Sledding Athletes Are Taking Their Lives. Did Brain-Rattling Rides and High-Speed Crashes Damage Their Brains?


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Sledding Athletes Are Taking Their Lives. Did Brain-Rattling Rides and High-Speed Crashes Damage Their Brains?

On May 3, Pavle Jovanovic, a former bobsledder, rigged a series to a crane he and his brother saved within the store of their household’s steel works in Toms River, N.J. He tied the unfastened finish round his neck and hanged himself.

Jovanovic, an Olympian, was simply 43, however already experiencing the shakes and tremors typically related to Parkinson’s illness. He was additionally the third elite North American bobsledder to kill himself since 2013. Adam Wood, whose spouse taped his anguished calls as his psychological well being deteriorated, so there can be a file, died by suicide in 2013 at age 32. The following 12 months, Travis Bell, who competed for the United States within the late 1990s, took his life at age 42.

In addition, Steven Holcomb, who in 2010 piloted the sled referred to as the Night Train to the primary gold medal for the United States in bobsled in 62 years, died alone of an overdose in 2017 after years of melancholy. He was 37.

Another Olympic medalist, Bill Schuffenhauer, sliced open his wrist in 2016, however was saved by his girlfriend.

In latest years, an rising variety of athletes, present and retired, in sliding sports activities, particularly bobsled and skeleton — a sister sport during which rivals slide headfirst on a small sled made from steel and carbon fiber — have stated they battle continual complications, a heightened sensitivity to brilliant lights and loud noises, forgetfulness and psychological issues.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Only just a few hundred individuals pursue sliding sports activities significantly within the United States and Canada at any time, which makes the prevalence of those signs and the early deaths, which are sometimes associated to mind accidents, stark.

For years, the tight-knit sliding sports activities group has considered mind damage as an issue for soccer and different direct contact sports activities. But Jovanovic’s deterioration and suicide, so quickly after Holcomb’s demise, have pressured it to confront troublesome questions with unsure solutions.

Brain consultants who’ve studied these athletes say the signs most certainly stem, not less than partially, from years of putting up with the infamous crashes, routine head banging, brain-rattling vibrations and powerful gravitational acceleration forces which are frequent of their sports activities.

The athletes also have a identify for the exhausted fog that even a routine run down the observe can depart them in. They name it “sled head,” a time period that troubles mind consultants as a result of they are saying it has normalized the traditional signs related to concussions and gentle traumatic mind accidents acquainted to soccer gamers and others who take part in high-impact sports activities.

“The concussions from the major crashes get diagnosed,” stated Dr. Brian Benson, the chief medical officer for the Canadian Sport Institute in Calgary, Alberta, who has been learning mind trauma in sliding sports activities for a decade. “The real concern is the concussion-like symptoms they experience because of the high speeds and the forces.” Benson in contrast it to shaken child syndrome, however for adults.

The query nobody can reply, as a result of collected mind damage is so exhausting to measure in actual time, is how a lot is an excessive amount of?

“How many times do you have to be hit to have the brain of Junior Seau?” stated Dr. Ben Christiansen, a neuropsychologist with the Tanner Clinic in Salt Lake City, who has labored with N.H.L. groups and athletes in sliding sports activities. “We don’t know.” (Seau, an N.F.L. Hall of Fame linebacker, shot himself in 2012 and was later discovered to have had the degenerative mind illness C.T.E.)

Wood thought he knew. A rising star in bobsled in Canada within the late 1990s and early 2000s, he skilled dozens of crashes and numerous different whacks to the top.

He left the game for good in 2007. He and his spouse, Arysta Bogner-Wood, a health mannequin, had been a putting couple. They created one of many early foam rollers and constructed a profitable enterprise. From the surface every thing appeared excellent, whilst psychological sickness engulfed Wood. Gentle, caring and a deep thinker as a younger grownup, he turned more and more rash, verbally abused his spouse and drove round with a noose in his automobile.

