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Utah Olympic Park

I’m not even crazy about riding the rollercoaster at Six Flags Over Texas, in my own backyard. So I’m not sure what possessed me when I volunteered to climb aboard the Winter Comet Bobsled Ride at Utah Olympic Park.

One of several venues for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, the park hosted 300,000 spectators that year for Nordic ski-jumping, bobsled, skeleton, and luge events. Today the 400-acre development near Park City, Utah, is a year-round training, competition, and recreation venue for athletes of all stripes, from beginner to elite.

And then, one day in early February, there was also me.

The Comet Bobsled, billed as “the ride of a lifetime,” features a four-person metal sled that barrels down a narrow, twisting, ice-coated Olympic track with a professional driver, at speeds exceeding 80 mph. The experience costs $200 per person, covers nearly a mile, and takes barely a minute from start to finish.

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Affecting a calm appearance before the big ride, the author poses with the bobsled he’ll ride at Utah Olympic Park.

Riders need to be at least 16 years old, the organizers stress—and in good health, with no history of neck, back, kidney, heart, or blood-pressure problems.

If that “good health” part was a warning signal, my anxieties ramped up big-time in the pre-ride briefing room, where about 30 of us had gathered for the bobsled orientation session. Amanda, who would do the orienting, divided the class into groups of three and assigned each of us to a bobsled.

Then she showed a generic Winter Olympics film while we signed liability waivers for the ride, one by one. After that she strode to the head of the room like a friendly but no-nonsense schoolmarm.

“You will experience G-forces of 4 to 5,” Amanda began. “You’ll be going 80 to 85 miles per hour. The ride will cover 8/10 of a mile, and take 52 or 53 seconds. You will go around 15 corners.”

In other words, we quickly realized, this was going to be pretty serious business.

“All the pilots are totally well-qualified. One driver holds an Olympic medal,” she said. “You will wear a helmet, and it should be snug. You should not wear a hat under your helmet. The visor should go down when the buzzer sounds to start the ride.

“The person in the No. 2 position, behind the pilot, will have the least aggressive ride,” Amanda continued. “The No. 4 person will have the most authentic, most aggressive, most intense spot.

“You’ll get into the bobsled standing, then sit down. Shrug your shoulders during the ride, in order to stabilize your neck. Grab onto the cables and push outward. Out and up. Sit straight up. And, don’t forget to breathe.

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Passengers aboard the Winter Comet Bobsled Ride travel at speeds of up to 85 mph. Photo courtesy Utah Olympic Park

 

“In the unlikely event that the bobsled flips over, keep your torso and limbs in the bobsled.”

Out in the crowd, one wise-cracker yelled, “If it flips, do we get a re-ride?”

“No,” Amanda replied coolly. “But you will get a refund.”

Such an accident had occurred only twice since 1997, she assured us. Which was … encouraging?

“When the ride is over, we’ll have hot chocolate, water, and coffee for you,” Amanda concluded, allowing a smile at last. “Scotch, you’ll have to get afterward.”

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Just before takeoff the author assumes the bobsled’s back-most or No. 4 position, which offers the most intense and aggressive ride.

 

With that we headed out into the freezing cold, where the bobsleds were waiting. I’d been assigned to ride with Lisa and Jeff, a 30-something couple from San Diego.

Our pilot would be a young man named Landon Phillips. A racer for the U.S. Olympic team, Landon also was a bobsled racer on the America’s Cup circuit for three years.

A crew moved our sled into place, and we clambered aboard. As I’d volunteered to take the fourth position, behind Jeff, I carefully placed my outstretched legs on either side of him, then reached my arms out to grab hold of the cables, per Amanda’s instructions.

Shrug your shoulders, I told myself. Sit up straight. Don’t forget to breathe.

With that, we were off.

And, I do mean off. The experience to come would be fast and scary, as indicated by these notes I scribbled shortly afterward:

Immediately, we’re into a harrowing ride. Bouncing off the sides of the track. Jesus Christ! I thought. Faster and faster, one hairpin turn after another, holding onto the cables for dear life. Jeff must have heard the string of expletives I let loose: “Oh my God, oh s***, Jesus Christ, f***, s***.” How much longer? How many more turns? The longest 55 seconds I’ve ever spent. It’s finally over, and we stop. A guy strolls over to us and I’m slow to get out, frankly feeling a little dazed. “You all right, sir?” he asks. “Oh, yeah,” I mumble.

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The bobsled ride is over in less than a minute. Photo courtesy Utah Olympic Park

But Lisa, who’d taken the second position behind Landon, couldn’t have been more pumped. “That was fun!” she chirped. “Let’s do it again!” And: “It wasn’t as extreme as I thought it would be.”

Had we just taken the same ride? I wondered, as we drove back up to the starting point in the bed of a covered truck.

The experience was far more extreme than I’d expected. I was happy it was over, for sure. And, with apologies to Lisa, Jeff, and Landon, I wasn’t about to be doing it again.

(The winter bobsled ride at Utah Olympic Park is closed for the summer now. But it’s scheduled to reopen on Nov. 29. Bobsled rides are still available in the summer, for $75 per person.) This trip was provided by the Utah Office of Tourism and the Park City Chamber/Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.