Quest for Olympic Gold Has Link in Iredell
Katie Uhlaender snapped her fingers.
“That’s two-tenths of a second,” said Uhlaender, a Colorado native who also spends time in Texas. “That’s an eternity to us.”
Uhlaender is a three-time member of the United States Olympic Skeleton Team. She and four members of the men’s team are in Mooresville this week to find ways to shave those precious fractions of a second off their downhill runs in Sochi, Russia, at the 2014 Games.
On Wednesday they were at deBotech, a composites manufacturer on Overhill Drive. The company is making the saddle portion of the skeleton sled.
“We’re taking a molding cast of their bodies and digitizing it,” said deBotech Owner Hans deBot. “And with that I’ll build a carbon saddle that conforms exactly to their body.”
“A lot of it is aerodynamics,” said skeleton athlete John Daly of the men’s team. “You are trying to find that perfect slide.”
Skeleton is a sport in which the athletes push the sled during running start and then jump onto it head first. Speeds of 85 miles per hour are not uncommon, said the team’s assistant coach, Zach Lund, a former skeleton athlete.
“And the sled is the only thing between you and the ice,” Lund said.
The ride is a quick one. If it takes you more than a minute to cover the course of about a mile, you can probably pick your sled up and head home. (But you better have eaten your Wheaties. These things weigh between 70 and 80 pounds on average.)
“It’s always less than a minute,” said Daly. “Times are in the low to mid-50s (seconds). And, again, it’s about tenths and hundredths of a second.”
Indeed at the finals for the 2010 Olympics, the difference between the winner and the 10th place finisher was 2.35 seconds, and that covers a combined time of four runs. In those Games, held in Vancouver, Canada, Lund finished 5th. He missed a bronze medal by .52 of a second. Using the Uhlaender metric, that’s about two and a half snaps of the finger, spread out over four races.
The ride itself is transcendent according to the athletes.
“Part of being successful at this is finding the ability to relax,” said Daly. “There is the speed and athleticism of the start and then there is a kind of measured relaxation.
Uhlaender put it another way.
“There is a kind of Zen to it,” she said. “It’s what I call relaxed chaos.”
And that kind of duality of extremes is present in the very design of the sled, which is both simple and hi-tech.
The premise is the simple part. A board is placed on metal runners and gravity pulls it down a slick ice track. And just about anything you put on the these tracks will get down there in almost the same amount of time.
It’s these “about” and “almost” where the hi-tech – and, indeed, where deBotech and other science-type companies ProtoStar Engineering, Inc., Machintek Corp., and Carpenter Technology Corp. – comes into play.
“There is a lot of physics involve in this,” said men’s skeleton athlete Matt Antoine. “A lot.”
So much, in fact, that the team and deBot would not permit photographs to be taken of the designs they were working on as it might get into the hands of other teams.
“We have to protect this,” said head coach Tuffy Latour when he saw the cameras come out at a press conference held by the team at deBotech.
Today, at the A-2 Wind Tunnel facility on Godspeed Lane in Mooresville, some of science will be on display when the Protostar V-5 sled is tested for sleekness and aerodynamics and any drag or air resistance that might present itself.
Uhlaender did not make any bold statements about her chance at winning in Sochi come February.
“There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance,” she said.
And besides, such talk wouldn’t be in keeping with the spirit of the Olympics, the creed of which reads in part: “The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
She added, “I will tell you that I am going to do my very best and give everything I have to represent myself, my family, my country and those who have supported me. I’m going to do even beyond my best.