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Illustration by Kumé Pather

Once, I got to ride with the most decorated bobsledder in Canadian history at the top of his game. Edmonton’s Pierre Lueders – now head coach of the Chinese bobsleigh team for the 2022 Winter Games – was already a world champion when I met him. Four months later, he’d win Canada gold in the four-man bobsleigh event in Nagano, Japan.

It all started at a silent auction in Edmonton. To my utter amazement, my $100 bid for a ride-for-two with this well-known athlete won. My wife Debbie willingly agreed to join me. Naively, I thought it would be like some extreme roller coaster.

It took more than two years to find a date that could work – him with his busy European competition schedule and me with my demanding job. Finally, in October, 1997, we found a convenient date. “Come to Calgary next Sunday,” he said. “There’s a national team competition at 2 p.m., and I can take you and your wife right after.”

In 1997 there was only one track in Canada – the one built for the 1988 Winter Olympics. (There is still only one, in Whistler; the Calgary track closed in 2019.)

Doing some research before our ride, we learned the sleigh is an aerodynamic metal tube with skate-like runners, a simple steering mechanism, a brake and no cushioning. It weighs a minimum of 210 kilograms. In a race the four team members, big strong fellows, start the sleigh by pushing it along a 90-metre level section. Speed here is critical – the start is only about 2 per cent of the total distance but 10 per cent of the total time. The team then leaps in, assumes the intimate racing position and attempts to cover the 1.5 kilometres to the finish point in the shortest time. The track ice is often cut up and bumpy – it’s up to the captain’s skill to steer the best line.

The track snakes steeply downhill with numerous curves, steeply banked with a lip to prevent the sleigh from spiralling off if disaster strikes. The tightest curve at Calgary was the 270-degree Kreisel corner about 2/3 of the way down. On the day of our ride, more than half the track was shaded by stretches of nylon tarpaulin, to keep the October sun from softening the ice. A good time for a run on that track was considered to be 55 seconds, with speeds exceeding 120 kilometres an hour.

We arrived at the Calgary Olympic Park early for the race, wanting to savour the whole experience. At the base of the run, we signed a waiver that quite scared us – no matter what bad thing might happen to us, we would be held responsible for ourselves.

We walked uphill along the trail beside the track where the competition was just starting: two heats of six teams each, from Japan, Monaco, Canada and Jamaica. Soon we heard a growing roar like a giant curling rock, then WHOOSH! and the first sleigh was past us.

“These sleds move so fast!” I thought. It was like we were standing right beside a highway. Debbie and I began to get cold feet about what lay ahead. We climbed to the starting area, where most of the drama occurs, and watched as the brawny teams each started their sprints in turn, with lots of pepped-up shouting. The Lueders team turned in a winning time of 55.04 seconds, half a second off their season’s best. The meet was over within an hour, all of the teams’ runs falling within a two-second range.

Then it was our turn. Gulp!

Lueders, then 27, met us at the start. He was a handsome, gracious, friendly young man, built like a linebacker. We would be riding in his normal competition sleigh, he’d steer in front with brakeman Dave MacEachern in rear.

Happily, there was no running start for us. Gingerly, we all got into the sleigh just before the point where the track turned downhill, each squeezing our legs around the person in front. A last-minute briefing from MacEachern: “Don’t fight the G forces, hold the handles tight and we’re off!” (Hold the handles tight, he says – so we don’t fall out!) One of the team members gave the sleigh a slow push, and we started down. I looked around, enjoying the view … and then things started moving very quickly.

The speed and cornering forces become severe. We whipped into a left turn … now! … then a right … now! The icy walls slammed the sled like a golf ball off concrete … this was not like a roller coaster! My head and shoulders were forced down toward my knees … and we were still accelerating. The sensation of speed overwhelmed me … sun and sky flashed overhead, I noted the sections of tarpaulin. I wanted to look around but I couldn’t twist my head. Suddenly we’re into the Kreisel corner and the G forces reach their peak – my weight climbed briefly to more than 900 pounds, my helmeted head to 60. (So we learned later.) I was forced down into the sleigh, head toward my knees, pushing on poor Debbie’s helmet. I wanted to lift up and look around but couldn’t. How could Lueders steer, I wondered?!

We straightened a bit as the Gs dropped, but then we slammed into another covered 135-degree curve and suddenly arrived into bright sunlight. Now the brakeman leaned on his lever. Ice chips kicked up as we scraped along the uphill run-out. In a few heartbeats, we stopped. The ride was over. At 120 kilometres an hour, we didn’t even see the finish line.

Debbie and I let out a whoop – we made it! A loudspeaker announced our time – a fraction over 60 seconds. We uncorked ourselves from the sleigh and struggled out onto the platform, legs shaking.

Two years of waiting, two hours of nerves while we watched the competition, and the ride was over in a minute. But what a ride! We realized as we exited the sleigh that we were going to be sore – but we had just had an experience that we will never forget. Making allowance for the relaxed start, we just completed a bobsleigh run with a world champion in close to world-class time. Later, Debbie and I tried to think of any other sport where duffers like us could fully experience what a champion feels in the full performance of his specialty – we couldn’t. Once, however, was enough.

Rick Boyd lives in Kelowna, B.C.

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