Olympic Experiences for the Everyman
As the 2014 Winter Games draw to a close, Colleen Clark charts the course for Olympic experiences across the USA. From a bone-rattling race down a bobsled course to powder turns with a moguls medalist, these are the spots where armchair Olympians can go for the gold
Back stick straight. Arms braced against fiberglass. Helmet tight, eye shield down. “Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme. Get on up, it’s bobsled time.” With a groan of the runners, my Cool Runnings Olympic dreams glide into reality.
But this was a fantasy born of a Disney film. And, much like real romance has little in the way of glass slippers and singing candlesticks, real bobsledding is about as far as you can get from a slapstick reggae romp.
Before setting off, our driver here on Utah’s Olympic bobsled course challenged us to count each of the fifteen turns on the nearly mile long track. Cocky, my two companions — one a cliff-jumping back-country skier, the other an adrenaline fiend motorcycle racer — and I thought, “No problem.”
One. Two. Three. BOOM. The sled hurtles up the side of turn four. Adrenaline blackout. Freight train noise. Five Gs of force — the stuff of fighter pilot turns and space shuttle liftoffs — slam down. As the sled rockets towards 80 miles an hour, there is no counting. There is only the bone-rattling shake of the sled, the vertigo blur of ice, the sting of your arms bracing against the sled, the strain of your neck to stay upright. It is an eternity and an instant. And in 54.65 seconds — just eight seconds slower than the gold medalists here in the 2002 Olympics — it’s over.
Amped up, we burst out the sled, helmet smacking, high-fiving, yelping. We agree on two things. One: That was amazing. Two: We’re never, ever doing it again.
Watching those balletic starts, the razor-sharp turns and the smooth lines on TV, it’s easy to lose perspective on the skill, strength and nerves of steel that it takes to compete in bobsled.
The following day offers a similarly humbling Olympic experience. Through a special partnership with the St. Regis Deer Valley, we spend the day skiing with two-time Olympic medalist Shannon Bahrke. The bubbly skier dishes on the nuts and bolts of the Olympic life — how athletes often don’t know until days before whether they’ve got a spot, how many work jobs at the local Home Depot to stay afloat while training, how punishing the training schedule can be.
Then she hands us her medals. “Put them on!” she offers. They tingle in my hand. The pride and accomplishment bound up in the weighty slice of silver puts a knot in my throat. “I’m not worthy.”
I prove that to her later as we head up the slopes to see Champion, the trail where she took the silver medal in the 2002 Olympics. The approach to the run alone terrifies me. Snowplow locked and loaded, I inch closer. And there it is, a vertical minefield of precision bumps, tumbling headlong, punctuated by three heart-stopping jumps. Thankfully, it’s closed for that night’s World Cup Finals.
Instead, she guides me towards an intermediate run, graciously complimenting my clumsy powder turns — “Awesome! Just beautiful!” — gleefully popping off jumps, tearing down the mountain, stopping to pump me up. I take her advice. Everything quiets into the sheer joy of movement. And for a split second, I feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme.
Ski with an Olympian: Deer Valley, UT
The St. Regis Deer Valley can arrange for guests to spend a full or half-day skiing with two-time Olympic medalist Shannon Bahrke. Experienced skiers can even take a run down the very slope where she won her silver medal.
Bobsled: Park City, UT
Rocket down the nearly one mile track at speeds of up to 80 mph at Utah's Olympic Legacy Center. Get amped up by visiting the onsite Olympic museum for close-up looks at the medals, uniforms and opening ceremony costumes from the 2002 Olympics. Feeling especially bold? The center also offers skeleton rides.
Skating: Lake Placid, NY
The 1980 Miracle on Ice, when a scruffy band of amateur hockey players unseated the long-dominant Russian team to win gold, is one of the great moments in sports history. You can lace up for some spins around this hallowed ice at the Lake Placid Olympic Center, which has one indoor and three outdoor rinks.
Ski Jumping: Lake Placid, NY
The 2014 Sochi Games marked the first time that women's ski-jumping was recognized as an Olympic sport. Celebrate the milestone by getting a view from the top of the Lake Placid Olympic Jumping Center. You'll take an elevator 120 meters up to see where athletes start the descents that launch them on jumps of up to a football field in length. Get in on the downhill thrill at the Mirror Lake Toboggan Slide, a snowtubing slope created from a 50-foot ski jump hill from the 1932 Winter Games.
Halfpipe and Alpine Skiing: Copper Mountain, CO
Olympic snowboarders flock to Colorado's Woodward at Copper Mountain training center to perfect their aerials. Beginner and intermediate skiers and snowboarders can book lessons on the center's trampoline, foam pits and beginner halfpipe. Take home some bragging rights with their video package, which includes two hours of professionally shot footage edited down into a killer two-minute video. Copper Mountain is also the only spot in the country where amateur skiers can take on a competition-level alpine race course, which drops nearly 2,300 vertical feet in 2 miles with racers reaching speeds of up to 75 mph.
Snowboard with an Olympian: Whistler, BC
Site of the 2010 Vancouver Games, Whistler Blackcomb offers an opportunity to ski with any of four different Olympic snowboarders, seven different Olympic skiers or gold medalist Ashleigh McIvor. There's also a full Olympic Center where you can skeleton, bobsled, cross-country ski or try your aim at the Olympic Biathlon Range.