Last Saturday I got up pretty much at the crack of dawn and, one coffee and three and a half hours later, arrived at the National Track & Field Centre at York University. Let’s recruit us some bobsledders!

Since I can barely push a shopping cart, of course I was there to cover it, not to try out. (Pictures.)

A futures business

I managed to miss the real show, the sprint trials, at the start of the event. Fully 17 athletes tried out. By the time I got there, the field had thinned to seven (including a single wymmynz).

I spotted Bobsleigh Canada’s assistant coach, Florian Linder, right away and said hi. Then there was the question of who the (other) old guy was. Mike Ransky, formerly one of those track stars you keep seeing on the red carpet of the Oscars, is an on-again/off-again bobsledder. (He was a pusher in the four-man and brakeman on the two.) And he’s only 39! So I ought to be careful here with the word “old.”

But does his age mean the sport is something Old Guys™ can keep right on doing? It’s changing, he said. We’re attracting more talent. We’re finding more football players, rugby players, people coming out younger, he said. Bobsleigh, I would later learn, is a futures business. You’ve got to have new kids on the starting block. (Especially with all the retirements coming up after 2010.)

I chatted him up a bit more. Is Patrice Servelle the most sarcastic bobsledder? “Oh! You know him!” he exclaimed. Well, only “on the Facebook,” I said. Maybe not sarcastic, but he is funny, Mike said. And is Anas the littlest bobsledder? This Mike wouldn’t admit. (But he is. And such a playboy!)

I got there in time for weightroom testing.

Five athletes in weightroom, along with Florian and James, turn toward right of camera

To qualify in first instance, you have to perform two 30-metre sprints, a sled pull, and clean, squat, and bench press. You’ve got to be a lightning-fast giant to make it in bobsleigh, or, more precisely, you have to be strong as an ox and as fast as somebody two-thirds your bodyweight. Is that you? It isn’t me.

It might also be somebody with a disability.

Disabled bobsledders? It could happen

I ran this idea past Mike and Florian, in the latter of whom I could see gears turning. (Mike kept thinking of wheelchairs or something. There’s a demonstration program for them, actually.) An arm amputee probably wouldn’t make it after all, but I maintain a low-vision track athlete possibly could. This is in spite of all the other things bobsleigh dudes (I am really only talking about dudes) have to do – load and unload and drive the van in some unfamiliar European country, schlep everything up and down hills, and polish runners (“race polishing”), which is done solely by eye.

But, you know, there aren’t many lightning-fast giants in the world. Saturday’s camp netted “a couple” of contenders who might get invited to the next training phase in Calgary. (“We are really kind of looking for that upper echelon right now,” Florian told everybody at day’s end.) But beggars can’t be choosers sometimes.

Perhaps bobsleigh could adapt its program a tiny bit and call it a wise tradeoff. As I put it elsewhere, you aren’t hiring guys to drive a bus. Or that shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. Which is better, a not-as-good pusher with two working eyes who can drive the van or somebody else who can’t drive but is stronger and faster? A lot of blind guys do powerlifting. Anyway, putting that bug in official ears was one of my goals for the day.


They’re great to watch on TV, assuming nobody gets hurt. Shoulders get rubbed raw, according to more than one Facebook photo:

Shirtless guy with long red marks on upper back

“Crashing is an incredible experience,” Mike told me, “and it’s not always a fun experience. But if you have the upper-body strength and you know your position, you’ll survive.” Everybody has the upper-body strength, of course. Apparently the grinding noise is overwhelming.


The new Whistler track is scary fast, while Igls in Austria is so slow they call it the Water Slide.

Sort of like the way hotshot dudes in finance like to use French words for everything (arbitrageur, tranche), these elite bobsledders dudes don’t call a loop a loop – it’s a Kreisel. Loops are so much loopier in German.

Advance Australia fair

I told Mike I predicted some kind of medal for Australia within two Olympics. This raised an eyebrow, but he didn’t dismiss it. I was shocked and appalled to learn that the Australians have a piece-of-shit sled. This was at odds with my experience, since Australians take “sport” seriously and throw East German levels of money at it. They’ve got good athletes, though, Mike says (like Christopher Spring, I presume, who trains in Calgary).

Couldn’t they just do some chequebook athleticism, buy a decent Singer sled, and put the yellow and green up on the podium? (And I don’t mean Brazil. Mike and I agreed that no other warm-country team stands a medal chance. We didn’t mention Jamaica.)


I watched the extremely superexciting weightroom action (seen one bench press, seen ’em all), and interviewed whoever had a spare moment.

  • I didn’t talk to the guy who came down from Gatineau for the day, except to ask «Tu parles français?»

  • Bill, 21, wasn’t trying out but dragooned three of his friends into coming. He made the ultimate fashion statement of Summer ’09 by wearing Crocs in a weightroom. Bravo there, Bill. He plays football for McMaster and likes the idea that testing for football is more or less the same as this kind of testing.

  • John, 22, is actually a skeletoid and also wasn’t trying out; he was the Man with the Clipboard jotting down everyone’s results. He does not know chaotic ginger skeletoid Jon Montgomery, hence had no amusing tales to tell. (Sadly.) He’s convinced luge is the most dangerous of the sliding sports, and he says this as somebody who plunges face-down and face-first along an ice track (and around every Kreisel). He’s at Guelph.

  • Tanner Forsyth, 21, wins the award for WASPiest name of the day (I kid, Tanner). Also a football player, at Waterloo. Takes geography. I actually knew what that was and regaled him with tales of my best linguistics prof, a geographer. What this elicited was the claim that I was the first and only person who ever said anything good about his choice of study. Well, to hell with everybody else, right, Tanner?

    Anyway, why was he there? “To go fast. Actually, it’s a pretty random decision. I figured I might have what it takes physically.”

  • James McNaughton is Bill’s other friend. Also plays football, at U Ottawa, hence is bilingue. It seems he and Bill have both been to driving school in Calgary. Apparently you can sign yourself up for it or they pick you out of a crowd. Either way, nobody can tell up front if you’ve got what it takes to be a pilot until they put you through the training.

  • I talked to Jessica Jacobs, 22, a rugby player. She likes all the hurtling you get with bobsleigh, and, in an Orwellian/Eastern-bloc twist, the rugby elite passed her name on to the bobsledders.

A good manly hour and a half

Soon everybody packed up and hit the road and it was my turn to do the same. I said a quick goodby to Florian, then marched straight over to Ransky and said “Goodbye, Mike. Stay old.” “I will,” he told me, giving me some kind of cool two-phase handshake and a strong pat on the arm.

And really that sums ’er up. For an hour and a half of my life I managed to hang out with a bunch of real men. I sure as hell am not being ironic.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2009.07.30 14:08. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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