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The Ultimate Thrill Ride

Brian Spickler has found that careening down a mountainside in a bobsled at ninety mph provides the ultimate adrenalin rush.

Brian Spickler

The ride was never more thrilling than when the IUP track and field coach served as the brakeman on the four-man team that captured top honors in January at the United States Bobsled National Championships in Lake Placid, N.Y. Driver Grayson Fertig and his crew completed two runs down the Mount Van Hoevenberg course in 1:58.01, edging out Stephan Bosch’s top-seeded team by twelve-hundredths of a second.

“We knew if things came together we’d definitely have a shot at contending,” Spickler said. “We were within three-hundredths after the first run. That’s when we knew, hey, we have a shot at winning this. Then we put down a great second run. It was a total surprise that we won. I mean, the look on the faces of the favored team—you could tell they weren’t very happy.”

As a reward for their victory, Spickler, Fertig, and pushers Will Person and Theron Johnson had their names engraved on the Billy Fiske Memorial Trophy, which commemorates the sixteen-year-old phenom who drove the U.S. team to a gold medal in the 1928 Olympics and successfully repeated his title at the 1932 Lake Placid Games.

Compared to Fiske, Spickler was a veritable graybeard when he took up the sport. A friend e-mailed him in the summer of 2002 with news that the national bobsled federation was holding open tryouts in Portland, Maine, and suggested he give it a try. On a whim, Spickler drove north. He showed enough promise in Portland that federation officials invited Spickler—who had never before seen a bobsled up close—to the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid.

Soon he was hurtling down the treacherous Mount Van Hoevenberg layout, a molar-rattling experience that left him wanting more.

“People try to explain what it’s going to feel like and what exactly’s going to take place, but there’s nothing that can prepare you for your first run,” said Spickler, a 1998 IUP graduate who won two Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference decathlon titles and twice earned NCAA All-America honors in the demanding ten-event discipline. “The track at Lake Placid is considered one of the most difficult in the world, so having that be my first experience ever was just a total shocker. I guess the easiest way to explain it is, you’re on one of the fastest roller coasters you could ever imagine, but someone’s shaking the car the whole time and throwing you back and forth as hard as they can. It’s pretty violent.”

The crewmen endeavor to remain motionless during their descent so the driver can steer the sled as smoothly as possible through a series of banked turns and avoid banging against the walls in the straightaways. This after a fifty-meter start when team members sprint while pushing the sled—hence the value of a track background—before loading in sequence. Sleds barrel down serpentine runs at speeds that would prompt most mortals to lose bladder control.

“People ask me what it feels like to go that fast,” Spickler said. “I tell them if you’re in your car and you’re ever doing eighty mph, or even sixty, just open your door and look at the ground and see how fast it’s actually going by. That gives you an idea of what it feels like going that fast that close to the ground. We’re sitting about an inch and a half above a sheet of ice. So when you’re doing eighty to ninety mph, with a five-G force going through the turns, it’s kind of a gut-wrenching experience.”

Of course, a sport that quickens the pulse rate until it approximates the rhythm of a jackhammer suits Spickler, a self-professed adrenalin junkie who sky dives, bungee jumps, and rides mountain bikes. He was hooked almost from the start.

Spickler debuted on the World Cup circuit during the winter of 2002-03—he has competed in Lake Placid; Park City, Utah; Calgary, Alberta; Altenberg, Germany; LePlagne, France; Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy; and Igls, Austria—before stepping away from the sport after his rookie season because of his responsibilities at IUP.

“I’d just been appointed head men’s track coach and I was teaching health and phys. ed. classes,” Spickler said. “I was like, wow, I don’t want to pass up this opportunity, but I have a job that I just started. So it was a lot of logistics in getting leave time and getting approval and all those things. It just got to be too difficult.”

Spickler sat out two years before returning to the World Cup circuit in the fall of 2005. He posted his first two victories this past winter: Spickler and Fertig won the two-man America’s Cup championship, based on results at the three North American tracks, before capturing the U.S. four-man title at Lake Placid. Fertig and Co. stood in third place before a flawless second run catapulted them into the lead. Only two teams—the ones with the fastest first-heat times—were left to come down the mountain.

“We were just sitting at the bottom, basically watching the TV screen and the time clock,” said Spickler, who placed fifth with Fertig in the two-man event. “As soon as that last sled came down and we knew we’d won, we started jumping around and screaming and high-fiving everybody.”

Unfortunately, that was the final victory of his abbreviated 2006-07 season. Spickler passed up the final two months of the World Cup schedule so he wouldn’t miss the bulk of IUP’s indoor track season. He plans to devote more time to bobsledding as the 2010 Olympic Games, to be staged in British Columbia, draw closer.

The irony isn’t lost on Spickler that his hopes of making the Olympics, once predicated on performance in an ancient sport, now hinge on success in one where competitors wear state-of-the-art Kevlar vests and ride in high-tech sleds.

“A lot of bobsledders have gone the same route,” Spickler said. “They had expectations in track and field, but they finally realized it wasn’t ever gonna pan out. But you still have that Olympic dream, so you kind of look elsewhere for another way to get there.”

Brian Spickler just might have found it—along with the ultimate adrenalin rush.