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The skeletons perhaps represent one more step into the wonderful insanity generated by the luge, whose riders go down the run on their backs, toes first, and hanging on to a rope with one hand. The lugers, however, have their own tracks, no bob runs for them. Still, like the skeletons, luges are descendants of ancient sledding contraptions. Indeed, the skeleton is a direct offspring of the Cresta sled, whose famous run is at St. Moritz. The Crestas, however, offer such comforts as sliding belly boards for control and balance, and the riders take the run in an arms-out-front position. Actually, the traditional position for riding a skeleton is with hands gripping the front of the sled, but the U.S. team has opted for the more daring kamikaze position, with arms held back to lessen wind resistance, a technique that has been in use in Europe for several years. That way the head and softly rounded dome of the crash helmet become a sort of battering ram. If a kamikaze rider hits something head on, he is a cinch to break his neck all the way down to his kneecaps.
But that's it—the danger is part of the special kick. No guts, no glory. It's a nice irony that the mildest-looking member of the U.S. team is actually its fiercest driver, who doubles as the coach, trainer, ma�tre d', whatever. Timothy Rath is 33 years old, 6'1�" and 210 pounds, an explosives contractor from St. Albans, Vt.
"While the sled looks simple, it's really not," Rath says. "The thing can weigh from 66 to 90 pounds—your preference—and every sled has a sweet spot on it just like a tennis racket or a golf club. You get set up on it, find the center of gravity and get yourself in perfect balance, lying absolutely still; head down, your chin must be an inch off the ice. You never, never raise your head or shoulders—if you so much as look up one time, you start to lose control of the sled and then you could be in big trouble. Instead, you..." Rath drops his whiskery chin against his chest and then rolls his eyes upward, peering out from beneath his brows, "...instead, you peek out from under the edge of your helmet, like this. Got it? And if you do all of that correctly, without moving a muscle, you can virtually steer the sled by simply glancing in one direction or the other."
Swell, Timothy. Just fine. Then what is all this ungainly flopping about on the bobsled run, heads swiveling, legs all splayed apart, toes digging into the ice?
"Well, we're still learning," Rath says. "We're desperately trying to master the techniques—and here the world championships are just a few days away. I think it's fairly safe to say that, with nine or 10 countries and some 90 riders entered, that we're not going to come home with any gold medals. But a couple of weeks ago the Austrians were kind enough to send over Gert Els�sser, Europe's best slider, to show us how. And while teaching us that head-down position, Elsasser told us, 'Ze nize thing about skeleton sledding is that, if you do it right, you can smell ze ice.' "
Thus is a national team built, maybe even a dynasty. In years to come, who knows, these guys might become the scourge of skeleton sledding the world over. A skeleton team can consist of up to 10 men, and women's teams also are possible, though not permitted yet in international competition. Anyone who wants to try out for next year's U.S. team has but to show up at Lake Placid on just about any frosty morning with sled and elbow pads. "Perhaps someday these hard times might be known as the good old days of skeleton sledding," Rath says.
Meanwhile, Hunt has been making the rounds, hat in hand. The U.S. Bobsled Federation contributed $2,500 to help send the team to the world meet in Switzerland; various equipment manufacturers have donated everything from shoes and boots to helmets and those glossy, skintight racing suits. One old bobsledder, eyeing the glistening fabric, murmured: "That stuff is so slick that if a fly tried to land on it, he'd slide right off and bust his ass."
And when the team gets to Switzerland, Hunt is going to attempt a coup. "Hardly anyone remembers," he says, "that skeleton sledding was an Olympic event at the Winter Games of 1928 and 1948 in St. Moritz. So we'd like to bid for the 1983 world skeleton championships to be held here at Lake Placid. And we'll invite the Yugoslavs, see? And then, perhaps in 1984, everybody will be talking about skeleton sledding at the Winter Games in Sarajevo. Now wouldn't that be something?"
It would be something, at that. Not a bad start for a gang of sliders who are just learning how to smell the ice.