Legends of The Fall
Athletes Understand the Gravity of the Sliding Sports

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.

"It takes a lot of experience to really be able to feel the pressure and feel the line," says luge slider Samantha Retrosi on Sunday during a practice run.

The next day, 20-year-old Retrosi crashes during her competition, hitting a wall and flipping over. She gets a concussion and is carried off the track. (This is one of at least 12 recent instances in which luge athletes crashed or lost their sleds here. This 19-curve track in the mountains outside Turin is known for being particularly difficult.)

The Winter Games have an inferiority complex. Americans in particular don't regard many of the sports here as real. (One word: curling.) The winter sports can seem hopelessly foreign -- ancient Nordic sports familiar to only a small part of the world -- or new and inauthentic, as if invented just to fill airtime. At these Olympics, the new sport is something called snowboard cross. Who has heard of snowboard cross? At the last Winter Olympics, the new sport was skeleton, which is actually old, but which seems less like a sport and more like the sort of newfangled thing adolescent boys might try after seeing it on "South Park," sparking op-eds and speeches in Congress calling for the destruction of Comedy Central.

And what about doubles luge? How weird is that? Two guys lying on their backs, one on top of the other, trying in essence to melt into each other and fill in any gaps between their bodies where air could go. The guy on the bottom wants the forehead of his helmet up against the back of the other guy's helmet. When you watch a doubles luge sled go by, you can barely tell there's two people on it. Have you ever seen an ant carrying another ant, and it just looks like one big ant, and you have to look close to see two separate heads?

It's like that.

But we digress.

It's understandable that spectators might sneer at a sport that requires lying down and falling (or, as in bobsled, crouching in a tiny clown car and falling). But the appearance of ease among the winter sports here is deceptive. Measured in gutsiness and injuries, the Winter Games arguably best the Summer Games. This is the Gravity Olympics, the Crash-'n'-Burn Olympics. This is the Olympics of slick surfaces and speed, of aerial tricks and crushed feet. Skiing too is a sport of falling, and as such has its own spectacular wipeouts. And snowboard cross, by the way, involves packs of four racing on snowboards with bumper-car conduct, and the athletes wipe out in fluffy violence. Makes for great television.

Don't underestimate gravity.

What are the mechanics of fear? Which is more frightening, luge or skeleton? Luge: on your back, feet forward. Skeleton, added in the 2002 Winter Games: on your stomach, face forward.

In luge, you're trying not to lift your head too much, so as not to destroy your aerodynamic position, and you're steering from memory, from having walked and trained on the track. In skeleton, you can see the ice whooshing by just inches under your chin. You can see how close you are to the sides.

Is it scarier to see yourself falling, or to imagine it?

* * *

People write PhD theses on things like luge.

"The curves themselves are really complicated three-dimensional shapes," says Marge Hartfel, who did write such a thesis. She's a mechanical engineer who helps coordinate the sports science program for USA Luge. "The path that they take has to take into account the fact that the geometry is changing all the way through that curve."

Hartfel talks about parabolas and hyperbolas, about curves shaped like freeway exits and curves shaped like hockey sticks. It's all very complicated, but the feeling is uncomplicated and pure, a terrible rush.

"You're trying to use that G-force to accelerate you from curve to curve to curve," says British luge athlete Mark Hatton. "Like a champagne cork."

Here's how it feels to be a champagne cork:

"Your guts kind of feel like they want to come right through and sit on the bottom of the sled," says Steve Mesler, one of the American bobsledders who will be competing later in the Games.

"Hope you don't have to go to the bathroom, 'cause you will," says Carol Lewis, a former competitive bobsledder and track star. "Don't have something in your nose, 'cause it'll come out."

"A lot of athletes wear what's called a neck strap," says Duncan Kennedy, a former luge Olympian. "I was always a big fan of that just because I didn't like the feeling of a Mack truck sitting on my head."

Luge athletes have a phrase called "losing your head." This is when the G-forces are so great that your neck gives up and the back of your helmet hits the ice.

What a strange trio of sports. All fear and rush and aloneness inside your helmet. In luge, the fastest of the three sliding sports, Armin Zoeggeler drove the mile-long track in 51.526 seconds on his final run Sunday, winning the gold for Italy.

Watch from up top, as the skeleton athletes run on the ice, wearing shoes with spikes on the bottom. Watch the luge athletes; they push off then pad-pad-pad the ice with spiked gloves and lie back. (Speaking of which, do not attempt to shake a luge athlete's hand while he's wearing these gloves, no matter how good a job he's done.)

Now stand here by curve 10 and wait for the luger to come through. The sound of his approach sounds like far-off thunder. The rail you're leaning against vibrates.

He is there and gone in a flash. Falling, falling.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company