US Olympic Bobsled Team: Keep on Pushing! - Rolling Stone
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Keep on Pushing!

The strange and twisted tale of the United States Olympic bobsled team

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The US bobsled team competes in 1992.

Pascal Rondeau/ALLSPORT

Jeff Woodard, the six-foot-two-inch, 240-pound brakeman of the U.S. Olympic bobsled team, is crying. This is understandable, since he is about to fling himself into a 500-pound missile that rips through a maze of ice-covered curves at 85 mph — preferably, right side up — but by the looks of him, Woodard could do it upside down. Standing alone in the corner of a Calgary, Alberta, locker room, his leg-size arms wrapped in a red rubber uniform, he towers over kamikaze sliders from twenty-three countries gathered here for the November World Cup kickoff race at Canada Olympic Park. Suddenly, Woodard starts banging his orange-helmeted head against the wall and speaking in tongues. His hands shake uncontrollably, a sure sign that the “bear” is about to surface. Tears streaming down his face, he fumbles through his gym bag, finally producing a jar of honey. He squeezes a golf-ball-size glob onto his tongue and gulps. With a quick prayer and a final head slam, he charges down the hallway and punches open the doors that lead to the top of the bobtrack.

“Get your ass over here, Woodard!” a voice shouts over the crowd of sliders (as they call themselves) hauling their sleds to the start line. “Let’s fuckin’ go!”

Todd Snavely looks relieved to see that his sled mate has again psyched himself up to that maniacal prerace state. He smacks Woodard on the butt and taps a drum-roll on his helmet. Time for Phase 2.

“Be it, Jeff!” he screams over and over into Woodard’s face. “Be the freakin’ sled!” Leapin’ Bryan Leturgez, who’s been springing up and down like a human pogo stick — something called explosive plyometrics — joins his sled mates for their rowdy head-banging huddle, culminating with a few lungfuls of smelling salts. Pumped up out of their minds, the trio bolts over to the start line, where Chuck Leonowicz has been practicing some last-minute “driver’s visualizations.” It’s race time, and USA 1 is ready to roll.

But really, who cares? Certainly not a columnist at the Calgary Herald, whose prerace coverage of the first bobsled competition leading to February’s Winter Olympics included the rhetorical question “Can’t decide whether to go to the bingo or the bobsled Wednesday?” Judging by the crowd of about twelve — most of whom came out in hopes of catching a gnarly wipeout, eh? — the bingo was SRO. This, after all, was the scene just a few months ago, when bobsledding, like all Olympic sports, was still dominated by amateur athletes with big dreams and little names — before superstar running back Herschel Walker decided he wanted to slide at Albertville after the Vikings lost their shot at the Super Bowl. And it was before the so-called Dream Team — Olympic hurdler Edwin Moses and L.A. Raider Willie Gault and ex-Raider Greg Harrel — won a legal battle that could let them make the team only weeks before the games at Albertville, France, commence on February 8th.

This was the scene before sliding became curiously high profile. Bobsledding, you see, isn’t like ice hockey or downhill skiing or some other legitimate winter sport in which athletes who train for years are rewarded with lucrative post-Olympic careers with Chap Stick or the Ice Capades. This is bobsledding, a sport the U.S. Olympic Committee has virtually ignored. The USOC has never provided enough money for medal-caliber training or even, until recently, sleds. Spectators don’t understand it, since they’ve never tried it, and the athletes are for the most part hidden from view. American bobsledders, who haven’t won a medal since 1956, get no respect.

Ask Woodard, Leturgez, Snavely and Leonowicz. Last summer, as they faced the high-profile challenge of Walker and the Dream Team, they nicknamed themselves the Rodney Dangerfields. The smell of money was in the air at the trials at Lake Placid, New York. Sponsors like McDonald’s committed $200,000-plus to the team. Adidas said it would kick in free equipment. Trouble is, the Dream Team didn’t make the Olympic team. In an upset that led it to file an official grievance with the USOC in hopes of securing a tiebreaker, it was nosed out by 1/100th of a second at the Lake Placid summer “push championships.”

