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American Pride Sliding Down the Track at Sochi February 16, 2014

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The author with the United States bobsled team after they won the 4-man world championship at Lake Placid in 2012. I was so elated to have my picture taken with these fine fellows, my grin distorted my smile! L-R: Steve Holcomb, Steve Langton, Patrick Murray, Justin Olsen, and Curt Tomasevicz.

With a full week of the Winter Olympic Games at Sochi now in the books, it is finally time for my personal favorite winter sport to commence, that of bobsled (“bobsleigh” being the preferred international, i.e., non-American term).  With recent success in the sport over the past 12 years, surely the bobsled events are to gather some decent attention here in the United States, and with good reason.  We stand good chances of winning medals in all three events (2-man, women’s, and 4-man), but more importantly, we have great athletes who are also outstanding individuals representing the U.S.A.

When I first started watching the Olympics in earnest as a youngster (Calgary 1988 to be exact), I’ll never forget the first time I saw a sled fly down the track on TV.  I thought to myself, “Oh my, that was so cool!  What is that?”  Needless to say, I got hooked on bobsledding, and eagerly anticipated watching those events above all others during every Winter Olympics cycle.

If you are a football and track & field guy like I am, this is the winter sport for you.  It combines the strength, speed and power aspects of football and track, as well as the team coordination of football.  Make no mistake about it; bobsledders are the biggest, fastest, strongest athletes in all of the Winter Olympic events.  Don’t believe me?  Just look at how Johnny Quinn (a pusher for USA-2) managed to escape being trapped inside a bathroom.

Plus, it’s racing on ice, and in a country that enjoys auto racing as much as we do, that should seriously count for something as well.  And yes, our 4-man sleds are built with NASCAR technology, which is why they’re the best!

In any event, the Games in 1992, 1994, and 1998 all ticked by, and every time I watched in frustration as a medal in the sport continued to elude us.  It therefore goes without saying that one of my favorite moments of the 2002 Winter Games at Salt Lake was witnessing on TV USA-2 break a 46-year* medal drought by winning a bronze medal in the 4-man event, only to be bolstered further by USA-1 winning the silver.  America was “back” in the sport, and it felt great.  The fact that women’s bobsled was introduced as an Olympic event that year, with America winning the gold, was the icing on the proverbial cake.

Several years later, I started following the US bobsled team during the regular seasons (yes, there are such things in these relatively obscure Olympic sports), and started to learn the names of the fine fellows pushing and driving our American-designed and built sleds, courtesy of a project spearheaded by NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine.  The 2008-2009 season particularly grabbed my attention, as I found ways to watch the races online, and pay close attention to the news of Team USA winning the 2009 World Championship, the first time America won such a distinction in literally 50 years (1959).  The following year, we won the gold medal in the Vancouver Winter Games, the first time we achieved that since 1948 at St. Moritz.

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With my good friend and fellow Purdue Boilermaker Doug Sharp, who was part of the USA-2 4-man team that ended America’s 46-year medal drought in bobsled by winning the bronze at Salt Lake in 2002. Behind us is the “NightTrain” sled that our American boys used to win the gold medal at Vancouver in 2010.

I had the blessed opportunity to travel up to Lake Placid, New York (as in, the holy grail of Winter Olympics in the Western Hemisphere) to photograph the 4-man world championships there in late Feb. of 2012 (photography being my main hobby these days).  There, I met up with a friend of mine and fellow Purdue Boilermaker, Doug Sharp, who was on the USA-2 team that won bronze at Salt Lake in ’02.  During the races, I managed to take some decent sports shots, despite my learning curve.  In between the races, though, my friend Doug introduced me to a number of bobsledders, both past and present.

After runs 1 and 2, for example, I was invited into the team garage — it was like being in the dugout with the Yankees!   There, I was able to meet John Napier, a fine younger driver who was at the time the driver for USA-2.  I also met Chris Fogt, who earned a spot on the USA-1 team at the start of this season.  Moreover, I met both Adam Clark and Dallas Robinson, both from the Louisville, Ky., area (my native city and still current area of residence).  Robinson, interestingly enough, is now the brakeman for USA-2 at Sochi, both 2-man and 4-man.

During the VIP luncheon, I had the opportunity to thank a number of ladies and gentlemen for representing America so well with their accomplishments over the decade, but even after the part was over – several hours later – and the sun had already gone done, the day was not over yet.

When we left the track that evening, Doug took me over to the Olympic Training Center, where, in a most unexpected turn of events, I was able to meet three of the four current men of Team NightTrain** (such is the nickname for the USA-1 crew; they dubbed their sled “The NightTrain” during the 2008-’09 season for its fearsome black color scheme).  They were polishing their sled’s runners for runs three and four the next morning, and at this surprising opportunity, I once again was able to relay by heartfelt thanks for their efforts and for honoring our great nation in winning gold.

