After shooting curls, he's chilling

Laird Hamilton, who spends a lot of time catching waves, is pushing to catch on in bobsledding

November 29, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - Laird Hamilton knows big water, the kind that swallows you up whole and spits you out. Forty-, 50-, 80-foot walls of blue-green mayhem don't faze the bronzed alpha male of surfing.

But Hamilton is learning a new kind of big water, the frozen rope of a bobsled track, mile-long and rock-hard, capable of propelling a fiberglass torpedo at 80 mph or more.

So far, surfer dude is impressed.

"There's a rumble that the sled's making. Giant waves make a rumble, but you're not in the rumble," he says, emphasizing the word "in." "There's an intensity in your body that we get on a big wipeout or something, but it's not sustained over 60 seconds, like the sled."

It's a long way from the waves of Maui to the bobsled track at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. But you don't make the cover of Outside magazine as No. 1 on the list of the "25 Coolest People Now" by sitting on your backside and letting the elements dictate to you.

So here was Hamilton, 34, on a frosty-cold November morning, walking around in flip-flops, waiting to take his first run in a four-man sled, guided by national team driver Steve Holcomb and pushed by members of the U.S. team.

On this maiden voyage, Hamilton's job is simple: Sit still, keep his head down and avoid slamming into Holcomb, who doesn't need any distractions. Folding himself into the sled behind Holcomb and Hamilton is Chris Chelios, a three-time hockey Olympian and two-time Stanley Cup winner.

Chelios, 42, has this crazy idea of making the 2006 Olympics as a bobsled pusher. On the Greek team.

Greece has fielded an Olympic bobsled team since 1994, but it's an expensive proposition, with sleds costing about $50,000 and the cost to ship them to Europe for competition more than $5,000. Having two known athletes on the team would make the cost more palatable.

So Chelios has dragged a bemused Hamilton to this mountaintop - part playmate, part Sundance Kid to Chelios' Butch Cassidy.

Remember Butch and Sundance? Butch was the ideas man. Sundance was the muscle. That's how it is here. Chelios would love to wear the blue and white of his parents' native land, but he really sees Hamilton in that role.

Bobsledding seems to attract the "what's wrong with this picture?" crowd. There was the often upside-down Jamaican team that captured headlines at the 1988 Winter Games and a Hollywood story line in the movie Cool Runnings.

NFL players Willie Gault and Herschel Walker competed for the U.S. team in 1992. Prince Albert Grimaldi of Monaco has five times piloted his nation's sled down the Olympic course, never finishing higher than 25th.

Perfect for role

Hamilton, then, fits right in.

Blond-haired and blue-eyed, he's the very model of a modern surfing god. He has been in photo shoots with Brooke Shields, named to People magazine's "Most Beautiful" list and acted as Pierce Brosnan's stunt double in the James Bond movie Die Another Day.

He's married to Gabrielle Reece, a professional volleyball player and fashion model.

Hamilton needs more spice in his life like the Beltway needs more traffic.

But he's in his offseason, between waves, so to speak, and looking for something different. His father is Greek, the key to joining that nation's Olympic team. The possibility intrigues him.

So off he goes on a 58-second ride not once, but twice.

Chelios, who practiced for the first time a few weeks earlier, seems like a veteran after the first run, helping his teammates haul the 450-pound sled from the track to a truck that will take it back to the starting line.

But Hamilton is wired. His hand gestures and body language say that though he may not be a player yet, he's definitely a fan.

"The energy is just so intense. I just don't know how those guys can steer. I don't know how they can all sprint and jump in and all get in there and not get stuck," he says.

Ivan Radcliffe, a member of the U.S. team who helped instruct and push Hamilton and Chelios, smiled slightly as he listens to the description.

His job as one of the pushers may look fairly straightforward, Radcliffe said, but there's a lot of physical and mental preparation for the "controlled aggression" it takes for the one-minute race.

"There's a lot of repetition behind a good run in competition," says the 31-year-old ex-sprinter from Houston. "Lifting weights, sprinting, getting in the sled. You're looking to slice that extra blink of time from the clock."

Almost everyone describes his first bobsled ride as a kind of roller-coaster ride gone berserk. Encased in a 20-pound helmet and visor, your head feels like it weighs 100 pounds as the G-forces fling it this way and that. Scream all you want. No one can hear you.

`It's exciting'

Surfer dude has his own take.

"I wanted to watch, but I couldn't hold my head up, just so many G's," he says. "I wanted to hold my breath, but I just tried to breathe through it. I can see why these guys are all here. It's exciting."

Hamilton has pulled G's while riding with the Blue Angels, but this was a different kind of flying.

"It just felt like, `I hope the end comes soon. I don't know if I can hold on anymore,' " he says, laughing nervously. "Scary? There wasn't enough time to get scared. Scared would give you time to think. There wasn't any thinking going on."

Just after Hamilton unfolded from his sled, another sled came by - runners in the air, helmeted heads grinding against the icy chute.

"I could hear that thing scraping down the track. That was a little reality check," he says, looking a little shaken.

After two runs, Hamilton called it a day, saying the beating "is about all you can physically endure." He hopes to be in Calgary on the 1988 Olympic track before the end of the month for more practice.

But liquid water looms just over the horizon.

"It's right at my season," the surfer says. "What the ocean's doing kind of dictates my work.

"But this could be a fantasy opportunity. Just to be able to go and be there with no expectations. It would be interesting if I could get all the way there."

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