As far as most of Lake Placid was concerned, the main event of the weekend of Sept. 24-25 was the New York and Ontario Shriners' convention. But while the Shriners were rising slowly on Sunday morning after a night of making merry, 13 women were limbering up on the edge of the Lake Placid High School track in preparation for their big event: the first U.S. women's national bobsled push championships, a competition that simulated on dry land the pushing off of a bobsled at the beginning of a run. By the time the Shriners packed their gold-tasseled hats and dropped off their room keys, eight of the women had been named to the first U.S. women's two-person bobsled team.
Although Olympic bobsledding has always been restricted to men, there was a time when women competed in the sport at the national level. In the late 1920s and early '30s, when the now extinct five-person bobsled was a common sight at U.S. winter sporting venues, at least one woman was required to be a member of each team. But when two-person bobsled-ding was introduced to the Olympics in 1932, at Lake Placid (the four-person event had made its Olympic debut eight years earlier in Chamonix, France), women were relegated to the sidelines. The International Olympic Committee had deemed the bobsled too dangerous for them.
Nevertheless, a few women stubbornly stuck to it. In 1940 Katharin Dewey drove a four-person bobsled team to a first-place finish at the U.S. championships. Dewey—the granddaughter of Melvil Dewey, who invented the decimal classification system for libraries and also introduced bobsledding to Lake Placid by founding a club there in 1895—beat champion driver Big Bill Linney by a full second to become the first woman to win the event. But from then on, as both sleds and courses became faster, crashes during runs became more common and the sport was reserved for men.
It wasn't until the 1980s, when safer runs were designed, that attempts were made to get women back into bobsledding. But the handful of women who came periodically to Lake Placid for try-outs lost interest quickly. The sport, they decided, was harder—and scarier—than it looked.
December 26, 1994
"I have seen guys who are the most tremendous athletes go to the top of that hill, go down once, and lose it," says Howard Lowry, the secretary of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. (Skeleton is a sledding sport in which individual competitors—both men and women—lie on their stomachs on sleds resembling Flexible Flyers and rocket headfirst down icy runs. Skeleton was an official Olympic sport at only the 1928 and '48 Games, both held in St. Moritz, Switzerland.) "We wanted to avoid the problems of fear that women had in the past," says Lowry. "We were more concerned in getting them down the hill to see if they really wanted to do it. My idea at the time was, Let's just get it over with right now."
It was during the men's '94 Olympic trials last January that Lowry and Matt Roy, the USBSF's executive director, decided to try again to field a women's team. As soon as the bobsled events were over, the two men placed ads in newspapers across the country to spread the word that they were looking for a few good women. From the batch of diverse resumes they received in response, they culled a hardy group of 16 women whom they invited to Lake Placid in February for a week of sledding on one of the most dangerous bobsled runs in the world.
While some of the women found their courage slip-slidin' away, most loved the icy roller-coaster ride. "After my first run I got out of the sled with this big smile on my face and asked to go again," says Patty Driscoll, 39, who was the oldest competitor in the event. "I came back to Lake Placid the next weekend with all my stuff and asked Tuffy [LaTour, of the men's team] if he was sure he didn't need anyone to ride on the sled with him." Driscoll, who is from Stowe, Vt., and whose sporting dossier includes waterskiing, dogsled racing and the biathlon, was one of the 13 women who were invited back for the push championships in September.
To be a bobsledder, as the women learned that weekend, requires not only nerves of steel but also strength and speed. The first stages of the push championships included 30-, 60-and 100-meter dashes, a vertical jump, five consecutive hops and a shot put toss. The final stage required each woman to push a 325-pound two-person bobsled down a 55-meter rail track embedded in a rubberized surface.
Going into that last competition, Driscoll was sixth. She ended up with an average time of 6.729 on the push, just making the team. Alexandra Powe-Allred, 29, of Westerville, Ohio, and Liz Parr-Smestad, 32, of Shoreview, Minn., finished first and second, respectively, with times of 6.386 and 6.436. When each of them pushed, the sled should have had a BABY ON BOARD sign: At the time both Powe-Allred and Parr-Smestad were several months pregnant. "We're all really very serious about making this work," says Powe-Allred. "I actually planned my pregnancy around bobsledding."
While not everybody has pushed for two, others have made their own sacrifices. Sharon Denk-Slader, a former nationally ranked speed skater who won the third spot on the team, is thinking about selling the house she and her husband built; that would allow her to quit her job in software quality certification and train full time. Nancy Lang, who was a field hockey star at North Carolina before graduating in '92, clinched the team's fifth spot. To stay solvent, she juggles three jobs—as a substitute teacher, a field hockey coach and a waitress.
But even though all eight berths on the women's sledding team have been decided, the team's future is less certain. The IOC still has not approved bobsledding as a women's Olympic sport and probably will not do so before the '98 Games, in Nagano, Japan. Until that happens, entitling their team to part of the money doled out by the U.S. Olympic Committee, the women are relying on help from sponsors such as Shoei Safety Helmets and on fund-raising by team members.
A two-person bobsled can cost as much as $15,000, and competing in events such as the International Ladies' Cup, which will be held Jan. 16-21 in St. Moritz, is fiercely expensive. Still, the candidates for the team went into the sport knowing they would have to raise much of their program's money themselves, at least for the first few years. They pay their own way to and from sessions in Lake Placid—use of the Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic bobsled run itself is free, courtesy of the USBSF and the Olympic Regional Development Authority—and train on their own time in their hometowns.
"You know, I heard the Shriners give money to poor, indigent people," says Powe-Allred, mulling over the events of the September weekend. "I was looking right at them in their little outfits and never even thought about it. Maybe we should give them a call. You can't be more indigent than we are."