LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - To hear him tell it, fate and circumstance led Eric Bernotas to the sport of skeleton when he and his girlfriend started out on a drive to Vermont and ended up in Lake Placid. “It was a freak thing,” Bernotas said, of discovering the obscure, headfirst sport that uses a primitive sled sliders describe as “a cookie sheet with runners.” Almost as freaky was the skeleton World Cup race Thursday, the second of five international races between now and January that, along with showing who has a leg up in this belly-down sport, will determine the three men who will make up the U.S. Olympic team. Bernotas won it, his cookie sheet hotter than anyone else’s. He swooped down the snaking, 4,770-foot run in a time of 55.42 seconds, coping with near-blizzard conditions. Canada’s Paul Boehm was second (55.71) and U.S. slider Zach Lund was third (55.89). The U.S. team placed all four racers in the top 10, with Chris Soule sixth and Kevin Ellis ninth. Results like those make an audacious goal by U.S. coach Tim Nardiello seem almost sensible. “I’m looking at sweeping the Olympic Games on the men’s side,” Nardiello said earlier this week, referring to all three medals at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, Feb. 10-26. Lake Placid’s Jimmy Shea won gold in dramatic fashion in 2002, sliding with a photo of his recently deceased grandfather, Jack, in his helmet. Shea recently retired after he did not make the World Cup team. “If any team in the world looks at our men’s team, we have the strongest team in the world,” Nardiello said. Lund won his second World Cup medal in the season’s first two races and leads the world standings. Yet he felt little consolation. “I feel cheated,” said Lund, who broke Bernotas’ course record with a 54.64 in the first round before the heat was wiped out because of a dispute over using gas-powered blowers to clear snow on the track. Officials ruled the blowers, used in addition to brooms after the 12th slider, created a disadvantage to later racers. Lund had started fourth. Boehm said he couldn’t remember that happening before. Officials told athletes before the second heat that it would count for everything. “It was night and day. The weather was definitely a factor,” said Bernotas, who started 19th and finished the first heat 13th, 1.59 seconds behind Lund. “I caught some snow on my (start)” in the first run. Bernotas made the most of his second chance, gathering speed as he went. His start was only 13th best in the field, but he gained on his competitors at every split. He covered the last section faster than anybody to win for the second year here. “I’m living a dream right now,” he said. Bernotas’ learning curve paralleled that ride. He got a late start, discovering skeleton in 2001 at 29, but he gained momentum quickly. He said he had been looking for a sport to fall in love with after struggles with depression, “self-medicating” alcoholism and Tourette’s Syndrome, a condition characterized by tics and outbursts. “For someone who’s as driven, who’s able to transform himself as a slider . . . there are a few people who have done it, and it’s not easy to do,” said Soule. AT A GLANCE Today: Skeleton and bobsled Who to watch: Skeleton — Katie Uhlaender, Lea Ann Parsley, Kate Koczynski, Courtney Yamada Bobsled — Jean (Racine) Prahm and Vonetta Flowers; Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming; Jill Bakken and Bethany Hart Why we care: Second of five World Cup races to determine U.S. Olympic team
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