Trip report: 2019–20 IBSF Skeleton World Cup, Lake Placid #2

Three Fridays ago, I again went to Lake Placid, site of the 1932 and 1980 Olympic Winter Games, to watch the third BMW IBSF World Cup skeleton competition of the year. Why third? I had already gone to (but didn’t write up) the 2018–19 season’s races, which were held in February, 2019, because the season-ending IBSF World Championships were held in Whistler, B.C. The schedule for the 2019–20 season returned to the usual practice of starting out in North America, but the venue for the season’s first races, Utah Olympic Park, had a malfunctioning refrigeration system, and so those races were relocated to the Lake Placid track — making for a busy two months of racing at Mt. Van Hoevenberg. (In addition the two weeks of World Cup races, Lake Placid also hosted the FIL Luge World Cup and the IBSF North American Cup series; not only is Lake Placid the US national training center for bobsled and skeleton, but because it’s the first track open and the last to close most years, it’s also a major training venue for many other national teams.)

My plans were made before the Park City cancellation was announced, so I did not attend the rescheduled races the previous week. I reserved a hotel room in the Quality Inn on Lake Placid (just outside the village proper, to the west). Last time I stayed there, the hotel was hosting the Austrian team, and I found when I arrived that this was once again the case. On checking out, I found that the hotel was also hosting the Swiss team this year. (In 2017, team Monaco was traveling with the Austrians.) The hotel is unfortunately not within walking distance of any of the good dining options in the village proper, but it worked well enough for my purposes despite being a 15-minute drive from the actual venue.

I was pleased that the race as originally scheduled would use the traditional three-day format with only two two-heat races per day, making my experience photographing the competitors much less stressful thanks to a later (10 AM) start. Because of the beating the track would take from four consecutive weekends of racing, the competition schedule was adjusted to run the first (rescheduled) races on a compressed schedule, but also to run two two-man bobsled races the first weekend, with the second weekend — the one I was at — a double four-man weekend. This was a bit disappointing to me, since the only suspense in a four-man race is which particular German driver would win. (In general the women’s races are less predictable and that’s what I actually go to watch.) Furthermore, they scheduled the first of the four-man races for Saturday morning, before the women’s bobsled, and the weather forecast was calling for rain all day, so I ended up leaving Saturday morning after seeing only Friday’s skeleton races — I would have stayed for women’s bob if they had been in the morning.

(Women can participate in the four-man races, as drivers and brakemen, and Team USA pilot Elana Meyers-Taylor has done so regularly in the past, but she is taking this season off for maternity, and in any case, because of the weight difference, women are rarely competitive with the top men. Speaking of weight, Martin and John on the IBSF TV broadcast the previous week were saying that there was a rules change this year increasing the combined driver-and-sled weight limit for women in skeleton, and several of the racers responded by putting on a few kilos. I wouldn’t have seen any evidence of this, given that the weighing takes place in private and they’re all wearing speed suits anyway, but that suggests it’s time to go back through the IBSF athlete database and update the women’s Wikipedia pages with their new competition weights.)

I’ve been feeling for at least a year that one of the things keeping me from getting my photos annotated and published has been the amount of writing and editing work required. I still have a whole bunch of pictures from Helsinki in 2017 that have never seen the light of day, not to mention Geneva and Milan in 2018 and my trip to Lake Placid last February, and it seems a shame to have them stuck on my laptop without ever serving the purpose they were taken for. For the past seven years, whenever I’ve taken pictures on a trip or at an event, the only way they’ve been published has been in the context of an extended photo essay here on this blog, and that requires both a substantial amount of difficult writing work (often involving additional research) and a very severe hand with the photo editing in Lightroom, because in essay format there just isn’t room for multiple perspectives of the same scene or multiple pictures of the same athlete in slightly different poses. The mechanics of posting photos on the blog also mean that some aspect ratios and “landscape” orientation are strongly favored over what might otherwise be the best presentation of a scene. So I signed up for a SmugMug account, which comes with a Lightroom plugin to make publishing a two-click operation. About a year ago, I looked at a few other services, including SmugMug’s sister operation Flickr, and decided that SmugMug had the right balance of “pro” features and service costs. (One of my main concerns was making it easier for people to buy prints if they are so inclined, and to do so without violating my copyright. On the minus side, Flickr would have made it easier to import photos into Wikimedia Commons, which I do authorize for some photos.)

That’s all a very long-winded way of saying you can view my four photo galleries from the December 13, 2019, skeleton races on my SmugMug site under “2019–20 BMW IBSF Skeleton World Cup, Lake Placid” — and you can buy prints if you’re so inclined. I’ll point out a few of my favorite photos below.

