LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — The sled is a British-made Bromley X18 racer, a sleek slab of steel and fiberglass measuring about 441/2 inches in length by 201/2 inches at its widest point, and several times a day, weather permitting, between October and February, it is the only thing separating Veronica Day from an awful, icy fate at the bottom of a frozen, mile-long chute in some far-flung corner of the globe.
Day, 26, is a skeleton racer — skeleton being that exotic sliding sport you become aware of once every four years, a lone athlete on your television, sprinting alongside their sled before jumping atop it and sliding, headfirst, at speeds of up to 85 mph through a twisting, turning track. Of all the Winter Olympic sports, it may be the one of which it is most frequently said, “You couldn’t pay me enough money to do that.”
Which is funny — because Day, a Vienna native and Madison High alum, is paid exactly nothing to do it. Actually, it’s worse than that — she pays for the privilege of sliding, at a rate of about 35 bucks per run on all non-U.S. tracks. Though she has a couple of small sponsors, they mainly serve to cover a fraction of her annual expenses — equipment, travel, etc. — which in 2015 totaled around $17,000. She has no debt and considers that a massive victory.
Day doesn’t complain. She signed up for this. Hers is the fate of the Obscure Olympic Hopeful, at least for the three years and 11 months between Winter Games, when almost no one outside of your closest circle of family and friends is aware of the existence of your sport, let alone cares about your fortunes within it. It is a lonely pursuit — all the dry-land sprinting, the weightlifting, the practice runs — that may or may not pay off with one of two berths on the U.S. skeleton team for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
“If you’re a top swimmer or track and field athlete or maybe a gymnast, there are a lot of opportunities and the potential you’ll become a household name after the Olympics,” she says. “But 90 percent of athletes don’t have that. They’re people like me, who are just trying to make ends meet.”
The sled, then, is more than a piece of equipment for Day. It is her protector, its bump-outs extending just wide enough of her shoulders to absorb the brunt of the impacts of the many icy walls they encounter together. It is her travel companion, at least until airport check-in, where its sheer weight — about 64 pounds — typically requires an overweight baggage fee of at least $75.
And it is her biggest investment, bought last summer at a price of roughly $7,500 — which, as Day herself notes, is more than twice the Kelley Blue Book value of her 2002 Honda Civic. The cost was partially subsidized by her sponsors, and she can probably recoup the rest when she sells it once her skeleton career is over, whenever that may be.
But for now, what the sled is mostly is a statement, made to herself: that she is all-in for skeleton and for PyeongChang. That the next 24 months are critical to her Olympic dream. And that when she stands at the top of another track, in her $400 helmet, her $400 shoes and her $1,000 speed suit, she will be pushing and riding the top-of-the-line sled.
The rest, as she works these next two years to push herself from one side of the line that separates the Olympians to the just-shys, will be up to her.
How does a girl from the Virginia suburbs wind up flying down mountains on a skeleton sled as her life’s pursuit? It isn’t as crazy or as rare as it may sound.
She goes to Elon University on a track and field scholarship, a long and triple jumper of some renown, winning three conference titles and setting five school records. She settles in to watch the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and is struck by the fact so many of the racers are former track athletes — the explosiveness and fast-twitch muscularity of track disciplines translating well to bobsled and skeleton.
She goes to the website of the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, fills out an “athletic résumé,” gets invited to a combine camp, aces the battery of tests she is put through — and winds up, not long after graduation in 2011, lying down on a skeleton sled about halfway up the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Olympic Bobsled Run in Lake Placid and being pushed by a development coach who has seen plenty of first-timers get up and walk away after that harrowing first trip to the bottom.
She, however, reaches the “chicane” — the straightaway just before Turn 17 — and yells to no one in particular, “This is amazing!” She paddles her way to the finish line, having built up too little speed to slide through it, and asks, “When can I go again?”
“You either hate it and leave immediately,” Day says, “or you love it and can’t get enough.”
From that humble start, Day’s career took off. By 2012, she had won the U.S. national push championship — a dry-land competition spotlighting the less-exciting but equally critical opening part of skeleton racing. By 2015 — a year too late for the Sochi Olympics — she had made the U.S. women’s skeleton national team, a designation reserved for the top five Americans.
That summer, though, brought a major setback — a herniated disc in her back that went undiagnosed for weeks before ultimately resulting in surgery in July. She missed months of offseason training and slipped to sixth in the U.S. rankings, costing her, at least for now, her spot on the national team.
As she works her way back to 100 percent, progress is measured in hundredths of seconds — her push these days clocking in just 0.06 below her personal best. But she could always push with the best of them. It’s the rest of the discipline that consumes her — getting faster on the sled, gaining critical experience on as many top tracks as she can, working on her mental strength with a sports psychologist.
“Skeleton is so strange because you have to have all this anxiety and adrenaline when you start pushing the sled,” she says. “But when you want to be as calm and sunk into your sled as possible as you’re going down the track. There’s a switch. As soon as you jump on the sled, your thought process needs to switch from ‘Go! Go! Go! Go!’ to ‘Okay, now relax.’ ”
Here, at roughly the midpoint between Winter Olympic cycles, Day’s sport is perhaps at its loneliest and most obscure. She will spend the next couple of months racing in the North American Cup, a third-tier circuit, with hopes of moving up to one of the higher circuits by next season, as PyeongChang draws nearer.
The goal is not merely to get back into the top five Americans, which would put her back on the national team, but to get into the top two by the end of 2017, when the Olympic team will be selected.
“Do I think I can be number one or two in the U.S.? Absolutely,” she says. “I don’t think it’s a pipe dream at all.”
But nearing the five-year mark of her skeleton career, Day can feel the lure of real life creeping ever closer. Even when training and competing, she tries to maintain a 25-hour-or-so work week for her employer, Adecco Staffing Agency, for whom she works part-time as a recruiter, helping other athletes find jobs. She calls Colorado Springs her home these days but is there for little more than half the year. Once this Olympic cycle comes and goes, she isn’t sure she can commit to four more years, which would take her through age 32.
“As long as I think going 80 miles an hour headfirst is still fun, I will definitely keep sliding,” she says. “But I think the life of an athlete is not sustainable for long periods of time. As a recruiter for Adecco, I work with athletes now who — they have a master’s degree but no job experience because they’ve been doing whatever sport for 20 years.
“It’s a big shock to the system when you go from traveling the world and competing to now having to take an internship. I don’t want to be behind the rest of my life when I’m done with skeleton.”
When it’s all over, Olympian or no, she can sell the X18 sled and maybe use the money to buy a new car. Maybe someone will want her helmets and speed suits. But there are some things she will always keep with her — the memories, for example. The feeling of clocking 86 mph at the track in Whistler, British Columbia. And the scars — like the small one on her chin from an encounter with a wall at the same track.
“Everyone takes a hit there,” she says. “The question is, are you going to tap the wall or crush it?”
When it’s all over, she will embrace even the wipeouts. On her phone, she has a video clip of one such, when she flipped coming out of a 360-degree corner in Koenigssee, Germany. She did the same thing five straight times — paying 35 bucks a pop for the privilege — before finally getting it right on the sixth try.
“Sometimes,” she says, smiling and watching the clip on her phone for the bazillionth time, “it’s like, ‘Man, what am I doing?’ ”