*I apologize for the delay in getting this post up, I have had technical issues with my website lately. Hopefully they are resolved and please expect another blog or two in the week to follow.*
After the magical week in St. Moritz, we crossed over the Swiss Alps, descended into Italy and climbed back up into the French Alps. La Plagne was my second new track of the season. It has rarely been on tour between in the past decade, therefore relatively little is known about the track within our team. Only two of our teammates out of six had been there before so it was going to require a lot of teamwork and making the most out of our limited pre-race training runs.
Unfortunately on the first day of training, which was an extra day of paid training, the ice conditions were very rough. Apparently La Plagne has a very successful tourist bobsled program. This is great for the viability of the track but can ravage the ice. On my first descent down the track ever, the ice was bumpy almost the entire way down, and terribly so. By the time I reached the bottom of the track it was difficult for me to focus on anything else other than the bumps and wanting the run to be over.
I would like to take a moment here to digress about what “bumpy” ice means to me. Although the word itself is rather cute and seems benign enough (think “baby bump” or “birthday bumps”), bumps on a skeleton track are anything but. Imagine laying on a glorified cafeteria tray, with your face one inch off the ground, and travelling at a speed of between 100-140 km/h. In any situation that would be a little intimidating. Now imagine that the surface you descend upon is rough. Usually the ice texture is smooth, or smooth enough that it is something I don’t even notice, as I slide. But when it’s rough, that cafeteria tray is going down a corrugated surface, like an old-fashioned washing board. It causes your whole body and head to rapidly shake up and down. In the flat sections of the track with no G-force this can be distracting, but imagine now you are inside a corner with 4-5 Gs of force pushing your head into the rough surface. It’s horrible. Herein a problem arises. There is so little known about “sled head” (non-impact head injury in the sport of skeleton) and concussion, or the long term consequences of it. In the past, or even sometimes today, it was written off as “that’s the way it is”, or “it’s part of the sport.” But the more research we do, and the more that athletes emerge with serious short and long term morbidities, the more we learn we can’t ignore it anymore.
Most of the athletes, myself included, declined to take a second run. I hoped that conditions would be significantly improved by the start of official training and didn’t want to expose myself to potential injury before official training (OT) even started.
Unfortunately, the conditions were not significantly better the next day and official training was cancelled again. As you can imagine this was quite stressful for me as it meant I would have only 4 runs of OT on a brand new track before the race. Having gone down once it was easy to tell that La Plagne is not a simple track. It has several loopy double oscillation corners that require aggressive and precise steering, and a high degree of pressure from very early on in the track. It is a driver’s track and that is where experience becomes particularly important.
The next day the ice was carefully inspected again before training by the FIBT officials, team captains, and track crew. Once again, the ice was deemed too rough to slide on and the session was cancelled. This raised my discomfort another notch—now there would only be 2 runs of OT before the race! To me, this was unprecedented. However, there was nothing I could do about it other than prepare in other ways off ice. I spent hours watching old World Cup video, poring over track notes, and visualizing my runs.
On Day 3 of OT we finally slid. My two training runs went as well as can be expected. No matter how much reading or visualization you do, it can never replace actual sliding. And of course when you imagine what it is like the real thing is usually very different. I crammed as much learning as I could into each run. As I packed up my equipment at the end of the session I knew I was heading into the race with very little experience and no idea of what to expect on race day.
The ice on our only day of OT was better than the first day of paid training, but it was still bumpy. Fortunately, for a number of reasons, I seem to have a higher tolerance for rough ice than some athletes. I don’t often get headaches, confusion, drowsiness, mood alterations, or any other number of symptoms that can comprise “sled head”. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t notice when the track is rough. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t empathize with athletes who do suffer ill effects. In fact, I entirely support each athlete’s differing tolerance for ice conditions, whether low or high. If an athlete feels like the ice is too rough for them then I wholeheartedly believe they should not slide. As an athlete and as a doctor, if there is doubt about safety, it’s simply not worth the risk.
Two athletes on our team decided not to participate in the race because of the ice conditions. I admire their strength and courage. It’s not easy for an athlete to voluntarily pull themselves out of a race where issues such as World rankings, World Cup points, and positions within the team are on the line. I also am thankful for the support of our coach, Ivo, who 100% supported our decisions to slide or not and was constantly checking in with us to see how things were going. I also must tip my cap to Bobsled Canada Skeleton who supported our decisions regarding participation in the race. In doing so they underlined how important the issue of head safety is to our organization.
We had a day off before the race, and on that day the men raced. The race was cancelled after the first run because of poor track conditions. The officials made the decision that they would evaluate the ice again after the bobsled race in the afternoon and inform us later that evening if the women’s race would proceed or not. Hanging in limbo, I did my pre-race stim workout and prepped my runners as I would for any race. But I felt unsettled. As the evening stretched on, no word came. I went to bed not knowing if I would race the next morning.
I arrived at the track bright and early the next day and decided that regardless of my lack of training, and uncertainty about the whole situation, I would push it all aside and pull out the best push and best lines I could. Just as I cracked my pre-race Red Bull forty minutes before the start of the race, however, a ripple of exclamation passed through the start house. Our race was cancelled.
I felt a strange mixture of emotions. I was upset that I wouldn’t get a chance to slide La Plagne again and see how well all my preparation had worked. I also worried about how or if the race would be replaced. I had heard rumors that potentially an extra race in Igls would be added, which is the track I dislike the most. On the other hand, I was glad I wasn’t forced to decide on whether or not to slide on a track that could potentially injure myself or my teammates and competitors. I am glad the decision was taken out of my hands. I am proud that the FIBT, officials, and team captains came together and took a stand to say they did not believe the track conditions were acceptable. In my years of sliding, I have never seen such a decision taken. It’s not easy to cancel a World Cup race when all factors are considered. In the end I think it sets an excellent precedence for sliding in the future. I hope it means that poor or unsafe track conditions will not be tolerated, and the safety of the athlete will continue to be of paramount importance.
Of course, the race was made up by adding a second race in Igls, but that is another story for another day…
And because of all the cancelled training, I got the opportunity do to a little more sightseeing than normal. I even got a “private tour” of a medieval castle in the small town of Aime. And by “private” I mean the lady at the tourist information building gave me the (gigantic) iron key to the door and told me to lock it up afterwards. Cool, but kind of creepy when I descended alone into the subterranean crypts!
I also got to do some extra lifting in the gym and check out the outdoors push track. With less than a month until World Champs, any opportunity for more training is welcome.
In closing, it was a challenging week. But it was also an important week and some big decisions were made. In this day and age, concussion in sport is a hot topic and for good reason. I’ll leave you with a link to some quotes from NHL players as well as these quotes about concussion in sport:
“I was well-rounded, I’d been to college. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do anything else. I wanted to stay in sports, but if I couldn’t think, how was I going to play?” – Paul Kariya on worrying about how his brain was functioning while experiencing post-concussion syndrome (Sports Illustrated, Oct 19, 1998)
“I would walk into a room, and he would be crying. He cried a lot. Or he would be holding his head from the migraine headaches. They were terrible. He wouldn’t leave the house for a week. He wouldn’t change his clothes, wouldn’t shower. It was all the classic signs of depression. I thought he was having a nervous breakdown.” — former NHL player Pat LaFontaine’s wife, Marybeth (Sports Illustrated, Dec 1, 1997)