Olympic sliding track built for speed

WHISTLER, British Columbia — The signature curve, appropriately, the unlucky 13th, is nicknamed "50-50" — the odds of escaping its icy clutches without accident.

Curve No. 11 is known as "Shiver," a spine-tingling bend that leaves first-time visitors trembling in fear.

Snaking its way down beautiful Blackcomb Mountain, the 16-turn Whistler Sliding Center track, which will host the bobsled, luge and skeleton events during the Vancouver Games, has a nasty reputation even before making its Olympic debut.

It's fast. It's furious. It's frightening.

"It's a great ride, for sure," said U.S. luger Erin Hamlin, the American team's top medal hope. "I like the challenge, so that makes it interesting and it feels that much better when you can make it down."

That's if you make it down.

One of only 16 international sliding tracks, the one overlooking pretty-as-a-postcard Whistler, is the world's fastest, a frozen superspeedway where sliders may surpass 90 mph and experience G-forces comparable to those encountered by military jet pilots.

Amateurs need not apply. Beginning with a near-vertical drop, this is a thrill-or-spill ride where the slightest mistake can send a luger careening headfirst into a wall, upend a 400-pound bobsled and its four passengers and snap a skeleton racer's bones like twigs.

The perils of the track were all too clear Thursday when Romanian luger Violeta Stramaturaru was knocked unconscious after slamming into several walls during a training run. She was strapped to a backboard and taken to an onsite medical facility, and a Romanian team official indicated her injury was not serious.

American Megan Sweeney also crashed in her first training run but walked away unharmed, other than a slightly torn race suit. Australia's Hannah Campbell-Pegg, who was wobbly during a training run and braced for a crash, questioned the track's safety.

"I think they are pushing it a little too much," Campbell-Pegg said. "To what extent are we just little lemmings that they just throw down a track and we're crash-test dummies? I mean, this is our lives."

A.J. Rosen, Britain's only luge competitor, has been chewed up and spit out by the snarling Whistler monster. During a training run in October, Rosen dislocated his hip and suffered nerve damage in a wreck.

"The actual crash wasn't that bad, but you are going at such speeds that sliding down is where I got hurt," he said. "As you're coming to the bottom, this track takes your breath away. It's really fast and there is nothing really to compare it to."

U.S. luger Tony Benshoof will never forget his first trip down Whistler's blinding gamut of lefts, rights, hairpins and straightaways. It was if he was transported back in time.

"I felt like I was in a sped up black-and-white movie," the three-time Olympian said. "I was very, very surprised by the speed. It took some practice to slow everything down in your head. Ideally in luge, you want to slow everything down, and the best sliders are able to do that well.

"It took me a while in Whistler, maybe 10 or 12 runs before I could see the laces on the baseball, so to speak. It's a handful."

Unlike many tracks in Europe, this one has wider, sweeping turns at the top, allowing sliders to build up early momentum and breakneck speed. By the time the men's lugers reach the third curve called "Wedge," they're already approaching nearly 70 mph and there's no exit ramp.

There were several crashes and near-crashes during Wednesday's training runs in men's luge, which will hold its first two heats on Saturday. On his first trip, American Chris Mazdzer lost control, banged into several walls and smashed the front of his right foot on the rock-hard surface before sliding to a stop.

"I took the scenic route," he joked, looking down at his sockless foot covered with an ice bag.

Mazdzer regrouped and was able to make two other trips safely.

"For me, it took a run today to even process what was going on," he said. "Your brain has to digest so much information so quickly. At the top, you're not going very fast and then all of a sudden, you hit warp speed out of 11 and it's 12, 13, 14. It takes time to adjust when you're going 100 miles per hour — almost."

While the speed element makes for exciting racing, there have been questions about the track's safety. However, organizers insist every precaution has been taken to minimize the danger for athletes.

"Crashes are definitely part of the sport, definitely part of a new facility the first few years a track is open, especially until coaches understand how to coach their athletes through particular corners on this track," said Craig Lehto, the sliding center's director. "On this track, we are prepared for any type of crash as it is very technically demanding and the conditions can change so quickly on this mountain, which in turn changes the ice conditions very quickly.

"Even pilots who might be used to sliding down this track might not be used to sliding on particular weather conditions at any given time."

Lehto said doctors will be on site along with three ambulances. There's also a helicopter pad should someone need to be airlifted.

Because they know every inch of the technically challenging course, which is occasionally visited by curious local bears and lynx, Canada's sliders will enjoy a large home-track advantage in Whistler. The host nation caused a stir leading up to the games by limiting access to the track — and other Olympic facilities — and in doing so denied other countries the opportunity to practice.

American skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender said the actions were not in keeping with the Olympic spirit and called them, "rude, to say the least."

That's no concern to Canadian luger Ian Cockerline. He had to take his lumps while learning difficult courses in Europe that the Germans, Swiss and Italians had already mastered.

"They grow up in those classic tracks where you really get a lot of hard crashes," he said. "When we go there for the first time as young kids it's hard for us to even make it down, so it's nice to see a few people come here and have a couple wipeouts.

"It's payback for all those years that we suffered."

At last year's World Cup events in Whistler, some of the world's best lugers, skeleton riders and bobsled drivers were overmatched by the unforgiving track. On race day, it's possible that caution could be more important than courage.

"I was in 28th place last year after one run and then the next eight or nine people crashed," Mazdzer said. "It just happens. This place is something else. You can't let up at any moment going down."

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