No bones about it: This is one different way to fly

Olympics: Navy grad Harry Jackson can make the U.S. team in skeleton - a sport part luge, part bobsled and lots of speed.


January 04, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

In less than four minutes this weekend, Harry Jackson can become an Olympian.

All the Naval Academy graduate has to do is sprint like a man on fire, belly-flop onto a 90-pound sled and go screaming down an ice-coated, nearly mile-long chute at 80 mph.

Twice today. Twice on Sunday. Fastest man wins.

Jackson is a skeleton athlete, and his sport is returning to the Winter Games for the first time since 1948.

To snag the third and final spot on the U.S. skeleton team, he will have to beat a dozen competitors in a series of races.

Jackson is a long shot. The 24-year-old from Lancaster, Pa., has been sliding for only two years - that's nothing in a sport where athletes in their 30s are common. And although he'd love to compete in the 2002 Games next month, Jackson really has his eye on the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy.

In October, he slid well enough to make the U.S. national team and compete on the America's Cup circuit, the equivalent of Triple-A baseball.

He also spends time practicing as a bobsled pusher and brakeman on the four-man sled, and won a gold and two bronze medals at an America's Cup event in Lake Placid, N.Y., in December.

Going to Flight Officer Training in Pensacola, Fla. - his original destination after graduation in 1999 - has been put on hold for a while longer.

The switch from the well-known bobsled to the nearly foreign skeleton was a vision thing, Jackson says.

As a middle man in a bobsled, his job was to push as hard as he could, jump in the moving sled and keep his head down.

"The view was terrible," he says. "After my 50th trip down the track, I realized I couldn't see a thing and never would."

While bobsled training in Park City, Utah, Jackson "saw someone whip by me in a blur. I said, `What is that?' "

That was skeleton, where the rider holds on for dear life to a metal-and-plastic sled with rounded runners and uses shoulder and knee movements to steer while trying to keep his or her face from becoming one with the ice.

He was hooked.

Coaches put Jackson, 6 feet 1, in a skin-tight elastic suit and handed him a helmet.

"It's mostly for cosmetic purposes," Jackson says of the motorcycle-style headgear. "It's not going to do too much if you hit the wall at 80 mph."

On his first run, "I did everything wrong, but it was awesome. I had no control," he recalls. "The second run was horrible. I remembered how much the first run hurt."

About 250 runs followed during that first year, and gradually he improved. During the winter training and racing season, Jackson worked for the Navy as a recruiting officer in Utah. In warmer weather, he returned to the Naval Academy to work on his sprinting and weightlifting.

His coaches at the academy say Jackson is a natural athlete with explosiveness and a good sense of body awareness developed while he was on the lifting team.

In November 1998, Jackson set a record in his age group at the World Bench Press Championships in Belgium with a press of 308.6 pounds. He also set national records that year for collegiate Olympic lifting in his weight class in the clean and jerk, snatch and combined total.

Sports Illustrated featured him in "Faces in the Crowd" in February 1999.

"His temperament is more geared to individual events, where it's him against the clock or him against the barbells. That's where he thrives," says Steve Murdock, one of his coaches at the academy.

Jackson, who was nicknamed "The Admiral" as a youngster by a co-worker of his mother's, says there never was any question he would attend the Naval Academy.

"I always wanted to be a Naval officer. I always cheered for Navy over Army in football. Besides, they have the best-looking uniforms," he says, grinning.

So when given the choice by his no-nonsense father of whether he'd rather straighten himself out academically at Valley Forge Military Academy or Admiral Farragut Academy, the 13-year-old admiral chose the naval hero.

"He wasn't in serious trouble, he was just in need of tough love," says his father, Harry C. Jackson, a retired lawyer. "I told him he'd stay until he turned his C's into A's. It only took one semester."

But he stayed at the boarding school in Toms River, N.J., until 11th grade, when it went bankrupt. He spent his senior year back home at Lancaster Catholic High School, where he made the National Honor Society.

Jackson received appointments to the Naval, Air Force, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine academies in 1995. The admiral had stayed the course.

Now, he's taking classes in a master's degree program and working on a thesis on cyber-terrorism.

Sound serious? Jackson is, to a point.

"Don't let him fool you. Harry's just a big kid," says Murdock. "A big, goofy kid."

His skeleton teammates tease him about his sled, with its enormous gold "N" logo and "Fly Navy" decal. During the competition to choose the national squad, the track announcer hailed "Action" Jackson to the applause and cheers of other athletes.

"I am just a big kid sledding down the hill," Jackson says.

If he doesn't make the skeleton team this weekend, Jackson hopes to attend a week of bobsled driver training school and then help out his team during the Winter Games.

Depending on when the Navy can schedule him, Jackson will head off to flight school, where he'll learn to be the avionics officer in an attack jet, "just like Goose in Top Gun," he says.

Ummm, doesn't that mean riding in the back seat with the lousy view?

"My eyesight isn't good enough," he says in all seriousness before breaking into another grin. "But I'm working on it."

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