Troubled U.S. Bobsled Team Races For A Championship

U.S. bobsled racers triumphed at the 2010 Winter Olympics, but it's been tough sledding ever since. The American team has lost big sponsors and struggled to win big races. This weekend, the world's top sled teams face off in Lake Placid, N.Y., for the world championships. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports that American athletes hope the home-track advantage will give them a shot at a medal.

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The best bobsled racers in the world are in Lake Placid, New York this weekend, competing in the World Championships. There's big drama this year for the American team. After capturing a historic gold medal two years ago at the winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, the U.S. has struggled, and lost ground to the Europeans. As North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, American sledders hope to prove on their home track that they can still compete.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: A couple of years ago, when Steve Holcomb led the U.S. bobsled team to its first Olympic gold medal in 62-years, it was taken as a sign that the Americans were back.

STEVE HOLCOMB: You know, the United States used to be, you know, a major player back, you know, back in the '20s, '30s, and '40s, '50s, and then we kind of, you know, lost momentum a little bit and their program suffered. And now we're on our way back and it's just huge to finally, you know, break through and get...

MANN: At a press conference after his win in Vancouver, Holcomb said America had finally matched the sleek sled designs and technology used by other teams, especially those from Europe.

HOLCOMB: Without Bodine, we'd be, you know, trying to buy sleds from the Germans or the Swiss, hoping they would give us a good sled and obviously they're not going to give us, you know, the top sleds.

MANN: Geoff Bodine is a former NASCAR driver who made a kind of second career using motor sport technology and design techniques to boost the speed of American sleds. But last year, Bodine and the U.S. bobsled team parted ways and since then, the American team has struggled again.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Start one for John.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE AND BELLS)

MANN: It's training day at the long, plummeting sled track here in Lake Placid. One of the top American bobsled drivers, John Napier, sprints along the ice, launching down the winding chute.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBSLED ON ICE)

MANN: Things got so bad this year that Napier and the rest of the U.S. team actually sat out the end of the World Cup circuit, returning home early to Lake Placid to prep for this weekend's world championships. Napier says there is real disappointment that the team hasn't capitalized on its Olympic success.

JOHN NAPIER: Most of the season's been challenging. Olympic year I was ranked fourth in the world, so this year being ranked back in 15th, 16th in the world is a struggle.

MANN: In the best of times, it's tough for American winter sport athletes. Away from the bright lights of the Winter Olympics, American audiences and sponsors tend to lose interest, and it's been even tougher building support through the recession.

NAPIER: Olympic year, we had some of the best sleds in the world, and the best equipment. It was evident with Steve Holcomb winning. It seems like we kind of got complacent for a year or two. And the difference between one or two years, that complacency turned into the other nations having equal equipment or even better now. And so now we're playing catch-up.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBSLED ON ICE)

MANN: The American sledders training here dread the idea of slumping back into a long medal drought. The World Championships this weekend will be a test of just how much work the U.S. has to do - both on and off the ice - to recapture their place at the top of the podium. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

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