For many U.S. Olympic hopefuls in luge, bobsled and skeleton, preparations for the Sochi Games are about to intensify.
Luge racers from around the world start a training week on the Olympic track Friday, and then bobsledders and skeleton athletes get their last pre-games look at the Sochi facility starting Nov. 8.
Not everyone from the U.S. Olympic pool will be heading to Russia for these sessions – several bobsled push athletes who will likely be Sochi-bound in February for their sport’s biggest races are planning to stay home and remain in their typical preseason routines, and current plans also call for some top American skeleton racers like Noelle Pikus-Pace and Katie Uhlaender to miss the training week.
Others say the runs they’ll get in Sochi over the coming days are vital parts of their training.
”I won’t really be holding back,” U.S. luge racer Julia Clukey said. ”I’ll be testing different setups every day and just making sure that when I leave at the end of the week I’m confident that I have the best setup for that track and going as fast as possible.”
There are limits to how many runs sliders get per day on the track during training weeks, which is standard. For bobsledders, up to 20 runs will be available during the November training period in Sochi while luge and skeleton athletes will get as many as 24 trips down the track. Typically, that’s more than enough time for sliders to at least start feeling comfortable with a relatively unfamiliar track.
”In the grand scheme of things for a new track, that’s still not very much,” former luge world champion Erin Hamlin said.
But international officials – especially after Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed in a training-run crash on the track used for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics hours before the opening ceremony of those games – also went out of their way to ensure that athletes get enough time to better learn the Sochi track before February.
And even though Sochi in February will feel much different from Sochi in November, it’s easy to see that those who will be there for the training weeks may find themselves with a bit of Olympic fever.
”I went to the training week before the Vancouver Olympics as well, but I was just mentally different,” said U.S. skeleton slider Annie O’Shea, who will spend her winter trying to qualify for Sochi. ”I didn’t think I had a chance to go to those Olympics. Now I’m like, this will be really beneficial and I’m ready for this. I’ve grown enough to know how important this is and what it really means.”
The national teams for luge, skeleton and bobsled have been picked in the last couple weeks, after a series of selection races at the two U.S. bases for sliding in Lake Placid, N.Y., and Park City, Utah.
Luge women’s national champion Kate Hansen is expected to be able to train in Sochi despite breaking her right foot in a preseason crash. Hansen’s doctors believe she can be ready to race without problems when the World Cup season for luge opens at Lillehammer, Norway, on Nov. 16.
World Cup racing for bobsled and skeleton starts Nov. 29 in Calgary, Alberta.