Hempfield Area Vaulter Gets Good Grip On Icy Sport

"It's not like a smooth rollercoaster. It feels pretty violent the whole way down, and it's loud in your helmet, a lot louder than you think. It's tough on the body, and some of the older athletes, it takes it out of them. It beats them up bad, even the good runs."

-Michael Dionne, U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, describing a typical skeleton run


To the average person, running as fast as you can down a 42-inch wide runway and then planting the tip of the 13- to 15-foot fiberglass pole you have been carrying into a rhomboid-shaped metal depression, allowing yourself to be propelled skyward as you flip your head toward the ground and your feet skyward above your head, rotating your then vertical body 180-degrees before eyeballing an inches-thick fiberglass bar and slinking over it all while battling gravity to stay aloft, would be pretty cool and daring, right?

For Hempfield Area's Lukas Kissel, the aforementioned activity is kind of like leaning over to pick up the day's newspaper.

The senior pole vaulter took a couple breaks from the Spartans' 2020 indoor schedule so he could launch himself headfirst into a new pursuit -- skeleton. And thus far, the 18-year-old has shown promise in the challenging winter sport that has athletes pulling as many as 5 g's as they take high-banked ice curves at up to 80 miles per hour.

"The theory is that we believe that a gymnast (or) a pole vaulter, with that body awareness that they have, should transfer over into the sliding sports with relative ease of being in that comfort level of the danger zone," Michael Dionne, director of Athlete Development for U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (USBSF), said of athletes who might have a leg up in the early stages of transitioning to these sports. "They are kind of used to that. They've got to push themselves through those moments of scary times so I think that part of the learning curve is definitely a lot better for those athletes.

"We've got some pole vaulters in our higher end development right now that have that background. Definitely a good transfer over, and as long as they have the really good speed aspect to it, it works out really well."

And working out well is an apt way to describe the Hempfield Area senior's progress after putting together a solid performance initially in USBSF's dry-land combine session and his initial sliding experiences at the two bobsled/skeleton tracks in the United States: Lake Placid, N.Y., site of the 1932 and '80 Olympics, and Park City, Utah, host site for these events in the 2002 Games.

"This prepped me in the sense that I was good at feeling the differences in the g's, like the negative g's in coming back down (in the pole vault)," Kissel said in comparing his risky athletic pursuits after sliding at Lake Placid in mid-January. "In skeleton, when you hit a corner, you might hit like 3 g's and then when you come off the corner you might hit -2. You feel that weightlessness, and then you hit another corner and you're into like 3 g's.

"I was more comfortable with that going in. I was unsure what to expect, but when I went through it, I really was comfortable. When those big positive g's hit, like the 5 g's, I was going half blacked out on some turns. (The second day there) I was more comfortable with it and more accustomed to those g's."

2010 Olympics provided the spark

Kissel was drawn to the sliding sports while watching the 2010 Olympics at Vancouver, Canada, and hearing about the late Steve Holcomb, who broke decades-long droughts for the U.S. in earning bobsled medals in 2010 and '14 after battling a degenerative eye disorder that almost stole his sight and his athletic career. Kissel's interest in and desire to succeed in the sliding sports went up a notch or two when he attended a USBSF combine in July 2018 at East Tennessee State.

Although his initial try at the timed sprints, standing broad jump and underhand 16-pound shot put toss of the combine wasn't what he hoped for in terms of seconds and meters, meeting U.S. Olympians provided all the motivation the aspiring slider needed to try again.

"I thought that was a really cool thing, and I think that's what motivated me to go back again (in 2019 to Lake Placid)," Kissel said. "It also was a really helpful experience because I was familiar with how the combine worked. That I think really helped me be able to increase my combine score the next year and maybe even grab the attention of Coach Dionne."

His fifth-place standing and point total not far from the expected level for senior team hopefuls got Kissel "on our radar," Dionne said.

"We typically do not recruit that young from where I am sitting as head of development," Dionne said of bringing in new sliding candidates. "Right now, we really have to keep a focus on our senior development, just because of resources. I've been really careful that we get a good quality athlete with a lot of athleticism before we make that commitment, and Lukas had that.

