This Sledding Team Trained Hard for Gold in 2010. Some Members Regret It.


The probability to host the 2010 Winter Games was imagined to be a godsend for Canadian athletes who compete in skeleton, the headfirst sled run down a twisting observe.

While most opponents get entry to the observe for only a handful of days main as much as the Olympics, the host nation will get to observe much more, as a result of its athletes are logistically nearer and the game’s rules permit it. The home crew can memorize each element of each activate run after treacherous run.

Mellisa Hollingsworth, who was favored to win a medal that 12 months in skeleton, mentioned she and her teammates took as many as 11 runs a day down the observe, the quickest on the planet, at Whistler, British Columbia, about 75 miles north of Vancouver. When a coaching session ended, they have been so worn out they struggled to place sentences collectively. Noise was insupportable. Their brains felt scrambled.

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During the final decade, soccer and different contact sports activities have acquired a lot of the consideration and analysis curiosity for traumatic mind accidents in sports activities.

By comparability, sliding sports activities, area of interest actions that require athletes to careen down twisting tracks of ice on sleds at 80 miles per hour, have been largely ignored. And but, for years, elite opponents have talked concerning the psychological fog, complications, lack of ability to eat or communicate successfully, and sensitivity to mild and sound {that a} day of coaching, or, for some, even a single routine run can produce.

They referred to as it “sled head.” It was simply one thing they needed to settle for, like chilly climate, or sore muscle mass.

Now, in retirement, many of those athletes proceed to battle with a lot of those self same signs, in addition to forgetfulness, melancholy and psychological sickness.

Former high opponents like Hollingsworth, who completed fifth in skeleton on the Vancouver Games, Pascal Richard, additionally of Canada, and Katie Uhlaender, a four-time Olympian from the United States who needs to make one final Olympic crew, ponder whether these signs are related to their dramatic crashes and the brain-rattling runs.

They have watched teammates descend into melancholy and die by suicide. Since 2013, three former elite North American bobsledders have taken their lives. Another tried it, and two others died of overdoses, a exceptional quantity on condition that only a few hundred athletes take part critically in sliding sports activities at any stage without delay.

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“It’s almost like the boxers all over again,” mentioned Peter McCarthy, a neurophysiologist on the University of South Wales who has studied the dynamics of skeleton by attaching movement sensors to the athletes. “What you are doing is taking someone’s head and giving it a really good shake around, but in this case it lasts for a minute.”

McCarthy has been working carefully with Mark Wood of Britain, who has coached a number of medalists in skeleton and is now on a campaign to make individuals perceive that permitting an athlete to coach or compete with “sled head” is akin to subjecting somebody with concussion-like signs to 500 extra slaps to the top.

People throughout the sport preserve telling him he’s going to wreck it.

“I say, ‘No I’m not. I’m going to make it safer,’” mentioned Wood, who has coached for Canada, Britain and China. “The more data we get, the better information we can give.”

For many athletes although, the information is arriving too late.

In 1998, Pascal Richard was heading into the sixth of 19 curves, about one-third of the best way down the observe in La Plagne, France, the identical one used for the 1992 Albertville Games. The gravitational acceleration forces spiked and slammed his face into the ice. The affect knocked him out. He remained unconscious the entire means down as he crossed the end. Richard returned to coaching the following day.

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Neck ache and issues with focus lasted via the next summer time, and the continual fogginess elevated as Richard pushed to make the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, the place he completed 15th. He retired after these Games, returning to his full-time job as a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Richard quickly began falling out and in of melancholy. He misplaced his mood simply. A single hit in a beer-league hockey sport would put him out for the season. Work turned too difficult, as he struggled to recollect particulars of investigations and Canada’s penal code, forcing him to retire.

“My wife would tell you I’m not the person I used to be,” mentioned Richard, who lives exterior Calgary, Alberta. “I could have a great friend who called me on the phone and it could take me awhile to figure out who it is. I have lost part of my life.”

He is 48, has younger kids and wish to discover one thing else to do. He mentioned he doesn’t have the vitality.

