On The Fast Track

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News January 2018

Featuring breathtaking speed and rocket-like G-forces, para-bobsled is poised to be the newest addition to the Winter Paralympics.

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Dawn Macomber is fearless when she’s hurling down the para-bobsled track at roughly 80 miles an hour and experiencing five times the pull of gravity (G-forces) in the corners. A U.S. Army veteran who coped with herniated discs in her back and debilitating pain while in service, Macomber’s spinal cord was paralyzed by pressure when two of the discs shifted. She now has incomplete paraplegia, still being able to feel portions of her upper legs, and competes in many sports with the support of crutches. America’s first female para-bobsledder who competes on the World Cup circuit thinks the sport is exhilarating. 

“You have to love the adrenaline and going fast, and almost having a little bit of uncontrolled controlled feelings with that,” Macomber says. “I’m not scared at all. Scary for me is walking into a VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] hospital, not going in a bobsled.”

Coming A Long Way

Bobsled is arguably the fastest growing winter para sport, and last year, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) provisionally approved it to be included in the Paralympic Winter Games for the first time starting with the 2022 Games in Beijing. Now, athletes who have been competing in the sport recreationally can finally aspire to compete on the international stage. Para-bobsled is a mixed gender sport that has come a long way since the first para-athletes mastered the Park City track in Utah in 2003. At the international level, in a single medal event, athletes are timed over four races and the individual with the fastest cumulative time is crowned the winner. Para-athletes with the following IPC-recognized disability categories are eligible to participate in the sport: impaired muscle power, impaired passive range of motion, loss of limb or limb deficiency and leg-length difference. To be given full approval, para-bobsled must meet the minimum requirements laid out by the IPC Governing Board in both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. The sport must host at least six World Cup races and a World Championships in those two seasons with “regular participation in the sport,” meaning a minimum of 12 countries from at least three of its geographic regions participating each year. The decision is subject to final written approval by both the International Olympic Committee and Beijing 2022 Olympic/Paralympic Organizing Committee. Last winter, athletes from 13 countries, including the United States, participated in one or more of the six World Cup events and World Championships. The upcoming 2017-18 season is expected to include 10 Para World Cup events for the sport on five tracks, culminating with the third edition of the Para World Championships in Lillehammer, Norway.

“It has always been my agenda to develop the para sport on an international level when I was elected in 2010,” says Ivo Ferriani, International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) president and chairman of the IBSF para-bobsled and para-skeleton committee. “Since that time, the sport has matured and grown steadily in numbers and performance.”

Para-bobsledders compete using a specially designed single-person monobob rather than the two-person or four-person sleds used by Olympic athletes. These monobobs include a variety of specific safety features to accommodate athletes who may have limited feeling or mobility. Per IBSF rules, all para-athletes must also use a leg strap — similar to a weightlifting belt — for both legs so they’ll remain in the sled in case of a crash.

Super Gs

Most people are accustomed to seeing bobsledders sprint and push their sled down the start and then use their bodies to maneuver themselves to jump into the sled and tuck and hold on before using the G-forces around the curves.

But para-athletes use a mechanical start machine propelled by hydraulics that ensures each sled starts down the track at precisely the same speed. Over the last few years, the IBSF has been trying to perfect the launch system, which allows athletes to already be seated in the sled and signal when they’re ready. The movements also differ once they’re launched.

“For an able-bodied person, they’re able to use their whole body to feel and control the sled and the way they go around the curve,” Macomber says. “As a para-athlete, you have to rely on your belly button up — your core, chest, arms and visual cues to be able to feel which way your body is being pulled. You have to be able to feel that using your other senses to pull the sled on and off the curves and handle the G-forces.”

Those G-forces can sometimes reach 5 Gs, which is greater than the average 3 Gs felt by astronauts lifting off in a rocket ship. Those super Gs and spasms brought on by the cold weather can cause injuries, which para-athletes may not even realize.

“I can show you the bruises I have for it,” Macomber says. “You get slammed in ways that an able-bodied person may be able to adjust themselves if they feel something is not right. But for us, our legs just go flying because there’s no way of holding them down in place. We do get banged up and bruised fairly easily, but on the plus side, we can’t feel the bruises either.”

No matter an athlete’s level of ability, though, the IBSF is doing everything in its power to protect para-athletes at all costs. Safety comes first. Always.

“G-forces are of particular concern for para-athletes with spinal-cord injuries, and this is a major focus for our certified sport classifiers,” Ferriani says. “After classification, para-athletes make a regular progression up the track, starting at lower intermediate starting points along the track and gradually increasing their speed as they progress in starting at higher starting points. Additionally, the monobobs themselves include several design features to provide bracing and stability of the para-athlete as required.”

Headfirst Hopes

As if barreling down an icy track at high speed in a bobsled isn’t enough of a thrill, try doing it headfirst on sled a little bigger than a cookie sheet — that’s the sport of para-skeleton. Also overseen by the IBSF, para-skeleton failed to be provisionally approved as a Winter Paralympic Games sport because the sport was unable to fulfill the IPC’s criteria. Open to the same impairment categories, para-skeleton athletes use sleds identical to their Olympic counterparts. The only variation is that athletes can only use one pushing leg to propel the sled at the start. This allows for a fair playing field for athletes with varying types of lower-limb deficiencies. 

“Skeleton has been the most adrenaline-rushing thing that I’ve ever done, and I’ve even taken a street bike to 192 miles per hour,” says Eric Eierdam, an amputee whose leg was ripped off in a motorcycle accident when he was 18 years old.

Eierdam, an adrenaline junkie known for doing double backflips off 100-foot high cliffs, has competed in skeleton for five years and in 2016 won the inaugural para-skeleton World Championships in Park City. The Las Vegas native insists that no matter if you have a disability, there is absolutely no way to prepare yourself for the sport’s G-forces before trying it out.

“There’s not really a way to handle that,” he says. “You kind of either do or you don’t. I’ve been doing this for five years now. I’ve seen a lot of guys take one spin down the track and their head’s spinning or they get nauseous, and they just say, ‘I can’t do it, I quit,’ and that’s it. And then there’s some guys who go through a couple of weeks and just get battered and beat up because they can’t get control of the sled. And then there’s guys who fine-tune it and just progressively get better, better and better.”

It’s much easier for para-athletes in the United States to take up para-bobsled than para-skeleton. To try out para-bobsled, someone just has to show up at a USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation training camp with a motorcycle helmet and proof of health insurance, and coaches will start them lower down on the track in a rented sled. Para-athletes don’t own their own bobsleds — or at least not yet — as a used bobsled costs upwards of $10,000. 

Those interested in para-skeleton, however, will have a more difficult time trying out the sport, as most athletes own customized sleds, helmets and spikes. Para-athletes suggest using social media to find others who will let them borrow the equipment. After all, that’s how the sport will grow.

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