McDonald’s wasn’t betting on funding the underdogs, and the corporation negotiated out of its contract immediately. Adidas, which was set to donate about $35,000 worth of apparel and spiked ice shoes, also changed its mind. The team ended up buying fourteen pairs of shoes. Goodbye, Dream Team; hello, Rodney Dangerfields.

And then there’s the matter of the bobsled team’s board of directors, which was forced to resign by the USOC last March amid an FBI investigation for misappropriation of up to $400,000. Then the team’s driving coach had to leave after being diagnosed with cancer. (He died in early December.) He’s been replaced by three-time Olympic-gold-medal driver Meinhard Nehmer, formerly with the top-ranked East German team. Unfortunately, Nehmer can’t speak English. His translator, Fritz, can but with an accent so thick he may as well be speaking German.

All of this makes Jeff Woodard very happy. “The harder things get, the more motivated I am to search the depths of my psyche for strength,” he says, stacking a barbell during the team’s daily 10:00 a.m. workout at the Canada Olympic Park gym. It’s the first day of training before the four-man race on Wednesday, and Woodard is very motivated, indeed. “Life is beautiful,” he says, “when you realize the power of the mind.”

As the brakeman, Woodard’s job is to furnish power, a thigh-crunching turbo-boost during the all-important fifty-meter push start. Pushing from the back, he unleashes a combination of strength and speed indispensable in a sport in which a tenth of a second can mean the difference between winning and losing. But to Woodard, it’s all mental. Which is what this crying thing is about.

“I get so filled with emotion, it’s my only release,” he says. “It allows me to block everything out of my mind and focus on becoming one with the sled.”

Woodard didn’t plan on becoming a bobsledder. He studied communications and engineering at San Diego City College and Cal State Northridge in hopes of breaking into broadcast journalism. Two summers ago he was working out at a gym back home in Schenectady, New York, when a team scout spotted his hard-to-miss mass. “I’m thinking, ‘Bobsledding? Are you nuts?’ ” Woodard says. “Way too cold. Send me to the Summer Olympics, man. How about water polo?” But after a few trips down the track, he was hooked — the speed, the adrenalin rush, the danger.

Ask any slider from Woodard to His Serene Highness Prince Albert Louis Alexandre Pierre of Monaco’s team (“Al-baby” to Woodard) why he does it, and you’ll get the same thrills-chills-and-spills explanation. But stick around sometime when they’re working out, and you’ll hear the truth.

“I guarantee that not one person on the entire American team ever said, ‘I want to be a bobsledder,’ when they were four or five or even in college,” says Leonowicz, who runs his Olympic Landscape and Deck Company during the offseason. According to Leonowicz, most sliders are recruited reluctantly when their dreams of pursuing more-mainstream sports don’t pan out. For him, it was baseball; for Snavely, football; Leturgez, track. For Jeff Woodard, it was football … and kick boxing … and God. Woodard, who was born in 1964, was born again in 1988. Now he’s pushin’ for the Lord.

After thirty minutes on the StairMaster, Woodard strides outside to the push simulator (the training-wheels track), where his sled mates are waiting. The Canadian team has been monopolizing the real bobrun all week, so the simulator is the only show in town for prerace practice. Woodard has more important things to worry about. “I think of myself as a great bright light sent to shine on mankind,” he says, his diamond earring glistening in the sun.

Hey, Dickface, pass the fuckin’ sandpaper.”

“Get it yourself, asswipe.”

Later in the week, Snavely and Leturgez are in the garage of the Calgary Best Western, hunched over their sled like auto mechanics. Since Wednesday night’s race will be the first time out for the brand-new, aerodynamically engineered, wind-tunnel-tested, $22,000 model, they’re even more obsessive than usual about sanding and oiling its blades. They’ve been at it an hour and a half when Leonowicz joins them. “I want every scratch polished out of these babies until they’re smooth as mirrors,” he says, searching through his toolbox for a No. 1000 grit. “The smoother the runners, the faster we move.”

