With the Olympic bobsled competition not set to start until Sunday and the skeleton on Thursday, the news for the U.S. team has amounted to Johnny Quinn’s Hulkster/Houdini act.
Trapped first in his Sochi hotel bathroom, from which he smashed his way out, and then an elevator, Quinn has unintentionally become the story, until they actually start sliding.
When they do, there will be a more-than-interested observer at Shenendehowa’s High School East building, where a Team USA jacket hangs in Rick Knizek’s training room.
A full-time athletic trainer at the school, Knizek spends his day evaluating, treating and rehabbing athletes from every varsity sport.
In November, when his crazy hectic schedule allowed, Knizek made a 15-day trip to Sochi, Russia, as part of the medical assistance team for the U.S. bobsled team, which also includes the skeleton athletes.
They have a good chance to rake in some medals, and if they do, Knizek will be extra grateful for having had the opportunity to lend a hand in their preparation.
“Knowing that I worked with those individuals who are at the highest level of their sport is a pretty cool thing,” he said last Friday. “I take no credit, but I’m happy to be working with such a great group of athletes.”
Many of the stories away from competition, like the extraordinary security measures and the infrastructure glitches, ring true for Knizek.
Once the bobsledders and skeleton sliders begin their events, the intensity and demands of competition will also echo, because the prep session in November was designed to replicate the Olympics as much as possible, without actual scoring pressure and the crush of spectators.
There was pressure to perform, though, Knizek said, because the training work had to serve two important purposes — getting the sliders attuned to the course and giving the BMW and Bo-Dyn tech teams the opportunity to tweak the sleds, the physics and aerodynamics of which are complex.
“It’s a mental sport,” Knizek said. “A lot of people don’t realize how you’ve got to learn how each track is. Each one’s different, the curves and the straight and uphills and downhills.
“You learn by repetition. You get reps in football, for example, practicing the same plays over and over again.”
Knizek speaks from experience, because he has competed as a bobsledder.
The Shen graduate attended bobsledding as a spectator at the 1980 Games in Lake Placid with his father, and ended up in a sled with his friend Holli Nirsberger (nee Mulholland), a phys ed teacher and soccer coach at Shen.
Her father, Jack, was a U.S. Olympian in 1972 at Sapporo, Japan, and she gave it a go at the 2002 Empire State Games, with Knizek as a push athlete.
“I was pretty well-versed in the sport, which is one of the reasons they [Team USA] asked me to help out,” Knizek said.
The following year, Knizek did a rotation with the U.S. Olympic Committee in Chula Vista, Calif., one of three training centers.
That laid the groundwork for future invitations to work camps and eventually as a member of the pool of people the bobsled team uses in competition.
Knizek worked a World Cup competition in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 2012 and a few of the ones in Lake Placid.
Last year, he was asked to work the international training week in Sochi, at which every nation with a bobsled/skeleton team prepped for the Games.
“We did all of the behind-the-scenes pregame stuff that goes into bobsledding,” he said. “Most people don’t realize that it’s pretty extensive.”
Knizek’s job was to keep the athletes in working order.
Other than acute injuries due to crashes (Team USA suffered none during training week), bobsledders are prone to chronic overuse problems, especially in the lower extremities.
“They’re pushing a 400-pound sled as fast as they can and then jumping in,” Knizek said. “So it’s a lot of hip, low back, quad, hamstring . . . it’s a lot of muscle and soft tissue stuff.
“We do see a lot of concussions in skeleton, because they don’t have the bobsled to tuck under and hide. When they hit the ice, they hit the ice.”
The Sanki Sliding Center is an hour away from the palm trees and beaches of Sochi in Krasnaya Polyana, home of the Rosa Khutor ski resort.
Up in the mountains, the climate and terrain resemble Colorado or Utah, Knizek said. Wherever you go, people encounter the police state that became necessary when Russian president Vladimir Putin chose to put the Olympic site next to Chechnya, separated only by the Caucasus Mountain range.
Even as the bobsledders were going through a dry run, security was in full force.
When Knizek’s group got on the bus at 2:30 a.m. for the flight home, they were stopped in the middle of nowhere a half-hour later for a full search of passports, visas and credentials.
One young push athlete faced the threat of arrest because his bearded face didn’t quite match his clean-shaven passport picture.
Knizek said Team USA likes the relatively slow track, which is less technical than courses like the one in Lake Placid.
A strong World Cup season, especially for the men’s bobsleds, gives Team USA some serious medal potential.
“Whether they hit the podium or not, the nice thing for me is I know who they are, I’ve worked with them, spent some time with them,” Knizek said. “Having that personal connection is pretty fulfilling.”