LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - Of all the risks inherent in the sport of skeleton — where sliders reach speeds of 85 mph going headfirst down an icy chute — waiting for a truck ride is not supposed to be one of them.
But that’s what Lea Ann Parsley and four other U.S. women skeleton athletes were doing last month in Calgary when a runaway bobsled plowed into them during a training session. Parsley, along with Courtney Yamada and Breckenridge’s Katie Uhlaender, will race in this season’s only U.S. World Cup, the second of five races that will determine the Olympic team. But they’ll also try to push aside flashbacks from an accident that could’ve been a lot worse. “We are lucky no one was killed,” coach Tim Nardiello said. The women were waiting in their usual spot to catch the truck shuttle to the top of the run. A novice bobsled brakeman failed to pull the brake, sending the 600-pound, 4-man sled hurtling past the usual stopping point and a reported 50 feet onto an asphalt service road where the women were standing. Parsley, standing next to friend Noelle Pikus-Pace, still doesn’t know what hit her. She will race Friday with protective padding on her ankle. She’s had a month of therapy to heal her right leg, badly bruised in the accident, maybe from her own sled or from somebody else’s in the mad scramble to escape. Pikus-Pace, last year’s overall World Cup champion, was the only one hit. The sled’s glancing blow to her lower leg broke her tibia and fibula, sending bone piercing her skin and requiring surgery. Nardiello said it’s “50-50” she’ll recover in time to make the Olympic team for the Feb. 10-26 Games in Italy. Parsley said she, Pikus-Pace, Uhlaender, Yamada and 2002 gold medalist Tristan Gale were sitting on a wooden dock on the road after taking training runs. They were in a safe spot, expecting another skeleton sled, but track workers sent a bobsled instead. Bobsleds, bigger and heavier than skeleton, are slower to stop. Parsley heard the rumblings of a bobsled in the track. To be safe, she started to move away. “I reached over and grabbed my sled,” she said. “Our backs were to the bobsled.” A bobsled with brakes on makes a long, loud scraping noise at the finish. Parsley heard a chilling quiet. “I turned to look over my shoulder,” she said. “It was 15 feet behind us and they’re doing 50 mph. At that point, I yelled ‘Bail!’” Instead of hitting Parsley, she said, the bobsled ripped the 65-pound sled from her hands and sent it 60 feet up the road. She dove over a short wall. Yamada ran to safety. She said she still gets “sick to my stomach” when considering how close she came to disaster. The women don’t blame the bobsled crew, saying small mistakes from several people added up. Skeleton had a fatality last year when a Latvian slider collided with a bobsled. Last month in Lillehammer, a bobsled and luge wound up on the same curve. The bobsled went higher, averting disaster by safely passing the luge sled. “Our sport is perceived to be dangerous and scary but it seems that most of the accidents that occur, is not the slider sliding, it’s other things that occur,” Yamata said. THE RACES What: World Cup bobsled and skeleton, men’s and women’s When: Today through Sunday Who to watch: Today, men’s skeleton — Zach Lund, Kevin Ellis, Eric Bernotas, Chris Soule, U.S. team; Gregor Staehli, Switzerland Why we care: Second of five World Cup races to determine 2006 U.S. Olympic team Interesting fact: 2002 Olympic silver medalist Lee Ann Parsley and Olympian Chris Soule were named to the World Cup team last week at the discretion of coaches looking for the overall team points needed to earn two Olympic starting spots each for men and women. Parsley replaced 2002 Olympic gold medalist Tristan Gale, whose performance has tailed off in recent years. Jimmy Shea, the 2002 men’s gold medalist, retired after he did not make the team.