Credit…Photo offered by Arysta Bogner

In September 2013, after making an attempt to kill himself with an overdose of painkillers and psychotropic medicines, he referred to as Arysta from the psychological well being unit of a Calgary hospital. They determined to tape the dialog, to make a file of his head accidents. In a voice concurrently confident and determined, Wood talked about as many head accidents as he might bear in mind, the restricted therapy he obtained and the impulsive, often violent, habits that adopted.

“You just don’t even have an idea that you are destroying your life,” Wood stated to his spouse on the telephone.

A couple of days later, he referred to as her once more, this time to say goodbye. He was in Fish Creek Park in Calgary. She advised him that he was beloved and that they may get him the assistance he wanted. Then she referred to as the police. They discovered him the following day hanging from a tree.

Just days earlier than Adam Wood took his life, he recounted for his spouse the harm bobsledding had inflicted on his physique and mind.

Seven years in the past, a Canadian skeleton athlete named Alexis Morris started to suppose how unusual it was that athletes in sliding sports activities so casually threw across the time period “sled head.”

“They would say, ‘I got a real sled head today,’” Morris stated. Then they’d go take one other run, and a number of other extra the following day. “You get sucked into thinking it’s not a big deal.”

Morris thought it was a giant deal, and never simply because his spouse can be a skeleton athlete. He is an affiliate professor of physics at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

“I need my brain,” he stated.

On Feb. 22, 2013, Morris hooked up an accelerometer to his helmet, then launched his physique down a 1,500-meter observe on the sliding heart in Whistler, British Columbia, which is taken into account the quickest observe on this planet and was a venue for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Measuring a Ride Down the Ice

These are g-force readings from the helmet of Alexis Morris on a skeleton run down the Whistler Olympic observe. High g-forces for prolonged durations might be dangerous to the physique. Morris skilled extraordinarily excessive ones, however just for milliseconds.

Tracking g-forces on a skeleton run

High velocity and fatigue on the finish of the run made it unimaginable for Morris to maintain his head from dragging on the ice in Corners 14, 15 and 16, making a sequence of excessive g-force readings, topping out at 84.5 g.

Limiting g-forces

Turns on sliding tracks are designed to restrict g-forces to 5 g as a result of the turns can final a number of seconds. There are 16 activates the Whistler observe.

As Morris whipped into Corner 7, the sudden g-forces made his head really feel a lot heavier, forcing his helmet to hit the ice. It briefly created a g-force of 55 g.


Tracking g-forces on a skeleton run

High velocity and fatigue on the finish of the run made it unimaginable for Morris to maintain his head from dragging on the ice in Corners 14, 15 and 16, making a sequence of excessive g-force readings.

Limiting g-forces

As Morris whipped into Corner 7, the sudden g-forces made his head really feel a lot heavier, forcing his helmet to hit the ice.

Turns on sliding tracks are designed to restrict g-forces to 5 g as a result of the turns can final a number of seconds. There are 16 activates the Whistler observe.


Tracking g-forces on a skeleton run

High velocity and fatigue on the finish of the run made it unimaginable for Morris to maintain his head from dragging on the ice in Corners 14, 15 and 16, making a sequence of excessive g-force readings.

As Morris whipped into Corner 7, the sudden g-forces made his head really feel a lot heavier, forcing his helmet to hit the ice.


Tracking g-forces on a skeleton run

High velocity and fatigue on the finish of the run made it unimaginable for Morris to maintain his head from dragging on the ice in Corners 14, 15 and 16.

As Morris whipped into Corner 7, the sudden g-forces made his head really feel a lot heavier, forcing his helmet to hit the ice.

Source: Alexis Morris, former Canadian skeleton athlete, affiliate professor of physics at Mt. Royal University in Calgary. Morris used an accelerometer, referred to as a gForce Tracker, on his helmet to measure g-forces 3,000 instances a second.