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USA-1 as they race down the track at Lake Placid, N.Y., during second of four runs, and en route to winning the 2012 4-Man Bobsled World Championship. Photo taken by the author.

Meeting and befriending these fine fellows was truly a pleasure.  Unlike the prominent athletes in major professional sports here in America (say, the NFL, MLB or NBA), these guys don’t get much attention for what they do.  In countries like Germany, or especially Switzerland, bobsled drivers garner as much fame as quarterbacks do here in the NFL.  How many people here in the States, who don’t follow the Olympics, know who Steve Holcomb is, let alone his push athlete teammates?

In addition to meeting Holcomb that evening, I was also able to meet Justin Olsen, who was part of the team that won gold in Vancouver.  Steve Langton took over for Steve Mesler after the latter retired, and the former is considered one of the finest push athletes in the world.  Watch for Langton as the brakeman for Holcomb in the 2-man event.  Nick Cunningham was also on hand to polish the runners for his sled.  Watch for him as the driver for USA-2 in both the 2-man and 4-man events.

They hail from all over this great land.  Holcomb comes from Park City, Utah, and was originally an alpine skier before taking up bobsled (interestingly enough, the legendary Italian driver Eugenio Monti was first a skier before he himself took up bobsleigh).  Nick Cunningham is from Monterey, Calif., home to one of the finest public aquariums in the world.  Justin Olsen is from San Antonio, home of the Alamo and the beacon of liberty that it represents to Texans and many Americans elsewhere.  Steve Langton is from the Boston area (and was a track star for Northeastern University).  The brakeman for Team NightTrain, Curt Tomasevicz – who will reportedly retire at the conclusion of these Games – hails from a small town in Nebraska, and was a linebacker for the Cornhuskers before taking up this sport.  Honestly, part of the fun of getting to know these guys was just talking to them about their native towns.

Suffice it to say these guys did not get into the sport for the fame, for there is relatively little (that is, on this side of the Atlantic, at least).  These guys compete for love of the sport and love of country.  In fact, many of these men support themselves as part of the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program, and have been, or still are, active in the National Guard.  Chris Fogt even served a tour of duty in Iraq.

But one thing that really struck me positively as I got to know these outstanding fellows is how much they appreciate their fans.  Many prominent professional athletes seem to wall themselves off from the majority of fans – given all the crazies out there, one can surely sympathize – and hard-core fans to them are a turn-off (here’s a tip:  want to ingratiate yourself to prominent professional athletes?  Be a fan who has perspective).  But to our American bobsledders, passionate fans are not a turn-off; in fact, they feed off their energy.

For the record, the ladies who represent America in the women’s bobsled events are no less gracious or appreciative of their fans as well.  Like their gentlemen counterparts, they are educated, industrious, dedicated, and down-to-earth.  In other words, they are every bit the embodiment of how we would ideally envision an Olympic athlete to be.

They, both the men and women, are also incredibly approachable.  They put on no airs of being “above it all,” and are always glad to meet new fans and supporters.  The fact that fans here in the States are relatively few and far between compared to the big money sports might be a factor in this, but that does not detract one iota from this positive trait.

What is even more amazing about what these talented, dedicated men and women achieve is that they do so on a relative shoestring budget compared to prominent programs in other countries.  Germany, Switzerland, and recently, Russia, lavish massive funds on their respective programs, albeit with mixed results.  Germany is never to be counted out, and the Swiss have performed decently in the 2-man as of late, having to earn back their dominant spot that they kept throughout the 1980s and ‘90s.  Russia is a constant threat to medal in the 4-man as well (Canada’s not too shabby either, fyi).  But this season, Team USA has been in contention to win almost the entire time, winning enough races for USA-1 to win the overall World Cup trophy in the 2-man event and finish second overall in the 4-man (the latter alone is impressive when you consider the crash they had at Winterberg, Germany in early January).  When one considers that these good fellows of ours achieve this with far less funding than other countries’ programs, it makes this momentous feat all the more incredible.

In short, the dedicated men and women that make up the U.S. Bobsled Team embody everything that we as fans ought to admire in world-class athletes.  You could not ask for more outstanding individuals representing the United States of America, and I for one cannot wait to cheer on my friends as they race down the ice at the Sanki Sliding Centre.  Go Team USA!

*Prior to 2002, the last time that the USA won a medal in bobsled was bronze in the 4-man event at the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina D’Ampezzo.  Moreover, we have not won the gold in the 2-man event since 1936 (!) and have not medaled at all in it since 1952.  That could very well change come Monday.