"We look for athletes at our senior level for 500-plus points when they do that combine. He didn't quite score 500, but he was close and very good scores for his age. I know he's going to develop and get better at that kind of thing. He's really the second one that I've recruited at that 16-18 age range that we've brought on."

Once Kissel got the call from Dionne that he had cleared the first barrier and it was time to see how he would fare on the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Olympic Bobsled Run in New York's Adirondack Mountains, the senior was thrust into the balancing act of finding time for academics, his indoor track schedule and skeleton.

"It was like a screening camp, more or less to see if I like the sport and if I could handle the sport and the risks taken into it," Kissel said of his weeklong trip to the venue long on Olympic history. "Most of the athletes were taking two or three runs a day, I took four or five. It was my first week. I really wanted to try this out, and I had so much fun doing it, too. It was cool to go up there, and I was happy to see that they wanted me to continue pursuing the sport."

Skeleton 101

When asked to compare skeleton to the experience of heading over to the closest big hill and going down headfirst on a Flexible Flyer, Dionne pointed out the obvious similarities and the stark, terrifying differences.

"You're jumping on that sled, you're lying face down, headfirst and there's no brakes," Dionne said of a skeleton sled, which weighs in at about 100 pounds and places its rider only inches from the icy run. "There's no drag my feet and stop this sled, which you can do typically in your backyard or hill in the neighborhood. When this thing takes off, it's gone and there's no stopping it.

"These curves are coming at you at 70-80 mph depending on the track. And you've got to make those real precise steering points happen, or it's going to beat you up. You're going to take a beating. That's what is very tough with skeleton when you first start out. You will get black and blue arms for sure because you are missing these steers because you are not used to it, so you beat yourself up pretty bad. When you start to master it, it becomes a lot of fun, certainly very exciting and you just want to take trip after trip." 

With that in mind, newcomers like Kissel get a Sledding 101 introduction before they incorporate the all-out sprint start while keeping their sled in place on the ice from starting points farther up the skeleton run.

"When I was getting ready for my first run, I was in the start house for Start 4," Kissel recalled. "I wasn't as nervous as I thought I was going to be. I went out there, laid my sled down, got on and had (skeleton coach and Olympic medalist) Matt Antoine push me into it. Main purpose of runs from start 4 are to learn to be calm while sliding, and I would describe the feeling during my first run as underlying fear. I was nervous while sliding but I took the advice and pushed it aside and learned to cope with these conditions."

At the end of February, Kissel skipped the TSTCA indoor championships in Edinboro to join other sliding sport athletes for a training camp in Park City. The nearly 2-week-long event ended with the Western Regionals, the teen's first competition that included at least one member of Team USA. Only about half as old as others in the field and with just two weeks of sliding to his credit, Kissel put his pole vault spikes to good use, improving his start time to under 5 seconds and into the top half of the 18-man field as he continued to refine steering his way through the final 49 seconds of a run.

Kissel said his preconceived notion of having "little to no way" to direct the skeleton sled was far from the truth. He said with experience comes more control of the sled, with changes in body position by the slider being the most effective way to "distort the sled's shape to change direction."

With youth definitely on his side, Kissel appears to have a future in the sliding sports.

"If we told him he could slide 20 times that day, he would have done it," Dionne said of the Hempfield Area senior. "He loves being out there, and he loves doing it. Unfortunately with our older athletes, we don't get that. They are a little bit more cautious or wise might be the correct word. They have a little bit of wisdom to them of trying to pace themselves. 

"He is going to get a lot of reps and learn that way. We know there's no better teacher than just repetition." 

The next step for Kissel in a very lengthy maturation process as a skeleton athlete is a trip back to Lake Placid to practice starts on the dry-land push track where track stars such as Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams began their careers in bobsled. Dionne estimates a minimum of eight years of training before a skeleton athlete is "seasoned enough" to be competing at the World Cup level or have a chance at Olympic medals.

"I really enjoyed the experience," Kissel said of the training camp in Utah. "There is so much I learned from watching these athletes and talking with them about what I can fix and how they overcame the same issues. I feel that under the circumstances of it being my second week ever sliding and Park City being a new track, I did pretty well at sliding the course.

"I know that there is a lot I can improve on, but Park City was definitely a good trip because I improved my time by 2.31 seconds from my first run off the top to my 55.04-second run at Western Regionals at the end of the week. So I definitely improved."