Legends of The Fall

Above, U.S. luger Samantha Retrosi lies on the course after crashing; she suffered a concussion.
Above, U.S. luger Samantha Retrosi lies on the course after crashing; she suffered a concussion. (By David J. Phillip -- Associated Press)
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 17, 2006

CESANA PARIOL, Italy -- The ice looks smooth but this is a lie.

Bobsledders will tell you about ice burn, when the speeds are so fast and the friction so intense that an athlete, flipped over by a driving error and trapped under a 450-pound sled, can have the skin on his shoulder cheese-grated off.

Other sports fight gravity. To fall in figure skating is to upset the illusion of grace and control. But in the three sliding sports of bobsled, luge and skeleton, which share one ice track, the sport is falling. The sport is your stomach sinking and your mind messy with fear. The sport is fast and slow at once -- time expands for experienced sliders -- and your neck sore with the pressure of 5 G's in a curve. The sport is using gravity instead of letting it use you.

Gravity, man, we're fighting it all our lives. Jowls and breasts fall. Hips break. And one day we fall and don't get up again. The sliders know gravity better than any of us. They're intimate with it; they manipulate it, know how to soar and how to sink.

You know how they say that if you're falling fast, water feels like concrete? (You take them at their word because you're not about to find out.) Well, at high speeds, riding the ice is a little like riding a horse, and a slider lying on a sled -- either face up, as in luge, or face down, as in skeleton -- has to make his body one big shock absorber. You can see his whole body shuddering as he comes down the track. He wants to rise and fall with the sled instead of fighting the thumpa-thumpa with a rigid posture. He wants to relax while falling at 80 miles an hour, even though it runs counter to all his instincts.

The one thing he can't want is to stop.

* * *

Sliding doesn't look difficult until you see someone crash.

There's this whole thing about finding the perfect line through the curves and the straightaways. It seems as though you should be able to just flop on a sled and go down and the ice would carry you in the right direction, but enormous pressures are at work. Gravity keeps a slider pinned to the wall of a track like one of those amusement park centrifugal spinners. That's why sliders feel up to five times their own gravity pushing them down at pressure points along a curve. And that's why if sliders make the wrong calculation, entering a curve too early or too late, winding up too high or too low along the wall, steering just an inch or two off, they can go boom.

Sliding doesn't look difficult until you see someone crash. Watch her careering into a wall like a billiard ball, or turning over, her legs flopping limply onto the ice, and you'll start to realize just how much control she was exerting. Without a sled, what is the slider? No longer a gravity machine, she's now just some helpless schmo who's slipped on the ice, like any one of us.

(In the casual language of athletes for whom broken fingers and separated shoulders are no big deal, certain bobsledding crashes are called "parking.")

There's a ton of physics at work in driving the right line, though the sliders don't think in those terms. They do it all by training and feel. The bobsledders steer by having the driver yank on ropes, whereas in luge and skeleton, the athletes adjust their bodies -- pressing with their shoulders and their legs in luge, shifting body weight or dragging a toe in skeleton.

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