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Tuesday, February 19, 2002
Updated: February 20, 3:09 AM ET
U.S. hopes to dig up several skeleton medals

By Anne Marie Cruz
ESPN The Magazine


PARK CITY, Utah -- Rocketing down the Bear Hollow bobsled track at upwards of 82 mph, they hurtle headfirst on tricked-out Flexible Flyers, fearlessly diving into icy corners and curves at mindbending angles.

As the sliders try to tame this glistening, slippery serpent, the chinstraps of their helmets sometimes gouge the ice when the force of 4 G's slams their skulls downward. Skeleton sliders are a tangle of explosive speed, adrenaline and instinct, and there is no room for thought, much less error.

As friends and family mob the track for a millisecond glimpse of these human missiles, three Americans, Chris Soule, Jim Shea, Jr., and Lincoln DeWitt, would love nothing more than to welcome the sport back to the Olympics on Wednesday by cementing the United States' dominance. At the '48 Games, two brothers from New Haven, Conn., stood atop the podium. And this motley skeleton crew actually has a shot -- albeit a small one -- at sweeping the medals.

"We're three of the fastest skinny people in the world," says DeWitt, a 34-year-old Park City transplant via Syracuse, N.Y., and Pownal, Vermont. "But it's next to impossible. I'd say three in the top ten."

U.S. coach Ryan Davenport agrees.

"We'd be happy with two in the top five and three in the top ten," says the two-time world cup champ from Calgary, who's been working with the team since 1999 and has made the sleds four of the five U.S. team members will use in the competition.

Soule is a little more optimistic. "I can definitely picture a sweep," says Soule, the No. 2-ranked slider in the world and a part-time Hollywood actor from Trumbull, Conn. So far, this week's results say Soule might know something no one else does: In the second training run on Sunday, Soule, Shea and DeWitt finished 1-2-4.

Of the remaining four runs Soule raced in, he won another, finishing second twice and third once. Soule's pushes barely scratch the top ten, but he more than makes up for it with his driving.

The Bear Hollow course is a gliding track that rewards subtler drivers like Soule, who just turned 29 on Feb. 5. He developed his feel for the ice after nearly a decade of competing on the World Cup circuit in Europe, often penniless, and sleeping with no heat in the back of a borrowed station wagon.

Meanwhile, Shea, Soule's longtime pal and teammate, consistently notches the top-five starts, despite significant bowleggedness, thanks to a modified sprint in which his legs churn around each other like egg beaters. "I run like a blender," says Shea, a third-generation winter Olympian from Lake Placid, N.Y.

Jim would love to add an Olympic medal to the World Cup silver he won this year, in honor of his grandfather, Jack Shea. Jack, a double-gold-winning speedskater at the '32 Lake Placid Games, died on Jan. 22, less than a month before he would have watched Jim race in these Games.

Although DeWitt hasn't finished in the top three this week, the hometown favorite devours pressure. Up here, DeWitt can use his top-three sprint to his advantage, since this Olympic track is shorter than most at just under 1,500 meters, and somewhat favors big pushes. Almost exactly a year ago, DeWitt won his first World Cup event -- thereby also finishing the 2000-01 season No. 1 in the world -- on his last run, toppling Austrian Martin Rettl. And at the team trials in January, DeWitt leapfrogged from third to first after a blistering final run, earning an Olympic berth.

Luckily for the Americans, this year's overall World Cup champ, Gregor Staehli of Switzerland, has been struggling on this track. Staehli's push times were No. 1 for all but one run this year but, amazingly, he's only cracked the top 20 three times in six runs. On the other hand, Martin Rettl's training has mirrored Soule's, with four top-three finishes.

The U.S. women are both medal threats as well. Tristan Gale, born and bred in Salt Lake City, loves this track and finished second twice in training. And Lea Ann Parsley, who carried the WTC flag during Opening Ceremonies, won two of the runs.

The 21-year-old Gale should be easy to spot, though she's only 5-foot-2, 110 pounds. Gale's gameface always includes iridescent smears of glitter that she makes sure to wipe on her coaches and teammates. And she's also promised to dye her hair red, white and blue.

Parsley, a seventh-generation McCoy (of the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feuds), wants to avenge her seventh-place finish at Bear Hollow last season. The 33-year-old Granville, Ohio, resident will have to knock off rivals like two-time defending World Cup champ Alex Coomber of Great Britain, who won last February's World Cup here, as well as three of the training runs.

But fighting off Coomber should be cake compared to what Parsley does for a living. Ohio's Firefighter of the Year in 1999, Parsley rescued a disabled teen and his unconscious mother from the fiery wreckage of their mobile home.

Anne Marie Cruz writes for ESPN The Magazine.