Adaptive bobsled: The next Winter Paralympic sport?

Guest blog by Jeremy Holm

When injuries occur to an athlete a lot of things go through their mind. “How bad is it?” “Is my career over?” “Will re-hab take long?” “What happens if I can’t race again?” Whether you’re national team or a backyard enthusiast, that nagging question of “What if…?” is an annoyance you must accept and ignore if you want to play the game.

I thought “What if…?” had found me a few years ago during a training session with my bobsled teammate Don Osmond (yes, Donny’s son) when after warm-ups we engaged in 50-meter speed drills that led to my short-term demise.

After a great start I began to extend my stride when I felt that dreaded pop in my right hamstring. I went down like a sack of potatoes and hugged my leg to my chest. It wasn’t the pain (that came about two minutes later), but rather the “Oh God, don’t let it be bad.”

I wasn’t ready to exit the field of competition just yet. We all want to do something with our lives, something that says, “I was here” and echoes for decades to come. As athletes and coaches we want to leave our marks not just in our sport but also on it. We want to leave something behind that contributes to the growth and history of our chosen pursuit.

That’s part of the reason I started The Athlete Outreach Project and help lead The Utah Olympian Association; to make a difference through sport and service. No athlete should ever doubt their ability to positively influence others, especially when excellence and compassion are combined. That being said, it wasn’t until I started coaching a fledging group of daredevil adventures that I really discovered the power a lofty sport-related idea can have in the world.

And I learned very quickly not to “dis” their “abilities.

“Why Don’t You Come Coach Adaptive Bobsled?”

Fate usually cracks the door of opportunity without disclosing the challenges and prospects that lie on the other side and when I entered the world of adaptive bobsled I found plenty of both.

What do I mean by adaptive? Although bobsled has been around since the 1870’s, (I started sliding in 1997) the idea of opening the activity to athletes with physical disabilities has only recently flourished through pioneering efforts of programs at the Calgary, AB, Canada and Park City, Utah, USA tracks.

I admit that I was relatively naïve when it came to athletes with physical disabilities. I knew about the Paralympics, but in the fall of 2010 I began the task of physically and mentally developing some of the world’s first adaptive bobsled athletes for international competition and (fingers crossed) the Paralympic Games. I quickly learned that most adaptive athletes are very open about their situations and that it is the “able-bodied” that create the quasi-uneasiness surrounding someone with a disability.

Working with the inspiring competitors found within The National Adaptive Sliding Sport Association (NASSA) I studied the differences between the various types of disabilities, prosthetics and the few limitations they possess. Together NASSA’s members and I have developed specific workout routines to help our seated wheelchair athletes grow faster and stronger while we continue to experiment with sled push-techniques to decrease their times and increase speed, an experience that stretched my sport knowledge as together we discovered what worked and what didn’t. An above-knee amputee may push slightly different than a below-knee, etc.

That being said, there have been plenty of concerns and obstacles to overcome in regards to adaptive bobsled. Programs had to be organized, funding had to be gathered, athletes had to be recruited and many safety-based fears had to be systematically dealt with. While the initial setbacks have been courageously conquered, some details still remain to be worked out. For now adaptive bobsled has two fields: standing driver and seated driver. Standing driver teams (amputees) use a normal bobsled while a seated driver sled has a roll-cage and a special seat designed to keep a wheelchair athlete safe in the event of a crash.

The National Adaptive Sliding Sport Association

NASSA’s founding group of athletes, coaches, directors and volunteers created the organization to provide the guidance, equipment, financial support and physical, mental, and emotional training that competitive and recreational adaptive athletes deserve.

And they deserve a lot. With all the sacrifices they’ve given for their sliding dreams and to make Paralympic bobsled happen, they’re gold medalists in my book.

Our director, Cody Reese, is a talented sled pilot who brings tremendous leadership to our team and organization. His father, Howard, is a faithful supporter and sled mechanic who helps me keep our equipment in order. Our additional athletes include pilots Koloa Wolfgramm (remember this kid’s name, folks), Marianne Page (two-time gold medalist at the US Open Wheelchair Championships and the world’s first seated female bobsled pilot) and Brandon Larson (also the fastest adaptive brakemen I’ve ever seen). NASSA has is lucky to have powerful and quick adaptive brakemen like Brandon, Devin Ward, Tom Seibert, Damond English and Geoff Turner (our token Brit).

The NASSA team

As a team we constantly push the envelope for ways to further our sport, find and develop adaptive bobsled athletes and locate the funding we need to make our dreams of Paralympic inclusion possible. It’s an expensive pursuit when you consider our sleds are priced like luxury cars and shipping them all over the world costs and arm and a leg (no pun intended).

“In NASSA the only thing holding an athlete back is themselves,” NASSA Director Cody Reese says. “If they are willing to work, accept the coaching and training, support each other and bring a positive attitude to the program, we will help them reach the highest level they can personally achieve.”

We are extremely fortunate to have the full support of our national governing body, the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, as well as our international governing body, the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation, not to mention the Utah Olympic Park and the Calgary Olympic Park. Without their support and encouragement our chances to create an international competition circuit and make it into the Paralympic Games would be nil. We’re lucky to have them onboard and express our gratitude.

Since its inception, the National Adaptive Sliding Sport Association has worked to establish a powerful record of professionalism, quality and dedication of its athletes and staff as they prepare for the first circuit of international adaptive bobsled racing in winter of 2012. Interested in joining us? Please contact us here for ways to participate.

Like its world-renowned namesake of NASA, NASSA will continue to make history. I’m just lucky to be along for the ride.

At over eighty-miles per hour.