There was a time way before the impending Sochi Olympics when it was fashionable to mock Jamaica for its comic foray into Olympic bobsledding. There was even a movie made about the team's bumbling in 1988 at Calgary. I never saw the flick, but I did find myself chuckling at the thought of representatives from a country without snow having the audacity to compete in a sport based entirely on the white stuff.
Curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to put myself in the shoes of the Jamaicans and give the bobsled a try. But when I approached the U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation for a ride from the top of the track at Lake Placid, NY, site of the famous 1980 Olympics where the U.S. hockey team defeated Russia, officials were dismissive. A run from the top of the hill is just too risky for a layman, they told me. They suggested I try a "tourist run" -- a milder experience in a sled that leaves from just half-way up the track. That would be thrilling enough, they assured me.
No dice, said I. I wanted the "real deal" experience, like the pros. I assured USBSF I had done my share of extreme things, including driving an Indy car at 200 mph, flying to the edge of space in a MiG-25 and being shot point-blank with a .38 pistol wearing only a thin, bullet-resistant leather jacket. What could be so tough about bobsledding?
Reluctantly, they finally caved. But I would need a physical, complete with EKG. I would also need to join the governing body for the U.S. Olympic team and sign countless liability waivers.
On the circuit, Lake Placid is considered one of the world's more difficult bobsled tracks, dropping 345 feet on a run of 4,770 feet with 20 neck-snapping turns. Vancouver Olympian John Napier, a veteran of Afghanistan, would be my driver on a 2-man sled. My job would be to handle the brake. I was told not to pull it until we were at the bottom. If I got scared and yanked sooner, I could topple the sled.
The sled, made of fiberglass with steel runners, has no seats, no seat-belts and nothing to absorb the shock of running roughshod over the ice. You push at a breakneck sprint, then jump on. If you're the driver, you grab the steering pulleys; if you're brakeman, you duck down, grab two small handles to anchor yourself and then grit your teeth.
Napier and I donned burn suits and racing helmets. Then we positioned ourselves at the start, he on the left side of the sled and I behind it. The temperature was 3 degrees fahrenheit. A light dusting of snow made for slick, fast conditions. Then we began to sprint, accelerating the sled until it was time to jump aboard -- Napier in the front, me in the back. Within seconds we were barreling into the first turn, a right-hander, which slammed me hard against the left side of the machine. As we picked up speed, we were whipsawed back and forth by alternating right and left-handers.
Unlike Napier, who was steering, I tried to keep my head down. I couldn't see when we'd hit the next turn -- or what direction it would be. On turn seven I pulled 6 G's, which crushed my chest to where I could neither inhale nor exhale. I felt like a crash-test dummy in a giant, shaking black box. Twice my head hit the inside of the sled so hard I saw stars. If I blacked out, I could be thrown from the sled and land God knows where. I struggled to stay conscious. Finally, we slowed on a slight incline. I looked up at Napier, who waved his hand. I sheepishly pulled the brake.
My hosts ran toward us, grinning. "So what did you think?" I was woozy, battered and told them the truth: It was the most violent physical pounding I had ever endured. They laughed, asked if I wanted to go again. I hesitated -- but was in good company, they told me: Both Chris Chelios, the former National Hockey League star, and Laird Hamilton, the big-wave surfer, when offered a second run, declined. Chelios called the violence akin to "playing an entire hockey game in less than a minute!"
Because of the goading I suppose, I stupidly summoned the wherewithal for a second run. It was still violent, terrible, teeth-rattling; and again, within seconds, I wanted it to be over. When it was, I stumbled out of the sled. We had broken 60 seconds with a top speed of 73 mph --respectable. But I couldn't find full equilibrium for a week. I could, however, find respect for those Jamaicans.
Trust me folks, when you see the Sochi Olympians barreling down the hill, they are being pummeled by unimaginable G-Forces. It's too bad that on-board sled cameras cannot capture that aspect. If they could, the sport of bobsledding would go through the roof.
Jim Clash, an adventure journalist, is author of "Forbes To The Limits" (Wiley 2003) and "The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1960s" (AskMen, 2012).