Leonowicz, 32, used to be Snavely’s high-school baseball coach. “That was before he got married and became a boring old fart,” says the Snaves, who dropped out of the University of Connecticut with two classes to go before graduation. Leturgez, a dead ringer for Brian Bosworth, went to Indiana State on a track scholarship and graduated last May. Although Woodard was just placed on their sled last year, the trio gathered here has a three-year history of sliding together, and sanding the runners has become a kind of bonding ritual. Leturgez talks about how scared he was when their sled crashed in Italy last year. Leonowicz confesses his worry that management will split them apart once Herschel Walker enters the picture. Snavely, spitting out a wad of dip he’s been chewing on since breakfast, details the shape of his morning bowel movements.

He’s in the middle of just such a description (“lily pads”) when a man en route to his rental car walks over. “Excuse me, sir, is this called the luge?” he asks. The question is met with a guffaw from Snavely and Leturgez. Leonowicz shoots them the stern glance of a dad who’s in no mood and proceeds to offer a polite reply, the essence of which is that bobsled teams of two or four go down the track sitting inside their sleds, while lugers go down individually on their backs, lying feet first across a high-tech Flexi-Flyer. It is clear from his measured tone that it is not the first time he has delivered this speech.

It is the unspoken mission of every slider to convince you that a technologically superior sled and a deranged notion of a good time are just half the game. The other half is actual athletic skill. That is why all potential sliders must undergo a series of strength and speed tests at the Lake Placid Olympic Center before they can try out for the team. That is why the fourteen who eventually make it (two four-man teams, two two-man teams and two alternates) are traveling the World Cup circuit with a strength-and-condi-tioning coach who’s been putting them through early morning workouts all week that include everything from free weights and resistance running (attached to a parachute) to explosive plyometrics.

The teammates also travel with a neuromuscular therapist, who uses terms like muscle fascia as he tortures them with ostensible sports massages. Back home the sledders make the rounds between their own chiropractors, cardiologists, personal trainers and, yes, sports psychologists — all for a race that lasts less than sixty seconds.

“But people see some team like the dang Jamaicans come into the sport and think, ‘Hell, nothin’ to it,’ ” says Leturgez, furiously sanding the runners.

“Yeah, but look at what happened to them last time,” says Snavely. “Splat!”

“Splat,” echoes Leturgez, who follows with a high five.

Upstairs in his room, Jeff Woodard is meditating. He has a way of disappearing when it’s time to sand the runners, especially as race day draws closer. He’d rather be alone, reading the Bible, thinking about nature. “Sometimes I imagine myself as a flower itself, opening up to the sun,” he says. Later tonight, when his three sled mates head downtown to the French Maid to catch a stripper named Gigi of Paree do some remarkable things with a squirt bottle (the place comes highly recommended by Al-baby), he will quietly slip away to visit Coco, one of the many “personal friends” he’s made since arriving in Calgary last week. “We’ll just share some peach schnapps, maybe rent a movie, take a bath by candlelight,” he says.

Feel it now, Chuck. Feel the relaxation beginning in the muscles of your pelvic area. Feel how warm, how comfortable it is, how your inner organs relax with a soothing warmth. Even your nasal passage is relaxed….”

Chuck Leonowicz has just finished listening to one of his driver’s-visualization tapes, and he’s ready to walk the track with the other drivers and coaches assembled at the bottom of the bobrun. Race night is twenty-four hours away, but yesterday’s trial run was the first his team was allowed all week. Tonight’s will be the last. Walking the mile-long course can’t compare with driving it, but it provides a close-up opportunity to test ice conditions and plot precise points on each of the fourteen curves to maximize the speed of the sled and the safety of the crew. If he keeps the sled low enough on the turns, each rider will be plastered to his seat by a gravitational force four times his body weight, greater than the G-force space-shuttle astronauts experience at blastoff.

