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Leave it to the fat man to sum it all up. The fat man is a bobsledder of the old school, comfortable with his bulk, his long sporting career showing in his gnarled hands and the ridges of whitened scar tissue across the bend of his nose. He's now a maintenance worker at the Mount Van Hoevenberg bobsled run at Lake Placid, and he steps out of his little warmup shack at the No. 8 turn and makes a pronouncement. On this —9� morning, his voice rings out crisply. "These——guys," he says, "have got to be out of their——minds."
Even cleaned up for publication, his assessment seems to make a certain gritty sense. For what the fat man has just seen is another human hurtling down the bob run aboard a 36"-long sled that rises only 2" above the track. What's more, the sledder was doing a belly-buster, facedown. And worse, he was holding his arms back along his sides and steering by means of minute movements of his head and shoulders. His chin rode an inch from the iced track, and as the little steel sled skittered around Big Shady turn, the rider turned his head slightly and the left side of his crash helmet rattled against the ice: Brrrraaaaappp! In another flash he was headed down toward Little S turn and Zig-Zag.
Maybe crazy, maybe not. The contraptions in question are called skeleton sleds, and the aforementioned rider is a member of the U.S. skeleton sled team. This may be the most obscure U.S. team in existence. The entire population of the U.S. skeleton team is five guys—four of them are sledders and the fifth is the manager. They've been a team for, oh, five months, and in a week or so, for better or worse, they'll represent all of us, the entire U.S. of A., at the world championships in St. Moritz. What's more, there's a campaign afoot to add skeleton sledding to the 1988 Winter Games; it was an Olympic sport before, back in 1928 and 1948. If it returns, these same guys will also probably be the U.S. Olympic team.
They'd desperately like to have more sliders. "Right now it's a lonely, sort of orphan sport," says Bill Hunt, the manager. Hunt, who's from Mont Vernon, N.H., is wistfully earnest about the skeletons. "Imagine if we could get a whole bunch of guys out, all of them bombing down this run and trying out for the team, just like they do in other sports," he says. "We could be like, you know, like a fraternity of sledders and all sit around comparing our cuts and lumps over a few beers in the evenings."
"First you feel panic. And then you feel a few touches of sheer terror. But then you get a sense of euphoria," says Pat Murtagh, of Mallets Bay, Vt.
Oh sure. The Lake Placid bobsled run, which is used in its entirety for skeleton sledding, is a rarity—one of maybe 10 in existence. It's the only one in North America and the fastest in the world. It offers three principal straightaways and 16 curves in a vertical drop of 488 feet, with all that fun squiggled into a mere 1,557 meters—a one-mile dash down the mountainside. The big guys on their two-and four-man bobsleds make it down in barely more than a minute, hitting about 80 mph in some spots. The world records, set on this track, are 1:01.79 and 59.73 for the two-man and four-man, respectively. But they are all sitting there like gentlemen; they're not belly-whopping down a glazed ice chute on a 13"-to-15"-wide rig (measured from runner to runner) and letting it all hang out.
No wonder that the fat man came out of his shack for a look. There are few sporting sights quite so stunning as the one of a skeleton sled and rider in full cry. They're buried deep inside the trench on the straightaways and then suddenly thrown high into the curves. G-forces compress and distort the sledders' bodies. All of this happens at 70 or so mph; there's a quick impression of legs slightly skewed and elbows out (though they're supposed to be held tightly closed), and in that split second one can actually see the slight turn of head that steers the sled. Then man and vehicle are gone—and in the rattle of their departure comes an odd realization that something vital was missing. Of course: There's no sled to be seen at that speed, just one frail human body hurtling past on the shining ice.
The theory is that, one day soon, the skeletons will be doing all this almost as fast as the two-man bobsleds; a less than 1:10 run is considered attainable, and a 1:05 is every sledder's dream. At Lake Placid last weekend the official U.S. team was barreling down the course in the 1:11 to 1:15 range, each rider arriving wide-eyed and exhilarated at the bottom. "Man!" says Thoren, fastest slider on the team so far. "When you think of how much faster we can go, wow!"
"And here we are," says Chris Leach, 34, of Swanton, Vt., a teammate. "Four guys who happen to have the sleds. You can't get much more amateur than that."