The overall experience for the IBSF races at Lake Placid is still really fun and fan-friendly, and one of the really great things about small sports like skeleton and bobsled. I have no idea if the feeling would be the same in Germany or Russia, the two powerhouses of the sliding sports, and the Lake Placid Combined Track was built for much smaller crowds than you see on TV in the other venues — doubtless the paucity of tracks in North America and the specific inconvenience of Lake Placid (a five-hour drive from Boston, four hours from NYC, and two hours from Montreal) ensures that there are fewer fans making the trip. Nonetheless, ORDA (the Olympic Regional Development Authority, a New York state agency that owns and operates the Olympic legacy facilities in the Adirondacks) is investing heavily in the Olympic Sports Complex ahead of the 2021 IBSF World Championships and the 2023 Winter Universidade, including a new biathlon stadium and a new base lodge for the Combined Track, as well as new recreational facilities such as a mountain slide partially on the site of the 1932/80 bobsled run.

Skeleton in particular is a very small sport; there are probably only a hundred active skeleton pilots in competition outside of Germany. Everyone knows each other, and many of the smaller teams share coaches and travel together — particularly for European teams on the North American leg of the World Cup. This year, the Austrians and Latvians are working together, and in most of my pictures of the Dukurs brothers from the men’s race, you’ll see Austrian pilot Janine Flock helping out (or carrying their sleds). Another part of the “family” feeling is in the stands; a lot of the fans attend every year, and some of the fans follow their favorite athletes around the whole tour. The racers themselves join the fans when they’re not racing, and I’m not just talking about the hotel breakfasts I shared with the Austrian team: after she came in fourth in the women’s skeleton, Mimi Rahneva tossed her race bib to someone in the audience, and later during the second run of the men’s race, she and another Canadian slider stood right next to me at the finish area to cheer on all of the racers. (Neither of the Canadian men made the cut; for the first run, I’m told the Canadian women had been cheering from the start house in their Ugly Christmas Sweaters.) At the medal ceremony, the American team was standing next to a gas fire right behind me, and I found women’s winner Elena Nikitina standing right next to me, after accepting her own medal, to take pictures of her compatriot Alexander Tretiakov, the winner of the men’s race, on her phone.

It was in general a very Christmasy feeling. The IBSF TV crew were all wearing Christmas Sweaters, and a number of the athletes put on a “Santa hat” while waiting in the leader’s box, especially those who leapfrogged a number of other competitors, either on their own or after encouragement from the spectators. (I particularly remember the two Canadian women next to me shouting to Tomass Dukurs to put the hat on — as this is an outdoor sport, the athletes normally wear team or sponsor hats when not in their racing helmets.)

Because the audience side of the finish area is elevated above track level, many of my photos were taken looking down the track at the athletes sliding up the long, steep outrun into the finish area, or looking down at their heads as they walked past me. While I applied perspective correction in editing to the extent possible, it’s impossible for me to get as good a view or angle on the athletes as the official IBSF photographer, who also didn’t have to shoot around the hands and apparel of other spectators. Also, the men come into the finish with enough momentum to carry them much higher up the ramp, often well past my location, and since Tomass Dukurs leapfrogged half the field, for many of the men I only have pictures of their backsides at best. (Which is not a bad view, if that’s the sort of thing you like, but not something I’m going to publish much of.) For all of these pictures I used my 70–300mm f/4L zoom lens, which is great for looking down the track and perfectly serviceable for the leaders standing in the finish, but isn’t great for someone who is right next to me, whether in the stands or walking up the track accepting congratulations from the fans.

With all that said, here are a few of my favorites:

A few things you’ll notice…. Most of the women have ponytails tucked into their speedsuit hoods. Everyone wears a mouthguard, and the first thing many of the athletes do after taking off their helmets is take it out and tuck it into the neck of their jersey. The German athletes are very disciplined at immediately removing their helmets and putting their knit sponsor hats on (“they do what they’re told” is the reply I got when I noted this to one of the Canadian women). The dock for the truck that takes the athletes and equipment back up to the start house is right next to the leader’s box; if you listen on the TV broadcast, you can hear the truck’s back-up annunciator beeping through the trackside microphones.

One thing you won’t notice: the audience-facing TV monitor was connected through a faulty SDI–HDMI converter and was constantly flaking out; for the first five or so women in run 1, the monitor wasn’t even turned on. The venue staff had a bit of a time getting it to work properly before they hit upon power-cycling the converter, which was mounted on the metal column next to the TV, wrapped in white fabric, rather than on the TV.

One regret: I had three opportunities to find out if Benny and Liz Maier’s child had been born yet, and completely chickened out. (Or I could have congratulated Benny on the happy occasion in the hotel breakfast room!)

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