A slider knows things are going really well if the G-force slams against his intestines like a cinder block, causing him to involuntarily let loose a lily pad or two (a phenomenon known to insiders as the dreaded “mush run”). If the driver catches the curve too late or comes off too early, the sled will flip on its side in a burst of sparks and plummet ahead with the crew’s helmets and shoulders scraping against the walls of ice. Nearly every bobsledder has lived to brag about broken bones and scars sustained on his or her most gruesome wipeout. About five per decade have not.

Leonowicz stops walking when he reaches the 270-degree Kreisel, the large speed-building curve built into most bobtracks. He shuts his eyes, extends his fists and concentrates until he can almost feel the sled’s steering ropes in each hand.

On the morning of the First World Cup race of the season, Jeff Woodard feels like a crane. He’s certain that the other animals — the gazelle, the dragon and, finally, the bear — will surface as the day goes on. Woodard calls these animals his “characters,” and he discovered that they lived within him when he began studying kick boxing and martial arts as a teenager. Each character possesses an attribute (grace, speed, power) that he needs to tap into before race time, so he plans on spending most of the day alone, meditating.

“I need to separate myself from the pack and get deep within my spirit to bring out those characters,” he says. “I try to turn myself from good to bad. From a crane to a bear — an animal that uses its hands and claws to conquer its prey.” He starts speaking faster. “I feel like killing something when I get to that final stage of psyching up. I’m like a volcano getting ready to explode. When race time rolls around, I want to feel like ripping apart the sled.”

Tears streaming down his face, Woodard has obviously reached that state seconds before his team is called to the start line. “Be it, Woodard!” Snavely shrieks. “Be the freakin’ sled!” Then it’s quiet. They lower the gleaming red rocket onto the ice and fall into position: Leonowicz up front, Snavely and Leturgez on either side and Woodard, the turbo, in back. Gripping the push bars, which extend out from the sled, they bob it back and forth once, then heave it forward for the stampede that begins the roller-coaster ride from hell. Over the scraping of the ice as the sled tears down the track, you can hear a voice trail off into an echo: “Take us home, Chuck!”

The whole thing is over in a blur of exactly 55.58 seconds. Combined with their time in the second heat (56.0), it’s a performance that lands the boys in fifth place. But fifth place is a long way from home. For the Rodney Dangerfield squad, home is the top position on a three-box platform in Albertville, France. Jeff Woodard has been waking up all week with visions of himself standing on it, and there’s a very gaudy piece of jewelry dangling from his neck in these visions.

Two months and four international competitions after Calgary’s kickoff race, Jeff Woodard is wandering the streets of New York City with trouble on his mind. Tomorrow morning his team leaves its Manhattan hotel to wrap up the final twenty-seven days of pre-Olympic competition, but he’s just found out that it might not get a chance to compete. Over the weekend, the Dream Team of Moses, Harrel and Gault won an arbitration hearing granting them a last-minute chance to qualify for the team. Their lawyers discovered a small loophole in the team-selection rules stating that policies for conducting races must be made by all the contenders – unanimously. The entrants voted upon a number of these policies at a mandatory training camp in Lake Placid last May — a camp that Harrel and Moses decided not to attend. Since they weren’t there, the decisions weren’t unanimous.

Right now, Woodard is trying not to think about the very real possibility that he or his teammates, who earned their spots on the team, will be bumped to accommodate the big names, who bring the sponsorship bucks. He finds it particularly disturbing that the rematch will be open to the all-stars only, not the other forty-five hopefuls who didn’t make the cut last July.

“You can bet the whole thing boils down to political and financial motives, not any great love for the sport,” he says, uncharacteristically hostile. “The president of the bobsled federation wanted these guys on the team from the start, and he’s done everything in his power to get them back. All our training and sacrifice means nothing. We’re back to being the Rodney Dangerfields.” 

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