In Your Face

THIS MONTH, when an obscure event involving a sled with no brakes and no steering returns to the Olympics after a 54-year hiatus, skeleton racing will feel less like a sport steeped in history and more like a crossover from the X-Games. "It looks extreme," says Park City's Lincoln DeWitt, 34, a candidate for a medal. "It definitely has that Mountain Dew image."

Skeleton involves even scarier body dynamics than the Olympics' other open-sled race, the luge. In both events, competitors shoot themselves down an icy track atop a steel serving tray equipped with razor-sharp runners—but skeleton racers lead with their face, not their feet. Sliding at 80 mph, with a mere two inches of clearance between chin and ice, athletes are all too aware that a mistake can make them look like something Popeye punched out. "When we hit the wall," says 31-year-old racer Tricia Stumpf, also of Park City, "we're covered in bruises."
Though there are no clear front-runners in skeleton, the U.S. stands a pretty good chance. Last season a trio of Americans—DeWitt, Stumpf, and Jim Shea Jr., a native of Lake Placid, New York—captured top-three World Cup or World Championship finishes.

Whoever wins, skeleton is sure to appeal to adrenaline junkies. Though U.S. coach Ryan Davenport insists it's "far safer than luge or bobsled," it's still potentially deadly. Competitors were reminded of that last October, when 33-year-old Girts Ostenieks, a Latvian slider, smashed into a runaway bobsled in Sigulda, Latvia. He died instantly.

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