By The New York Times

The run was routine, with speeds of 70 to 80 miles per hour and gravitational acceleration forces, or g-forces, as they’re referred to, principally 5 to 10 instances what an individual feels strolling down the road. But in lots of the twisting corners, the g-forces spiked, as excessive as 84.5 g in Turn 16, as his neck drained and his helmet floor on the ice, present process a sequence of fierce rattles, if just for just a few milliseconds.

“You are in a straightaway, and your head is off the ice, and then the g-force sends your face slamming into the ice,” he stated. “It’s a real problem.”

A bobsled run produces related forces and different risks.

When the 1,400-pound sleds crash, they careen uncontrolled at 80 m.p.h. with two or 4 individuals aboard. No one is sporting a seatbelt. Heads slam into partitions, into different heads and into the sled itself. Ultimately everybody slides down the remainder of the best way, typically beneath the sled, their helmets grinding alongside the ice at speeds as quick as 60 m.p.h.

“Your head is inside a jet engine,” Wood advised his spouse on that telephone name from the hospital recounting his crashes. “Your vision is white. You’re getting destroyed.”

Credit…Amber Bracken for The New York Times
Credit…Amber Bracken for The New York Times

Even on a routine run and not using a crash, the bobsled whips out and in of the tighter turns, and heads slap exhausting towards its fiberglass facet.

Lugers, who slide toes first and reach the very best speeds, expertise a number of the identical forces, however appear to endure far fewer concussion-like signs than bobsled and skeleton athletes do, most likely as a result of a assist strap typically prevents their heads from banging into the ice.

While consultants imagine sliding sports activities pose vital risks to the mind, even the main neuroscientists readily acknowledge how a lot they have no idea. A staff of scientists at Boston University anticipated Wood’s mind to point out indicators of C.T.E., nevertheless it didn’t. Neither did Holcomb’s, although that could be irrelevant.

“Not every symptom we see in former football players is because of C.T.E., but they are still the result of repeated impacts to the head,” stated Dr. Robert Stern, the director of scientific analysis for Boston University’s C.T.E. Center.

Christina Smith, a Canadian bobsledder who competed within the 2002 Olympics, retired from the game in 2004. For years after retiring, she struggled with melancholy, moodiness, reminiscence loss and sleep issues. Scans of her mind, measuring its electrical perform, revealed harm to the rear and frontal lobes. Neuroscientists stated it was most certainly the results of micro tears within the mind’s white matter.

Credit…Amber Bracken for The New York Times

“It’s not a surprise to me that bobsled and skeleton athletes have a huge amount of repetitive mild brain trauma, and it’s not an incredible leap to say that would lead to these kinds of symptoms and cause incredible disruption of emotional regulation,” Stern stated.

Whatever consideration leaders of sliding sports activities have given to mind well being has primarily been centered on addressing accidents associated to crashes somewhat than the long-term results of the coaching and the competitors.

In an electronic mail, Aron McGuire, who turned the chief govt of the usA. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation in January, stated: “We recognize that there are inherent risks in all sports. We emphasize education and prevention first when it comes to injuries, which includes brain injuries.”

The group places lively, elite athletes by cognitive exams, as do Germany and Canada, nevertheless it finally depends on athletes to report their signs to staff officers, a move that may sideline an athlete for months. A definitive reply on the direct hazard sliding sports activities pose to the mind could at all times be elusive. Plenty of former athletes in sliding sports activities are usually not combating long-term signs associated to mind accidents, and lots of of those that are additionally performed contacts sports activities rising up.

All of them have most likely heard of Eugenio Monti of Italy, a six-time Olympic medalist within the 1950s and 1960s and maybe bobsled’s biggest legend. He value himself silver medals in 1964 when he helped rivals repair their damaged sleds, lending one a essential bolt.

In his twilight years, Monti developed Parkinson’s illness. On Dec. 1, 2003, he fired a single gunshot into his head. He was 75.

Credit…September Dawn Bottoms/The New York Times

Pavle Jovanovic, the Olympian who hanged himself in May, was working as a bouncer at a Jersey Shore bar in 1997 when a scout from U.S.A. Bobsled and Skeleton bought him to attempt pushing a sled on a moveable push-track the federation had arrange on the boardwalk.

