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For U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, a much smoother ride

WINTER OLYMPICS

Major changes at the governing body have helped put U.S. teams back on a winning track.

February 28, 2010|By Candus Thomson

Reporting from Whistler, Canada — Four years ago, the U.S. bobsled and skeleton team staggered out of Turin, Italy, with one medal and a lot of bad publicity, the heady success of Salt Lake City a wisp of a memory.

It's a different story this time. Noelle Pikus-Pace was a tenth of a second off the podium in women's skeleton and Erin Pac surprised the field in women's bobsled, winning a bronze medal on a track that had Canada and Germany written all over it.

And in the greatest triumph, reigning world champion Steve Holcomb took gold in four-man bobsled Saturday, ending a 62-year drought for the U.S. men.

Companies such as Under Armour have become partners, and the nonprofit Bo-Dyn Sled Project that began building world-class bobsleds 18 years ago in a small shop in Connecticut is moving to a Goodyear facility near Charlotte, N.C. -- the heart of NASCAR country and home to some of the best racing designers.

An audit shows the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation ended its most recent fiscal year in the black.

"We're head and shoulders above where we were in Turin," said Darrin Steele, a two-time Olympian hired as federation CEO in 2007.

"Big change," said John Morgan, a TV analyst and former bobsledder who has seen the federation from inside and out. "There's stability at the top now, and Darrin's the sheriff."

Athletes who have trained under both systems like the tranquillity.

Two-time Olympian Eric Bernotas said that while the turmoil before the Turin Games taught him how to set priorities and be his own business manager, it was an unnecessary distraction.

"The federation has been able to take a lot of that off our hands, preparing us that things might be coming or pick off things before they get to us, allowing us to focus on what we need to do," he said. "It's definitely more professional. . . . They've done a great job, and I think we're all stronger for it."

All looked rosy for the federation in 2002. Skeleton athletes won two gold medals and a silver in Salt Lake City. Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers stood atop the podium in the first women's bobsled competition. In four-man bobsled, Todd Hays and Brian Shimer finished second and third.

The federation went through four interim executive directors in less than six months, and numerous board members quit as factions squabbled. Potential sponsors were turned off.

Just before the 2006 Winter Games, allegations of sexual harassment led to the firing of the skeleton coach. A medal contender in men's skeleton was kicked out of the athletes' village for a failed drug test after he tested positive for a substance that should have been caught by team officials and reported.

"Unfortunately, the future is bleak," board President Jim Shea Jr. wrote to his fellow members after those Olympics. "USBSF is about to run out of money; and there are no prospects for funds to keep the Federation going at this time."

U.S. Olympic officials replaced the board of directors with a business-savvy group and put Steele at the top.

"When the sun sets, everything changes," said Geoff Bodine, the co-founder of the Bo-Dyn project and a former federation board member. "We needed people to work together as a team. We weren't a team, we were confusion."

Morgan said a lack of focus by volunteer boards is understandable.

"If you're getting paid to be a corporate board member, you make decisions with your wallet," said Morgan, interim executive director for nine months in the 1990s. "If you're on a board of directors and you're not getting paid, you're going to make decisions with your ego."

It's not unusual for the wheels to come off at small federations such as bobsled.

American Billy Fiske won gold in 1928 and 1932 in four-man bobsled but rejected the governing board's invitation to race in 1936. In 1952, Stan Benham won silver medals in two-man and four-man, then quit after a similar disagreement.

In 1991, the entire U.S. bobsled board of directors and executive director resigned after an audit by the USOC found financial irregularities.

Steele said today's board is doing what it is supposed to do: asking questions, giving guidance and looking for sponsors.

"We haven't really focused on making sure there's no sexual harassment complaints or failed drug tests or any of the other things that have plagued this organization," he said.

"It's been about putting the process in place that is fair. Following the rules to be fair to all athletes. And don't accept things that aren't acceptable along the way. If you do that, you shouldn't have many surprises."

cthomson@tribune.com

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