SPECIAL REPORT

A Rocketeer On Ice

BOBSLEDDER CHRIS LORI COURTS SPEED AND DANGER

PAUL KAIHLA December 2 1991
SPECIAL REPORT

A Rocketeer On Ice

BOBSLEDDER CHRIS LORI COURTS SPEED AND DANGER

PAUL KAIHLA December 2 1991

A Rocketeer On Ice

SPECIAL REPORT

BOBSLEDDER CHRIS LORI COURTS SPEED AND DANGER

Clad in a blue sweat suit, Chris Lori sits reflectively beside a Jacuzzi in a sunlit solarium, looking out onto a trim suburban backyard in Windsor, Ont. But the affluent surroundings are in contrast to the current personal fortunes of Canada’s most decorated bobsled racer. In fact, the sprawling home belongs to Lori’s parents. At 29, the intense, muscular athlete still occupies his childhood bedroom, where a row of stuffed animals adorns one shelf. And despite his ranking in the top flight of world bobsledders—a status confirmed when he placed first early in November in a World Cup competition in Calgary—Lori’s only regular income is a $650-a-month stipend from Sport Canada. Still, after eight years of training and competing in the dangerous, ice-lined vortex of the bobsled track, Lori’s single-minded pursuit of speed may finally be about to pay off. With one World Cup championship season already behind him, from 1989 to 1990, his sights now are set on becoming the second Canadian ever to steer a four-man bobsled to Olympic gold, after Quebecer Victor Emery’s victory at Innsbruck, Austria, in 1964. Said Lori of his team: “We have shown that we can compete with the best in the world.”

Lori’s quest for Olympic victory rests on a supreme confidence in his athletic abilities. Since he was 9, when he could “run faster than any kid on the block,” he has been expecting to compete one day in the Games. While he was a student in administrative studies at London’s University of Western Ontario, where he received a BA in 1986, his performance in the decathlon, a gruelling 10-event contest, earned him a place on the national track-and-field team. But when he failed to qualify for Olympic competition in that sport in 1984, Lori switched his athletic focus to the more promising high-speed endeavor of bobsledding.

It is a sport where the powerful muscles that he developed as a decathlete have proven to be a decisive asset. Both twoand four-man crews try to gain maximum momentum as they push sleds—weighing up to 700 lb.— for about 30 m into the downhill chute, before jumping aboard and letting gravity take over. An explosive start is essential to victory. But equally important is the driver’s

precise control over the steering ropes attached to a sled’s runners as it hurtles down the mile-long icy course, reaching speeds of up to 95 m.p.h. At that velocity, the track’s looping turns create pressures many times the force of gravity, so powerful that crew members cannot lift their heads from their customary tuck. Lori’s teammates—John Graham, 26, of Calgary, Ken LeBlanc, 23, of Beaverton, Ont., and Douglas Currier, 24, of Prescott, Ont.—are relying on their helmsman for more than simple victory. At racing speeds, even a split-second loss of control can lead to a spectacular crash.

Lori wears the marks from one disaster. A vivid scar stretches across his chin from his neck to just above the right side of his mouth. It is a constant reminder of a crash in 1987 in Cervinia, Italy, when he flipped his sled at 80 m.p.h. The impact broke his nose and collarbone and tore a piece of flesh from his face. Back in competition in just six weeks, Lori underwent reconstructive facial surgery a year later. Now, says Lori, he no longer gets “a big rush from hurtling down a hill. I am concentrating so much on calculating the turns and feeling the pressures of the track that it’s far from a joyride. It’s a very tense, competitive situation.”

Indeed, the edge of victory is razor thin. When he steered his four-man team to a World Cup gold medal on Nov. 6 in Calgary, he beat the second-place German team by a mere 0.14 seconds. Two weeks later, his team placed sixth in a race at Winterberg, Germany—trailing the leader by less than a second. To restore his competitive edge before the Games, Lori plans to spend eight days in December mapping and videotaping the turns and straightaways of the Olympic track at La Plagne, France. Then, in early January, his team will fly to Calgary for two weeks of training. There, Lori’s 12-hour daily regimen will include a gruelling routine in which the five-foot, 11-inch athlete bounces up and down while holding a 200-lb. barbell on his shoulders. It will be a sweat-and-pain-filled last few weeks of preparation for the Olympic stage. But, says Lori with an optimism tempered by realism, “Winning medals is worth everything, and so is making Canadians proud—those few who recognize our existence.”

PAUL KAIHLA in Windsor