Calling the Olympic sliding track "stupid fast," American women’s bobsledder Shauna Rohbock said the venue where a luger was killed last week could generate speeds that are too dangerous for racing.
"It’s just so fast," Rohbock said Friday night, later adding, "I think they went a little overboard on this track."
In an interview with The Associated Press, the silver medalist at the 2006 Turin Games said she has felt this way since testing out the course for the first time nearly two years ago.
It’s so fast, Rohbock said, that women’s sleds will "be breaking the men’s track record by race time. It’s ridiculous."
Rohbock said speeds in the final turns of the 16-curve track were pushing the boundaries of what she thought she could handle. "I wish everybody knew what we saw at the bottom," Rohbock said. "Your brain almost can’t catch up with what your hands need to do. I think at some point it’s going to exceed that and that’s when problems will happen."
Asked if she has ever experienced speeds similar to the ones on Whistler’s track, she said, "Never."
"St. Moritz is one of the fastest tracks, but it’s spread out. I think the problem here is the curves are back to back in the bottom. They are really close and with the speed and having them back to back as soon as you get in trouble it just multiplies, and then it’s trouble."
Rohbock and many of the women’s bobsledders who will compete on the track next week got their first on-ice look at the facility during a supplemental training session Friday night. The extra session was added by international officials earlier this week to help racers familiarize themselves with the demanding track. The session was added following the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumarishtavili, who was killed when he lost control of his sled in the final curve at the Whistler Sliding Center track and hit a steel pole.
Rohbock said officials have discussed sanding the runners on the bobsleds beyond what’s typical to slow them down in competition, which she thinks would be a good idea.
"I think it’s smart to sand the runners down because it may exceed what our brains can compute to our hands," she said.
"We’re pushing super slow and have our runners sanded at a stupid grit. … It’s stupid fast," Rohbock said while standing trackside with her brakeman, Michelle Rzepka, after two runs down Blackcomb Mountain.
Sanding runners slows down bobsleds, and is not necessarily uncommon when conditions warrant.
FIBT spokesman Don Krone said runners are always sanded to adjust to the conditions of any track. The coarser the steel, the slower the sled.
"It’s a fast and technical track, and I’m not going to respond to individual comments by athletes," Krone said. "It’s abundantly clear that it’s a technically challenging track. I think the skeleton competition the past few days showed that it’s fast and challenging and makes for great racing and that’s what the sport is about."
In early 2008, Rohbock was one of several top drivers invited by officials to test-drive at the track while it was being completed.
Even then, she said she believed problems could arise.
"We voiced that concern, and they just thought it would be OK," Rohbock said. "But I think now they are realizing that it’s not going to be OK."
There was one crash during training Friday night when Esme Kamphuis of the Netherlands tipped over and slid through the final corners.
Despite her apprehensions of sliding down the track at 80-plus mph, Rohbock said she was still willing to compete on it.
"We are all aware of the dangers of the sport, but when somebody ends up dying it gives you pause," she said. While Rohbock is an experienced driver, not everyone in the women’s field is as familiar with the Whistler track.
Data released by the International Federation of Bobsleigh and Tobogganing shows that while top drivers like Rohbock and Germany’s Sandra Kiriasis have nearly 40 runs apiece in Whistler, others have less than one-fifth that many.
Australian bobsledder Astrid Loch-Wilkinson has eight official runs down the track, while Ireland’s Aoife Hoey had just six, according to the data.
In the men’s event, Swiss driver Daniel Schmid withdrew Friday from the Olympic two-man and four-man bobsled competitions "for safety reasons" after two practice crashes.
A statement said the decision for him to drop out was made jointly between the Swiss team and bobsled officials.
Schmid, who has had previous problems on the track, overturned his sled during Friday’s first training session. His brakeman, Juerg Egger, was injured and taken from the track in an ambulance, then transported by helicopter to Vancouver for observation.
Despite the speed and safety concerns of some competitors, others find the track exhilarating.
"We just went 145 km/hr…that’s fast!!!," U.S. women’s brakeman Elana Meyers said on Twitter, referring to the metric equivalent of 90 mph. "WOO HOO! Day 1 of training complete!"