Rohbock: 'They went a little overboard'
A strong medal contender was among two Swiss athletes to withdraw Friday from Olympic bobsled events after scary crashes, on a day when an American bobsledder said the venue where a luger was killed last week could generate speeds that are too dangerous.
Swiss-1 driver Beat Hefti, this season's overall World Cup champion, pulled out of two-man because of a concussion in a crash Wednesday. He hasn't decided whether to race in the four-man, which starts next Friday.
Swiss driver Daniel Schmid, who was not a medal favorite and has had previous problems on the track, pulled out of the two-man and four-man bob for "safety reasons" after two practice crashes.
"It's just so fast," American women's bobsledder Shauna Rohbock said, later adding, "I think they went a little overboard on this track."
On Friday, Schmid's sled overturned during training and his brakeman, Juerg Egger, was taken from the track in an ambulance, then flown to Vancouver for observation. A team doctor said there were no serious injuries.
"He has a cervical spine injury," Christian Schlegel, Switzerland's bobsled doctor, said of Egger. "He can walk, he has no motor function disruption."
A statement said Schmid's decision to drop out was made jointly between the Swiss team and bobsled officials.
At least 11 two-man bobsleds spilled sideways in the first two days of training earlier this week. There was one crash during training Friday night when Esme Kamphuis of the Netherlands tipped over and slid through the final corners. On Saturday, a Russian sled lost control just past the midway point of the course. No injuries were reported.
Rohbock and many of the women's bobsledders who will compete on the track next week got their first on-ice look at the facility during a supplemental training session Friday night.
The extra session was added by international officials earlier this week to help racers familiarize themselves with the demanding track.
The session was added after the death last Friday of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who was killed when he lost control of his sled in the final curve at the Whistler Sliding Center track and hit a steel pole.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Rohbock, the silver medalist at the 2006 Turin Games, said she has felt the track was too fast since testing out the course for the first time nearly two years ago.
It's so quick, Rohbock said, that women's sleds will "be breaking the men's track record by race time. It's ridiculous."
Rohbock said speeds in the final turns of the 16-curve track were pushing the boundaries of what she thought she could handle.
"I wish everybody knew what we saw at the bottom," Rohbock said. "Your brain almost can't catch up with what your hands need to do. I think at some point it's going to exceed that and that's when problems will happen."
It's abundantly clear that it's a technically challenging track. I think the skeleton competition the past few days showed that it's fast and challenging and makes for great racing, and that's what the sport is about.” -- Bobsled federation spokesman
Asked if she has ever experienced speeds similar to the ones on Whistler's track, she said, "Never."
"St. Moritz is one of the fastest tracks, but it's spread out. I think the problem here is the curves are back to back in the bottom. They are really close and with the speed and having them back to back as soon as you get in trouble it just multiplies, and then it's trouble."
Rohbock said officials have discussed sanding the runners on the bobsleds beyond what's typical to slow them down in competition, which she thinks would be a good idea.
"I think it's smart to sand the runners down because it may exceed what our brains can compute to our hands," she said.
"We're pushing super slow and have our runners sanded at a stupid grit. ... It's stupid fast," Rohbock said while standing trackside with her brakeman, Michelle Rzepka, after two runs down Blackcomb Mountain.
Sanding runners slows down bobsleds, and is not necessarily uncommon when conditions warrant.
FIBT spokesman Don Krone said runners are always sanded to adjust to the conditions of any track. The coarser the steel, the slower the sled.
"It's a fast and technical track, and I'm not going to respond to individual comments by athletes," Krone said. "It's abundantly clear that it's a technically challenging track. I think the skeleton competition the past few days showed that it's fast and challenging and makes for great racing and that's what the sport is about."
In interviews after the first round of official training Saturday, most of Rohbock's colleagues agreed that the Whistler track is incredibly fast, with Canadian Helen Upperton -- who has more than 150 runs on the surface -- saying it pushes drivers "close to the limit."
Of the 14 drivers who made themselves available after training Saturday, only one -- American Erin Pac -- said she didn't feel completely safe on the ice. Pac, though, also said that while the course is "definitely a challenge," high speed is "part of the sport." She also said she had no reservations about competing on the track.
"I have not made it through the 50-50 once yet clean," said Pac, referring to the area around Curve 13 that picked up the moniker last year after a number of men's sleds crashed around that point. "And every time it's a huge struggle for me. The track has been different every time we've come here and you just have to re-learn how to get through there and I clearly have not learned it yet."
Still, some continue to offer the place rave reviews.
"It's my favorite track in the world," Romanian driver Carmen Radenovic said.
Seven drivers were unavailable for comment, including three Germans, who cited a scheduling conflict. Through a team spokeswoman, they said they had no concerns about the track.
In early 2008, Rohbock was one of several top drivers invited by officials to test-drive at the track while it was being completed.
Even then, she said she believed problems could arise.
"We voiced that concern, and they just thought it would be OK," Rohbock said. "But I think now they are realizing that it's not going to be OK."
Despite her apprehensions of sliding down the track at 80-plus mph, Rohbock said she was still willing to compete on it.
"We are all aware of the dangers of the sport, but when somebody ends up dying it gives you pause," she said.
While Rohbock is an experienced driver, not everyone in the women's field is as familiar with the Whistler track.
Data released by the International Federation of Bobsleigh and Tobogganing shows that while top drivers like Rohbock and Germany's Sandra Kiriasis have nearly 40 runs apiece in Whistler, others have less than one-fifth that many.
Australian bobsledder Astrid Loch-Wilkinson has eight official runs down the track, while Ireland's Aoife Hoey had just six, according to the data.
Despite the speed and safety concerns of some competitors, others find the track exhilarating.
"We just went 145 km/hr...that's fast!!!," U.S. women's brakeman Elana Meyers said on Twitter, referring to the metric equivalent of 90 mph. "WOO HOO! Day 1 of training complete!"
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.