Tracks run downhill in skeleton racing, which seems appropriate given the direction of U.S. results since Jim Shea and Tristan Gale swept gold medals when the sport returned to the Olympic program at Salt Lake City in 2002.
On top of the mountain then.
On a downward spiral ever since.
The 2006 Olympic season for the U.S. skeleton team was wrecked by drama, dysfunction, accusations and scandal. And the buildup to the 2010 Vancouver Games might be even more troubling, considering none of the issues that derailed U.S. hopes four years ago exists today — replaced instead by a baffling string of disappointing results.
No U.S. skeleton racer has made it to a World Cup podium this season. Americans collected only three World Cup medals last season, two of those coming on a home track in Park City, Utah. The last time an U.S. slider won an international race was Feb. 1, 2008, when Katie Uhlaender capped her second World Cup overall championship with a victory at Konigssee, Germany.
If nothing else, it's given the team plenty to think about during this Christmas break — with Olympic racing at the Whistler Sliding Center less than two months away.
"There's some concerns," said U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation CEO Darrin Steele. "I think the break will give the coaches and the skeleton athletes a chance to reflect on where they are and what it's going to take to get back to where they've been before. It's not new territory for them being on the podium. It just hasn't happened this season or most of last season. There's certainly some work to be done."
And time is running short.
Eric Bernotas is the top American in the men's World Cup standings, sitting in ninth place, two spots ahead of Zach Lund, who nearly made the 2002 Olympic team. Lund did make the 2006 roster only to be booted from the Turin Games hours before the opening ceremony in a doping scandal over a hair-restoration product, just one of many chapters in the story of Team Turmoil four winters ago.
"I'm still confident," Bernotas said. "I'm not going to doubt myself or my sliding."
For the women, former world champion Noelle Pikus-Pace, who is still bothered by a right leg that was shattered by a runaway bobsled four months before the 2006 games, leads the U.S. side in seventh in the World Cup chase. Uhlaender, who is making her way back to top form after an offseason filled with multiple surgeries to repair a broken kneecap, is ninth.
The U.S. is still hopeful of having three men's sleds in the Olympics, with either Matt Antoine (a bronze medalist in a World Cup on the 2010 Olympic track last season) or John Daly joining Bernotas and Lund. It's almost certain that Pikus-Pace and Uhlaender will be the only two American women racing in Vancouver.
"Our runs look really good and we're clean where other athletes aren't and picking up speed and picking up time, so I don't know at this point what more we can do," Pikus-Pace said. "Once somebody gets on the podium, it seems to snowball and makes it that much easier for someone else to have that confidence. We're doing well being a team ... and it's not because we're not talented enough."
So what's the problem?
No one seems to know, and that's the big worry.
Nerves, always ratcheted up in Olympic season, seem on the cusp of fraying.
"We need to work on some things going into second half," U.S. skeleton coach Martin Rettl, the 2002 Olympic silver medalist for Austria in 2002, said in a USBSF race wrapup on Dec. 18. "I think our athletes need to focus less on external things going on and think more about what they personally need to do. Once we accomplish this, then we can start putting together two good runs and increasing our speed with better push times."
World Cup racing resumes at Konigssee on Jan. 8, followed by another circuit stop at St. Moritz on Jan. 15. Americans have had some strong results on those tracks in the past, so a chance clearly exists to generate some momentum.
The Olympic team will likely be announced after the St. Moritz weekend.
"We all know what got us here," Lund said. "I want to be on my game when it counts. I'm a little disappointed in my results so far, but we're making changes. There's time. It's not ideal, but everybody's still confident and when I get to Whistler, I know I can medal."