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Beginners start at Curve 10, no higher. This is the entrance to the twisty lower portion of the course, Todd explains. As sliders improve, they commence their runs from higher and higher on the hill. The Ladies Start is situated between Curves 3 and 4, near the top. Men race from the very top of the track.
Todd places a training sled, which is lighter than a racing sled—22 pounds as compared with 48—on the ground. I lie face up, supported from shoulders to buttocks by the sled. I use my neck and abdominal muscles to keep my head and legs from touching the ground. "You have to keep your head back as much as possible. Lift it just enough to see past your feet," Todd explains as my neck muscles begin to throb. "To steer to the right, press your right shoulder and left leg down." When I stare blankly, Todd tries a different tack. "It's like downhill skiing," he says. "Weight on the outside ski, lean your shoulder in the direction you want to go."
When my name is announced over the P.A. system, I climb onto the track at Curve 10. As Todd stabilizes the sled, I slip in my orange mouth guard, adjust the too big helmet and lie back, feetfirst. Gently, Todd pushes me down the track. Slowly the sled enters Curve 10, carrying me to the left. I clamp down on my mouth guard and my hands clench the stabilizer bars of the sled.
Entering Curve 11, a 180-degree turn to the right, the sled picks up speed. I think to myself, This is fun! Suddenly, and seemingly without provocation, the sled begins to fishtail. This is less than fun. Confusion sets in. Push left to go right—or is it the other way? The wind billows my jacket, turning it into a blinding parachute. The sled screeches against the icy walls as I ricochet down the track.
In a flash, it's over. As the sled slows and my jacket deflates, I sit up smiling and laughing. Scrambling out of the track, I announce to a group of coaches, "This is great! When can I go again?"
"After instruction. Lots of instruction!" says Dmitry Feld, a Russian emigrant and the U.S. junior team's manager.
I seek out Tim Nardiello, the national team's program coordinator, for advice. Patiently he talks me through the track, explaining when, where and how much to steer in each curve. "If you make a mistake, even if you hit the wall, you have to put it behind you," he says. Right.
In the first two days I take 12 runs, gradually moving up the track to the top of the Labyrinth. Each run is preceded by an overwhelming fear, just shy of panic. Whereas the best drivers are so relaxed that they seem to be asleep on their sleds, I feel as though I'm in the throes of a violent dream.
I start thinking, Why am I doing this? I don't have to do this.
With each run I grow more confused about how to steer. In the difficult curves nothing seems to work. I sometimes lie back in frustration and let the sled go where it wants to. By the end of the second day I have battered myself silly. Despite my padding—soccer and lacrosse pads on my forearms, calves, elbows, even ankles—I am bruised and beaten. After one particularly troublesome run, Nardiello asks, "How come you're not so smiley anymore?" I shoot him my best I'm-a-New-Yorker-don't-mess-with-me look.