zag curves, crushing his head.

In 1981, US driver Jimmy "Nitro" Morgan died in a crash at the world championships in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy on the track used for the 1956 Winter Olympics. Morgan's head slammed into a wall so violently that it broke his neck, leaving a pool of blood on the ice.

"We didn't know any better," said Tony Carlino, a teammate of Morgan and now track manager at Mount Van Hoevenberg. "You got your bell rung in those days, you just kept going or you quit. We didn't have the support they have these days."

Though safety has improved greatly, danger still lurks. Six years ago, 24-four-year-old German driver Yvonne Cernota was killed when her sled catapulted off course during a practice run in Konigssee, Germany.

Former Nascar driver Geoff Bodine, the first to wear a full-face helmet in Cup competition, suffered several concussions during his long auto racing career. A supporter of the US bobsled team for nearly two decades, Bodine understands the dangers of both sports.

"I'm telling you because I did it once, when you hit your head on this solid ice, it hurts more than any crash in Nascar that I ever had," he said.

Drivers face the most danger because they sit up front, with only the cowl and frame to blunt the force of a crash. Steven Holcomb, the top American driver, says he has never had a concussion and that the possibility of a serious injury doesn't cross his mind.

It might at Vancouver, where speeds on the track at Whistler can approach 100 mph. Toss in the fact that Holcomb dubbed the 13th curve there "50-50" because there's a 50 percent chance of not making it through, and you have the makings of some tension-filled racing.

"Whistler is the fastest and most violent track in the world now, and it's not very forgiving," Hays said. "It's crashed almost every single No. 1 pilot in the world, so it's going to be very, very challenging."

AP