Low-profile skeleton re-emerges today

Heart-pounding sport hurtles back headfirst

Winter Olympics

Salt Lake City 2002

February 20, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

PARK CITY, Utah - Make a fist. Now put the meat part on a table and rest your chin on your thumb.

That's how close to the ice skeleton sliders are to facial surgery each time they take an 80-mph run down a mile-long icy chute.

"It's not for the faint of heart," says Lincoln DeWitt, 34, who will test his strength and heart today when the men's and women's skeleton competition is held.

Still, the athletes insist, their sport is not as dangerous as bobsled, where an accident can turn the 400-pound sled into a missile. As a matter of fact, they say, the close proximity of their bodies to the ice keeps them from falling too far.

Looking at their ages, you'd almost have to believe them. With the exception of Tristan Gale, 21, the rest of the group is pushing 30 or past it.

And when you see a helmet-less Chris Soule and his movie-star looks, you know the ice has not turned on him very often. Soule is an actor and stunt man, who has the film G.I. Jane on his resume.

The 29-year-old from Trumbull, Conn., finished the 2001-02 season ranked second in the world, ending the season with a gold medal in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

He hopes to build on the finish, but says, "The top 15 men and the top 10 women, it comes down to who has the better day, but I can definitely picture a sweep for the U.S."

Soule got sucked into skeleton by Jim Shea Jr., the No. 3 slider in the world. Both athletes were working at a restaurant in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1991, Soule as a cook and Shea as a waiter.

Shea had tried bobsled, "and I quickly got bored with it. I tried skeleton, and I've never had a boring day."

With a little bit of prodding, Soule followed his friend headfirst down the track and was hooked.

"I've done some things that are on the edge, bridge-jumping and jumping out of helicopters for stunts, but nothing really compares to being that close to the ice and just hauling it at 80 mph," Soule says.

Skeleton is the new kid on the Olympic block this year, returning after a 54-year absence. It was dropped after the 1948 games - some say because of a lack of interest, some say because it was too dangerous. But the simplicity and speed began to attract a new generation of athletes, and a World Cup circuit was created in 1992.

The sleds are slightly larger than a cafeteria tray and made of plastic and steel. The maximum weight for a man's sled is 94.6 pounds and 77 pounds for a woman's. With rounded runners and no real steering devices, the drivers rely on body English for mid-course corrections.

The competition is being held on the same track used for bobsled and luge. Each slider gets two runs. After the first, the field will be cut to the top 20 men and the top 12 women.

Shea, 33, will be trying to win another medal for his family. The third-generation Olympian is racing with the Mass card from his grandfather's funeral tucked in his helmet. The senior Shea, who won two gold medals as a speed skater in 1932, was killed by a suspected drunken driver in late January. Jim Shea's father was a member of the 1964 Olympic ski team.

DeWitt has downplayed his chances for reaching the podium, but notes he's the only American slider to win a World Cup medal at the Park City track.

On the women's side is fourth-ranked Lea Ann Parsley, 33, named Ohio's 1999 Firefighter of the Year for saving a mother and daughter from their burning home, and Gale, who ended her inaugural skeleton season in 10th place.

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