No bones about it: This is sport of chills, thrills

Skeleton: Sledding downhill headfirst at speeds up to 60 mph is all in a day's work for Olney resident and Olympic hopeful Brandon Corbit.

Outdoors

January 24, 2003|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - When you're 20 and you've already rattled your brain pan and snapped a lot of bones, sacrificing a little chin skin is a small price to pay for a chance at Olympic glory.

At least that's the way Brandon Corbit looks at it.

The Olney resident and Dickinson College junior has spent the past month testing his nerve and skill on the mile-long icy chute that skeleton athletes call the office.

Tomorrow is final exam time for Corbit and 24 other young men and 15 women at the Junior National Skeleton Championships.

Scary-looking to the uninitiated, skeleton is a fairly straightforward sport. Sprint 40 feet, belly flop on a sled slightly larger than a cafeteria tray and try to keep your chin from bouncing on the rock-hard surface for the minute it takes to get to the bottom. No brakes. No steering mechanism.

"I've been going headfirst down hills since I was 2. To go downhill at this level is a thrill," says Corbit, who as a tot scared his parents with death-defying Big Wheels tricks.

Playing soccer, baseball, basketball and practicing the martial arts, Corbit has had concussions and broken both collarbones, both arms, every finger on his right hand, an ankle and a number of toes.

"I'm sure there will be some more when I hit the wall here. What's skeleton without bones?" he says with a shrug. "So far, the chin is OK."

His parents, Thomas and Paulette Corbit, say they're not worried about their son - much.

"I don't know about this," says Paulette Corbit, shaking her head. "All of the teeth, all of the orthodontics we invested in."

"Still," his father reasons, "it's better than hockey, where you could get a stick in the mouth."

Skeleton is the oldest of the competitive sliding sports. It was part of the Winter Games in 1928 and 1948. When it was reinstated at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Corbit was watching as Americans Jimmy Shea Jr. and Tristan Gale won gold medals and Lea Ann Parsley took the silver.

"I'm not bobsled size," Corbit says, pointing to his slim frame. "I looked at skeleton on TV and said, `I could do that. I'm their size.' "

About 800 other athletes got the same bug and contacted the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, which runs a nationwide talent search sponsored by Verizon.

Paulette Corbit, a Verizon employee, saw a notice in the company newsletter about a tryout camp at Towson University last summer.

"I thought, `I can't not tell him about this, because he will never forgive me,' " she says.

Corbit went to Towson to take a battery of speed and strength tests, one of 300 candidates at gyms and tracks around the country. On Sept. 17, 100 athletes were invited to the Olympic training centers in Lake Placid or Park City, Utah, for five days of on-ice education.

After a basic course and a demonstration, the rookies were taken halfway up the track at Mount Van Hovenburg and told to shove off.

"It was hard. You couldn't see much because your eyes don't adjust to the speed," Corbit says. "You just hang on."

For some of the candidates, once was enough.

"I've had people - football players - take one ride and you never see them again," says Don Hass Jr., who oversees the federation's development program in Lake Placid. "I've had accountants who were high school athletes years ago and come here and show real potential."

Corbit, a sprinter and soccer player at Dickinson, stuck it out as the runs started higher and higher on the mountain until the sleds reached speeds of more than 60 mph.

Now, having notched about 35 rides from the top, Corbit has settled in and bought his own $2,000 sled to replace the hand-me-down he started with.

"This one's got a little bit more speed on it, but it's a huge learning curve," he says. "The first time I was on the edge of disaster. I should have flipped four or five times."

Hass considers Corbit a top prospect.

"I see a good future for him. He's got the raw speed. He's got the dedication. He'll probably be assigned to the elite development program in two weeks," Hass says.

With Shea vowing to return from leg surgery and Olympic veteran Chris Soule in second place on the World Cup circuit, there's little chance of Corbit or any of the other recruits making the 2006 Olympic team.

But Hass says he's looking at this crop of sliders and the batch from next year's tryouts for the 2010 Winter Games. The outcome of the Junior Nationals will help sharply narrow the field.

"It's going to take Brandon three good years to develop. He's needs a lot of training in sprinting and technique and then he needs international experience. But right now I'd rank him 10th in the [men's] development program," says Hass.

Corbit is juggling his training schedule here with classes in Carlise, Pa., hoping he won't have to postpone graduating next year, but willing if he must.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I've been given, and it's not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for everybody," he says. "Sometimes a few eggs get broken."

Or bones.

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