**USA-1 won the 2009 World Championship, the gold medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the 2012 World Championship (all in 4-man) using the NightTrain sled.  Geoff Bodine’s “BoDyn” program soon designed a new sled for USA-1, which they immediately dubbed “NightTrain²”, and is the sled they have been using for the entire 2013-2014 season, the Sochi Games included.  USA-2 has thus inherited the original “NightTrain,” so both sleds will be put to good use!

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Kansas State: Shades of 1998 November 18, 2012

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We’ve seen this before.  This is not the first time that Kansas State’s national championship run was ruined late in the season.  The Wildcats made a similar run in 1998, defeating powerful Nebraska for the first time in 30 years, among other things.  But come the Big XII championship game of that year, K-State overlooked a hungry Texas A&M, who snuck up on them and overtook them towards the end of the game.  Although that bumped the Wildcats down to only no. 4 in the rankings, it was too late to get a decent consolation prize.

Everyone seemed to assume that K-State was a lock on the Fiesta Bowl (where the BCS national championship was to be held), so other teams got “locked-in” to other BCS bowl games (Orange, Sugar and Rose).  With the Wildcats’ unexpected loss, they were left out in the proverbial cold, having to settle for the Alamo Bowl, then given the no. 4 pick for both the Big XII and the Big Ten.  One would imagine that they would not be too happy with having to settle for that lesser prize.  Purdue, their opponent for the 1998 Alamo Bowl, was, conversely, quite happy to make a return appearance in San Antonio (a fun town for a bowl game, fyi.), having won that bowl game the previous year.  Though the Boilers were unranked and Kansas State was still the fourth-highest ranked team in the land, Purdue came in, what made the difference was that Purdue was happy to be there for the Dec. 29 game, K-State not so much.

Despite Coach Bill Snyder’s moderately happy-sounding speech at the kickoff luncheon the day before the game (Dec. 28, 1998) in a convention room of the Marriott Hotel in downtown San Antonio, where he assured both the Wildcat and Boilermaker fans in attendance that “we’re very much looking forward to playing the University of Purdue,” they sure did not give that impression on the field of play in the Alamodome the next evening.  After a scoreless first quarter, Purdue drew (if you’ll pardon the expression) first blood in the second with a Drew Brees touchdown pass to Chris Daniels, and we never let up for the rest of the game.  Only in the last few minutes did K-State manage to inch ahead of us with a touchdown of their own, but Purdue answered on the very next possession, marching right down the field and put it away for good.  The Wildcats did have the last possession of the game, but with only less than a minute or so left in the game, they were unable to muster the necessary score.  We triumphed in the end, 37-34.  It was our biggest win in probably 20 years.

I say “we” because I was but a freshman student manager on the Purdue team during that game, witnessing all of this first-hand.  The point in all of this, given recent developments, is that we’ve seen this scenario with K-State play out before.  The Wildcats seem to be on the same path today.  The only saving grace for K-State today is that this sudden, season-derailing loss from last night came earlier than when the Big XII championship game would be (there is no such game for this season, given the recent changes in conference membership). Hence, there is still time to salvage things with earning a more prestigious bowl berth than the booby prize of the Alamo Bowl from 14 years ago.

Yet another reason for K-State getting, well, hosed that year is a manifestation of certain perpetual handicaps against the program.  Unlike traditional powers including, say, Alabama, Ohio State, Texas, or even Notre Dame, all of whom have strong, national fan bases, Kansas State, although a strong program, lacks that advantage.  Strong fan bases equal strong money and clout, something the Wildcats continue to lack.  Kansas State University is located in Manhattan, Kan., nicknamed “The Little Apple.”  It is in the middle of nowhere, in a state that has the same reputation.  It has no major market to tie itself to, unlike the Longhorns, who can not only claim Austin, but also Dallas and Houston.  The Buckeyes claim Columbus, as well as Cincinnati and Cleveland.  Even Notre Dame can claim Chicago, and to an extent, New York itself.  K-State lacks that major market anchor, and that goes a long way towards its overall lack of relative clout.  Even a team like West Virginia can claim Pittsburgh as its anchor market.  Claiming Kansas City is a stretch for KSU, who must also share the area with the Kansas Jayhawks, along with the Missouri Tigers.  Does that leave KSU Wichita?  Geography has conspired to make the lack of clout an unsolvable problem for the Wildcats, as far as one can foresee.

But another key difference in scenarios today is that, in the wake of K-State being kicked down to the no. 4 bowl pick for the Big XII Conference in 1998 —  much less the overall rankings — shortly thereafter the BCS implemented a rule that a team ranked that highly* would get an automatic berth into one of the BCS “big four,” instead of being relegated to a second or third-tier postseason game.  Perhaps the Fiesta Bowl is not out of the question, boys, but you still must pass through the eye of the needle that is Texas in two weeks’ time.

*Although Kansas State was ranked no. 4 in both the AP and Coaches’ Polls, they were actually ranked no. 3 in the BCS.