YANQING, China — One after another, bobsleds raced around the curves of the National Sliding Center, each covering nearly a mile of icy twists and turns in just under a minute of adrenaline.
But what went down—in this case very quickly—had to go back in time to come down again.
This return to the top for the Olympic bobsled teams has gone not only much slower, but with laughter, sweat and, of course, the utmost care.
During Wednesday’s four-man practice, the teammates pulled their bobsleigh off the track after their first run, laying it on its side.
“It’s a very blue-collar sport,” said Frank Del Duca, a 30-year-old driver for the United States. ” We are going down. We get our sleds back. They weigh over 400 pounds.
They carefully placed it on a flat cart, similar to those used to move large pieces of furniture.
Then they wheeled it to one of several waiting white trucks that looked like U-Haul vans. (The bobsleigh is first weighed on competition days to ensure that it respects the rules). A driver backed the truck to the edge of the platform, allowing the athletes to load their bobsleigh.
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“We go up these steep hills and sometimes they get icy and sometimes the trucks get stuck and they try to get up,” said Jimmy Reed, a push athlete for the United States. “So if they’re not attached to the front of the truck, sometimes sleds fall off. It happened. That didn’t happen here.
The trucks are suitable for two four-man teams. Competitors from different nations piled in.
“We help each other,” Del Duca said. “There is a certain level of danger. So we have a certain level of respect and camaraderie for each other.
Some were standing, clinging to straps like in a subway. Drivers usually sat in their bobsleigh with their legs dangling outside the back of the truck.
“There’s not a single nation that I don’t think I can have a conversation with,” said Hunter Church, a 25-year-old pilot for the United States. “Russia. Germany. Latvia are sometimes a little quiet, but I’ll try to crack a few jokes with them.
The truck meandered down a side road, retracing the many bends in the track. Its elevated back offered an unobstructed view of the Xiaohaituo snow-capped mountain area and the nearby downhill ski center.
If they were not in conversation with their competitors, the bobsledders dissected their recent run.
“I got myself, I got my team and then I got my coach,” Church said. “That’s usually a big part of what we do and then we fight for the next one.”
After a journey of about five minutes, the truck backed up to the edge of the closed park, the secure stage where the bobsleighs mobilize near the starting gate.
Athletes slipped slippers over their $300 pointe shoes before exiting the truck.
“We just try to protect the tips as much as possible when we walk around on cement and wood, so they stay as fresh and sharp as possible for as long as possible,” said Carlo Valdes from the USA.
Together, the athletes picked up the bobsleigh and placed it on another cart. They escorted him to an area known as the cooler, a square patch of ice, placing him on his side for a minute.
In the past, bobsledders used blowtorches to heat their runners, the blades that come into contact with the ice, reducing friction to make their sleds faster.
Now, the temperature of all runners must be within four degrees of a reference runner exposed outdoors for at least one hour in order to meet International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation regulations. The cooler ensured temperatures were within range.
“It makes things fairer and easier for everyone,” said Normunds Kotans, a Latvian board sports expert with the Beijing organizing committee. “No one needs to think about it.”
Next, a National Technical Official cleaned and wiped down the skates to make sure there was no water attached to them.
Athletes can DIY and adjust the skates on training days. During competition rounds, they are not allowed to make any adjustments from 45 minutes before the start of the event.
The bobsleighs rolled into the assembly line for their final lap of the day like planes ready to roll. Some of the bobsledders stretched and warmed up, trying to stay warm in the 11 degree Fahrenheit weather.
“There are so many little things that you wouldn’t expect to do to create a huge facility and production like this for us to go on a one-minute journey,” said Josh Williamson, an athlete pushed for United States.