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Army's U.S. bobsled brakeman has a complex role

Feb. 22, 2014 - 04:44PM   |  
The team from the United States USA-1 start their first run during the men's four-man bobsled competition at the 2014 Winter Olympics on Saturday in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. Army Capt. Chris Fogt is the brakeman for the U.S. team.
The team from the United States USA-1 start their first run during the men's four-man bobsled competition at the 2014 Winter Olympics on Saturday in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. Army Capt. Chris Fogt is the brakeman for the U.S. team. (Natacha Pisarenko/The Associated Press)
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KRASNAYA POLYANA, RUSSIA — Watching a four-man bobsled lurch to life gives novice viewers the impression that it’s simply a matter of run, push, jump and hunker down for an 85-mph ride.

The mental to-do list for USA-1 brakeman Army Capt. Chris Fogt, however, shows the complexity of the busiest person out of the start house. The team placed third, behind Russia and Germany, in Saturday’s first heat of the four-man event. Heat 2 was to follow, with Heats 3 and 4 on Sunday.

It’s a dizzying set of duties for the brakeman, all happening in about five seconds.

The initial responsibility, Fogt explained Thursday as the team finished a pair of training runs in preparation for Olympic competition Saturday and Sunday: Be kind to your neighbor.

“My first job when I get in is to not spike Steve (Langton) in front of me,” said Fogt, a member of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program. “As you can see on our shoes, all those little nails — there’s about 350 of those, and they’re sharp. When I’m jumping in, I could rake his leg, his calf, his Achilles (tendon).

“I’ve got to put my feet in the right spot.”

Duties already have been rushing at Fogt before the spikes go airborne, though.

Fogt must run longer and faster than his three teammates, taking five to eight more steps than pilot Steven Holcomb and entering the sled from a dead sprint, estimated at 22 to 25 mph.

“You’re almost long jumping into the sled,” he said. “You can’t use the handles. As you get more experienced, you learn not to pull yourself in and slow the sled down. You kind of jump off the ice.”

Jumping in

“The brakeman kind of dictates the riding position,” said Fogt, 30. “You want him the lowest. So I’ll hop in and be kind of set, then (Langton) kind of relaxes back into me and Curt (Tomasevicz) kind of relaxes back into him.

“I try to get as low as I can, Steve kind of smashes me even lower and Curt leans back into him. It kind of gives Holcomb enough room to drive.”

Next:

“Then I’ve got to pull down on the ropes to pull in the push bars,” he said. “Getting the push bars in is one of the biggest things. If you don’t get those in and you’re sitting up trying to get those in, you’re a huge wind sail.”

But that’s not all:

“Sometimes you’re in the wrong riding position and someone’s on your foot or on your hand,” Fogt said of where his focus turns at that point in the process. “If you do that, you can’t get low enough, and it messes with the aerodynamics of the sled. If Steve sits on my foot, he’s now three inches higher than he would have been.

“One, it hurts. You’re pulling 5 G’s on your ankle. And two, he’s sitting higher, so your time is slower. It makes for a long minute. Not a New York minute — the exact opposite.”

Fogt, who also competed at the 2010 Olympics before serving a one-year deployment in Iraq, said loading into the sled is a bit like the popular Russian nesting dolls — with each piece fitting uniquely with the others.

“Even though Curt loads first, then Steve loads next, I’m actually the first one to sit down — as weird as it sounds,” he said.

The U.S. is the defending Olympic gold medalist in four-man bobsled, but finished 17th and 16th in the first two training heats Thursday. The Americans are hoping that a left calf strain hampering Holcomb has time to heal before competition starts.

Because, in four-man bobsled, everyone has to work together — starting with the last man in the sled.

“It’s basically putting 880 pounds of man into a bathtub,” Fogt said.

Bryce Miller writes for the Des Moines Register.

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