Jovanovic was a 20-year-old linebacker and engineering main at Rutgers. He was 6-foot-2, about 215 kilos, and many quick, nevertheless it was how he ran, his low turnover, his toes digging into the bottom with each step, that made him particular. That grinding operating model allowed him to switch his power and velocity into the ability essential to push the large sled. Within just a few years he was among the many high push athletes on this planet.

He skilled relentlessly. He might squat 550 kilos and bench press greater than 300. After lifting weights for hours, he would make his brother, Nick, put his automobile in impartial and steer as he pushed it across the neighborhood. He beloved touring the world.

Hurtling down icy tracks at 80 m.p.h. took some getting used to. Nick Jovanovic as soon as requested Pavle what it felt like. Pavle advised him that he generally misplaced consciousness, that the run would finish and he couldn’t bear in mind what had occurred. The harmful tracks scared him, particularly when the sled hit the partitions.

Credit…Getty Images

“It’s like you’re in a blender and a tornado at the same time,” Pavle Jovanovic advised his brother.

In spring and summer season, once they lived and skilled in Calgary, Pavle and his teammates spent afternoons soaking their our bodies within the Bow River after coaching. He had a straightforward peacefulness outdoors the fitness center, and unmatched depth when it was time to coach or compete.

Six weeks earlier than the 2002 Olympics, together with his sled favored to win a medal, Jovanovic’s profession hit a bump. He failed a drug take a look at after making a protein shake from a tainted combine. He was suspended for eight months. He appealed, realizing he would most certainly lose and be hit with a two-year suspension, however he did it as a result of he felt compelled to make individuals perceive he had not knowingly cheated. His teammates wore hats together with his identify on them once they received the silver medal in Utah that February. In 2006, the corporate that made the protein shake paid him $400,000 to settle a lawsuit he filed towards it.

When he returned in 2004, Jovanovic was as sturdy as ever.

Credit…Getty Images

“You talk about a guy I want in my foxhole, Pavle was it,” stated John Morgan, a former bobsledder and longtime NBC commentator.

His sled, piloted by Todd Hays, excelled on the World Cup circuit. Jovanovic lastly made it to the Olympics in Turin, Italy, in 2006. After his sleds completed a disappointing seventh, he determined to attempt for the 2010 Vancouver Games.

His sleds received 5 instances within the subsequent two seasons, however a foot damage saved him from making the 2010 Olympics. Watching on tv, Jovanovic cried as his teammates received the gold medal pushing for Holcomb, his brother stated. It harm, however not nearly as a lot as what was to come back.

Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

By 2017, even stars like Holcomb had been questioning the protection of the game.

Holcomb, who had lengthy suffered from melancholy and sleep issues and struggled to manage his ingesting, advised associates he was involved about what nearly 20 years of bobsledding had accomplished to his mind. On May 6, 2017, Katie Uhlaender, his shut good friend and teammate, discovered him lifeless at 37 in his room on the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y. The coroner stated the trigger was a deadly mixture of alcohol and sleep medicine.

“A tragic miscalculation,” Holcomb’s mom, Jean Schaefer, stated of her son’s demise.

Schaefer later discovered on Holcomb’s pc analysis he had accomplished on mind well being, in addition to communications and newsletters he had obtained from the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, one thing that doesn’t shock Randy Will.

Credit…Eve Edelheit for The New York Times
Credit…Eve Edelheit for The New York Times

Will, 51, competed and coached in bobsled and skeleton for greater than a decade, making three Olympic groups. He as soon as wrote suicide notes however bought therapy as a substitute. Will struggles with sure motor capabilities and neurologists have discovered he has Parkinson’s.

Adam Wood’s profession lasted about half so long as Holcomb’s. He began in 1996 as a teen. On the recorded name together with his spouse, Arysta, he stated that in that first season he crashed on the fourth activate the Calgary observe. He banged his head so many instances the remainder of the best way down he couldn’t raise his arms when he got here to a cease

He spoke about crashing as many as 15 extra instances whereas competing from 1999 to 2002. He stated a crash in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 2002 launched him from the sled and knocked him unconscious.

