Keep on Pushing!
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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