A Glimpse at The American Bobsled and Skeleton Federation from my Fascinating Neighbor

During the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, I attended a quarter-final men’s hockey game. The man seated beside me was draped in a Canadian flag and was topped off by a maple-leaf hat.

“What part of Canada are you from?” I excitedly queried my fellow Canuck.


I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice but when I spotted Darrin Steele walk on my flight from Denver to Vancouver, I had a sneaking suspicion he was cheering for the Red, White and Blue.

Maybe it was his Team USA jersey. Or his star-spangled knee-length coat. But most likely the dead giveaway was his set of headphones that were replete with stars and stripes.

Now that, my friends, is a true fan.

Steele is a two-time Olympian who is now the CEO of the United States Bobsled & Skeleton Federation in Colorado Springs. During our three-hour flight to Vancouver, we talked about everything from the logistics of walking in the Opening Ceremonies to his recent foray into Twitter and social media.

The U.S. Bobsled Team

“I attended the bobsled during the 1988 Calgary Games,” I generously offered.
“Oh really? That’s great!”
“Kind of. We waited for ages in the sub-zero temperatures, only to have the sled blaze by us in a millisecond. If we blinked, we missed it.”

And yes, I really did tell this to the CEO of the Bobsled Federation.

While certainly not the most spectator-friendly sport, Bobsled and Skeleton are among the most crazy. He has been CEO since 2007 and competed on the four-man bobsled team in the 1998 Games and on the two-man in 2002. If you need a course in Bobsled 101, the four positions are the pilot, two side pushers and the brakeman. Skeleton was added to the Olympic roster in 2002.

Steele was recruited for the bobsled while he was still a decathlete. “A lot of the men come from a track and field background, as well as football,” he said. “The women come from soccer, track and field and gymnastics.”

Steele says Whistler’s track is the fastest in the world. With speed comes danger but he has confidence in Team USA. “The women’s bobsled team finished #1, 3 and 6 on this track at the World Cup.”

He also says the most consistent performers to watch are Shauna Rohbock who earned a silver medal in Torino and Steve Holcomb, the reigning World Champion, is ranked #1 in the world in the four-man. In the skeleton, Steele predicts some upsets but says to watch for Noelle Pace, who was a world champion in 2007. I took this picture of Noelle later that day at the Proctor and Gamble Family House. It was before I knew who she was.
And just thought she had really great red-, white-, and blue-streaked hair.

An Athlete’s Life

The Opening Ceremonies is far from a compendium of band geeks but the terminology is similar. Athletes are given a “Marching Pass,” which they use to walk in the Opening Ceremonies. Some choose to skip out to rest or train. Unused tickets are redistributed to the team’s staff and trainers.

Steele’s fondest Olympic memories are of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and his actual event.

“As you’re waiting to enter the stadium, you can feel the anticipation building. When you walk through that tunnel, it’s the best feeling in the world. You’re blinded by flashing cameras and the pulsation of the crowd,” Steele remembers. “The Closing Ceremony is a big party where we traded jackets, snapped photos and danced on the infield. Most of us aren’t famous but we have killed ourselves for this moment. And it’s every bit as great as we’d always dreamed.”

As for the Athlete’s Village, Steele says there is an evolution during the Olympics. In the beginning, everyone means business and it is just a place to rest and prepare. But over the course of the Games, the atmosphere becomes much more fun and loose. “I think if the athletes were there for even one extra week, there would be a few Olympic babies born nine months later,” Steele joked.

As our conversation drew to a close, he put me on the spot: “So, the question is: who are you cheering for?”

“Mostly Team USA,” I answered truthfully. “But when it comes to hockey, I plead the 5th amendment.”

Just don’t remind him as a Canadian, that isn’t even possible.

Follow the bobsled’s updates at http:www.bobsled.teamusa.org. Darrin is on Twitter @darrinsteele. Stay tuned for my updates from Day 1 of the 2010 Vancouver Games.

Side note: My heart-felt sympathies to the luger who died on the track on Friday. A sad reminder of just how dangerous these sports are.

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