The act of hurtling headfirst down a frozen track on a tiny sled at speeds upwards of 140 kilometres per hour clearly isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time.
But just ask Eric Neilson what makes him tick, and the 30-year-old from Kelowna will tell you it’s the sport of skeleton.
“The first time I tried (skeleton), it was an incredible rush,” said Neilson. “I remember after the first day, sitting at my house and craving more of it. The speed of it, knowing one little mistake can cost you a race…there’s no feeling like it I’d ever had before. I wanted to do it again.”
A close relative of the winter sports bobsleigh and luge, skeleton requires the athlete—better known within the sport as a slider—to lay face-down on a sled, using their body weight to steer and brake their way down a slick, hard-packed course consisting of several turns.
A skeleton track is generally in the 1,400 to 1,600-metre range and, at the elite level, a run typically lasts about one minute.
It’s a process Eric Neilson continues to work hard at refining during his rookie season on the Skeleton World Cup circuit, and his third year overall with the national program.
Last weekend, the Rutland Senior Secondary graduate was in Altenberg, Germany for the fourth World Cup race of the season where he finished in 13th spot.
In his first three events, Neilson didn’t look the least bit out of place against the world’s elite sliders.
Neilson’s World Cup debut in early December produced a seventh-place showing in Igls, Austria, as the sliders’ times from two runs were combined in the final result.
“At first I was in shock, I couldn’t believe I had a top 10 in my first race,” Neilson said last week from Calgary before departing for Europe. “It was a little overwhelming at first, but then I realized, ‘Hey, I can hang with these top guys.’
“They’re not that much better than me. It gave me the confidence I needed right away.”
Then, a week after crashing at a race in La Plagne, France, Neilson turned in the best performance of his young career with a fifth-place effort just prior to Christmas at a World Cup event in Winterberg, Germany.
“That was a pretty good day for me,” Neilson said of his fifth-place showing. “Everything felt really good, pretty relaxed. I hope I can carry this with me the rest of the season.”
The fact he has developed into a serious contender on the World Cup skeleton circuit would have come as a complete shock to Neilson as recently a few years ago.
He grew up in Kelowna playing basketball, volleyball and rugby, and had barely heard of the sport, let alone knew what competing in skeleton entailed.
But in 2006, while attending the University of Victoria, Neilson was introduced to skeleton for the first time.
Along with a friend, Neilson enrolled in a national skeleton identification camp in Vancouver where prospective athletes were tested for both strength and speed.
Neilson’s attributes impressed Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton enough for the national program to invite him to Calgary for the next phase of the evaluation process.
For the next two years he commuted from Victoria to Calgary for training, before deciding once and for all that skeleton just might be his calling.
Neilson made the national development team for the 2009-10 season and competed on the C level national squad. The next year, he graduated to the B level and competed internationally on the Intercontinental Cup circuit. Then, in year three, he made the final step up to the Canadian A team and the World Cup circuit in 2011-12.
In addition to having a physical make-up conducive to skeleton—6-feet, 200 pounds with strong legs, quads, glutes and hamstrings—those who know Neilson best says he also has the ideal demeanor for the sport.
Canadian sports conditioning coach Kelly Forbes has watched Neilson’s progress closely—both the physical and mental—over the last three seasons.
“He is very even keel,” said Forbes. “You can’t have a lot of emotion in skeleton, you need to be steady and focused. He has this natural quality.
“Physically he is a strong and powerful athlete, one of the strongest on the national team. We have been working on applying his overall athletic ability to the intricacies of the push. It’s starting to get there.”
Because of the high speeds sliders reach on frozen, unforgiving tracks, there are inherent risks involved with the sport of skeleton, and other similar sports such as luge.
In 2010, a Georgian luger lost his life at the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver after striking a metal post on a practise run.
Last year, Neilson crashed at an event in Germany, broke his collarbone and momentarily lost consciousness.
Still, Neilson is largely unfazed by the risks, mostly because life-threatening injuries in the sport are few and far between.
“I try not to think about that side of it too much,” said Neilson. “For the most part, you just end up with bumps and bruises. What happened to the luger in Vancouver is pretty rare. It just doesn’t happen very often.
“I drove back from Kelowna to Calgary after Christmas and there were three accidents on the highway. I’d say you have a bigger chance of something bad happening in a car than on a skeleton track.”
And what does his family back in Kelowna, including parents Brian and Fiona Neilson, think of his life on the international skeleton circuit and the perils attached to the sport ?
“They were a little hesitant at first, but the more they got to know about it, the more comfortable they’ve become,” said Neilson who also has three younger sisters. “They enjoy hearing the stories, my experiences, and they’re very supportive of what I’m doing.”
Much to his family’s satisfaction, it’s been a mostly positive experience for Neilson during his maiden voyage on the World Cup skeleton circuit.
In addition to posting some solid results, he has also managed to achieve a certain degree of fame in Europe where the sport receives a vastly higher profile than in North America.
In his World Cup debut in Austria—an event being televised in English—Neilson took over the lead during the second run and held it for a duration of eight sliders. Before he was knocked from top spot by another slider, Neilson occupied the leader’s box and gained his share of attention from the broadcast crew.
“The commentators were calling me Face Man because every time the cameras stopped on the leader’s box, there was my face,” he said with a laugh. “I stood there until my teammate passed me and took over for me in the box. It was kind of funny, Face Man…something to remember from my first World Cup.”
While the life of a Canadian World Cup skeleton athlete can be both exhilarating and satisfying, it’s certainly not lucrative, as Neilson can attest to.
He does receive some funding from Sport Canada, but has to rely heavily on his budget-crunching abilities to make ends meet.
“It’s not ideal, but I find a way to make it work. I’m not living the high-life, that’s for sure. There are times you get bogged down by the stress of finances…but this is something I really want to do, it’s a lot of fun and that’s the trade-off. Not many people get to say they represent their country, so that’s a big part of it, too.”
Not surprisingly, Neilson’s goal is to represent his country on the ultimate stage, the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
His conditioning coach, Kelly Forbes, thinks Neilson possesses the right stuff to be there.
“Eric has shown that hard work dedication and teamwork is the recipe for success,” said Forbes. “I think he has a legitimate shot of getting his Olympic qualifiers, it should be an exciting two years. I’m looking forward to helping Eric reach his potential and competing for Canada at the highest level.”
For Neilson’s part, he knows the road to 2014 won’t be without its twists and turns, but the Kelowna product plans to do everything in his power to realize his Olympic dream.
“I definitely want to be part of the Olympics in Russia,” he said. “I want to stay in within the top 10 over the next couple of years and give myself the best chance.
“There are a lot of good sliders in Canada, and every year the trials are the most stressful part of the year. That’s how it’ll be leading up to the Olympics. It’ll be a tough dogfight to make the team, but I’m going to give it all I have.”
To follow Neilson’s progress on the Skeleton World Cup tour, visit the Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton web site at bobsleigh.ca.