No one can say for certain whether or not skeleton is solely accountable for Richard’s downfall or anybody else’s, or what number of runs it took Richard to get the place he’s immediately. He performed different contact sports activities rising up. He suffers from post-traumatic stress dysfunction from coming upon so many grisly loss of life scenes throughout his profession with the Mounties, particularly one through which he couldn’t rescue a person caught within the driver’s seat of a van that was on hearth.

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All of that might contribute to mind damage and melancholy.

But Tyson Plesuk has seen sufficient skeleton to be satisfied that too many runs can pose critical hazard to the mind.

Plesuk, a high sports activities physiotherapist in Canada, grew up enjoying hockey. He suffered three recognized concussions, and possibly many who went undiagnosed. In 2010 when he turned a physiotherapist with Canada’s skeleton crew, he knew little concerning the sport.

As Plesuk started spending time with Hollingsworth and different crew members, he seen how a lot they wanted to sleep after they weren’t coaching, how generally they may not eat or speak to one another throughout their lunch breaks. “It’s not normal behavior, but we needed someone from the outside for us to understand that,” Hollingsworth mentioned.

At the start of the season, the athletes had taken a take a look at to get a baseline for his or her cognitive features. If they crashed and suffered a head damage they must take the take a look at once more, and so they couldn’t practice or compete till their efficiency had returned to the baseline, even when scans of their brains seemed clear.

Plesuk detected an issue although: The athletes might move the take a look at even after they had different signs of a concussion. Fearing they could miss an opportunity to coach or lose coveted spots on the crew, they wouldn’t dare point out feeling weak to their coaches.

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As Plesuk and Duff Gibson, the crew’s head coach and the 2006 Olympic skeleton champion, obtained to know the athletes higher in the course of the 2010-11 season, they seen that many who struggled essentially the most with the concussion signs had participated within the high-volume coaching main as much as the Vancouver Games.

Gibson can nonetheless keep in mind when it was a degree of pleasure for an athlete to complete a skeleton run with a bloody nostril from banging their face on the ice. “The further back you go in history, the more cave man it becomes,” he mentioned.

Now he understood how all of the coaching probably left his athletes extra susceptible to repeated mind accidents and its signs, as run after run over tracks that look easy however are actually lined with bumps and divots could cause micro-tears in mind tissue, even when there’s by no means a crash.

“The big thing is the repetitive shaking,” Plesuk mentioned throughout a current interview.

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Gibson and Plesuk determined to restrict runs to a few per day for each athlete who competed for Canada. If an athlete didn’t appear “right,” they pulled her from competitors, irrespective of the circumstances.

“If you see stars, that is not normal, and if you have a headache after a run, that is not a normal condition,” Gibson mentioned.

Heading into the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Hollingsworth obtained pulled from a race, which resulted in a decrease beginning slot and will have contributed to her 11th-place end.

Hollingsworth knew Gibson and Plesuk had made the correct name. Leading as much as these Games in Russia, she struggled to wake from naps after a tough morning of coaching. Hours handed earlier than she might stroll 10 regular steps. One afternoon she got here down with vertigo whereas visiting a sporting items retailer and ended up curled in a ball on the ground.

She retired after Sochi. She can battle to recollect particulars of even current experiences. She recollects little of what occurred in the course of the few years main as much as Vancouver; even races she gained, moments that ought to stand out, are a blur, or have disappeared altogether. She has no recollection of her first skeleton run when she was a teen.

She can’t be in loud or busy locations. After a live performance, she will’t sleep for an evening or two. A small restaurant with loads of chatter could make her ears ring.

She is not going to recruit athletes to compete within the sport that was as soon as her life.

Last 12 months, WinSport, Canada’s winter sports activities group, started dismantling the Calgary bobsled and skeleton observe the place Hollingsworth began. After 30 years, it was deemed on the finish of its life cycle. As the observe got here down, Hollingsworth mentioned she felt nostalgia, but additionally one thing else — consolation that nobody would get damage there anymore.

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