He began faculty and couldn’t deal with entry stage math, regardless that he had managed calculus in highschool. A 2007 coaching journey to Lake Placid left him glassy-eyed and in a fog. That spring, on considered one of his first dates together with his future spouse, Arysta, he advised her, “I’m not going to live very long.”

After a 2013 journey to Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan, Wood couldn’t sleep. Arysta would discover him writhing on the ground in ache. Psychiatrists handled him with lithium and medicines for bipolar dysfunction.

“The sparkle in his eyes had left him,” she stated. “It was not Adam anymore.”

That summer season, Wood advised his spouse he was having darkish ideas about hurting her. He traveled to Calgary to see a mind damage specialist. While there, he tried suicide with an overdose. A couple of days later, after a short keep at a hospital, he referred to as once more from the park.

“I did everything in my power to try to help him,” Arysta stated.

Credit…Natalie Behring for The New York Times

The subsequent 12 months, in 2014, Bell, as soon as a rising star, took his life. Two years later, in 2016, Earl Shepherd, whose profession overlapped with Bell’s, died of an overdose of heroin and fentanyl at 46. That identical 12 months, Schuffenhauer, who turned hooked on painkillers and alcohol after his third and remaining Olympics in Vancouver, tried suicide.

“The brain just isn’t supposed to shake, rattle and roll like that,” Schuffenhauer stated.

Credit…September Dawn Bottoms/The New York Times

Pavle Jovanovic accomplished his diploma from Rutgers in 2010 and commenced working together with his brother within the household steel works, the place they did metal framing and likewise managed artisanal initiatives.

“The guy could look at a blueprint and do all the calculations for what we needed in his head,” Nick Jovanovic stated of his brother. No matter how complicated the job, in these first years, Pavle might at all times give you the reply.

As the years handed although, Pavle Jovanovic turned somebody Nick didn’t acknowledge. He drank closely and grew moody. He had by no means been in hassle with the legislation earlier than, however the police in his Jersey Shore city obtained greater than a dozen complaints about him, every thing from ingesting and harassing clients at eating places to conflicts with ex-girlfriends.

At work, he started to lose his capability to do the easy mathematical calculations required to chop steel appropriately.

On a Saturday afternoon in 2017, Nick Jovanovic stopped by the steel works store, the place Pavle and two staff had been engaged on a railing. Nick advised Pavle he wasn’t doing it appropriately. Pavle grabbed Nick and threw him right into a wall, then pounced. Only when he noticed his older brother’s face bleeding did Pavle snap out of his fury.

He did a sequence of stints at a psychological well being heart, the place he was handled for alcoholism, melancholy and bipolar dysfunction.

After his final stint there, in 2018, he appeared to point out progress. Last fall, he and his brother went to dinner in Atlantic City. “It was a decent night,” Nick Jovanovic stated.

But by the winter Pavle started to fade. He removed his cellphone and commenced sleeping on the sofa on the steel works. Then, on April 6, Nick Jovanovic seen his brother shaking beneath a trailer as he held a welding torch, making an attempt to carry out what can be their final job collectively.

“I kept asking him if he was OK, telling him he could stop and I would finish up,” Nick stated. “He kept saying, ‘Don’t worry about it. I got it.’”

Going by his brother’s prescriptions after his suicide, Nick Jovanovic discovered bottles of tablets to deal with his psychological well being issues, and one for Benztropine, a drug used to deal with the shakes and tremors that individuals with Parkinson’s or on antipsychotic medicines typically expertise.

“I think he knew that things were not going to get better,” Nick Jovanovic stated. “He didn’t have any answers anymore.”

Credit…September Dawn Bottoms/The New York Times

If you might be having ideas of suicide, name the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to for an inventory of extra sources. Here’s what you are able to do when a beloved one is severely depressed.