Steamboat native trains for Olympics

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Some parents hide their eyes or pace atop the bleachers when watching their children play sports. They get so nervous that it's tough for them to watch. Richard and Leslie Sorensen are a little different. They just welcome the opportunity to see their youngest daughter, Rebecca, at all.

In the sport of skeleton, in which racers typically drop the equivalent of 40 stories in 50 seconds -- at 80 mph across a sheet of ice -- the opportunity to catch anything other than a blur is an abnormality.

"In 5.23 seconds, she's out of sight," Leslie Sorensen said. "It's Mom and Dad and friends and family catching a glimpse as she flies by. Skeleton is a sport in a glimpse."

Rebecca Sorensen, or Becca as she prefers to be called, knew nothing about skeleton until the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Although some justifiably think the idea of sliding down a twisting, turning sheet of ice with nothing more than a helmet on for protection is crazy, Sorensen, who was born in Steamboat Springs, was entranced by the danger.

She saw Americans Jim Shea Jr. and Tristan Gale capture gold on the Park City, Utah, tracks. Sorensen had to give the sport a try.

"I was watching people that I knew in bobsled, and a big splash came on about skeleton," Sorensen said. "It was amazing to see them go down head first. I was totally drawn to it. I called the federation and asked, 'What's the deal with skeleton?'"

The U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation received thousands of inquiries from interested athletes, so they held a recruiting tour on the East Coast. Sorensen, who initially hoped to make the Olympics in track and field, packed her bags and flew from Los Angeles to Buffalo, N.Y., for a tryout.

The worst-case scenario?

"At least I'd see Niagara Falls and make a vacation of it," Sorensen said.

Sorensen wound up with much more than a vacation. She performed well at the tryout, and at 5-foot-6, 125 pounds, the petite woman was pushed toward skeleton, a solo event, because bobsled -- and gravity -- favors heavier, taller women.

Federation officials invited her to Lake Placid, N.Y., home of the USBSF and one of three national Olympic training centers, in December 2002, nearly one year after the Utah Games.

"It was unbelievable," Sorensen said. "We only started halfway up the track. You are all padded up -- goggles, helmet, pads and all these clothes. It was 15-below. Coach tells you to hang on and relax and not to move around too much or you'll put the sled into a skid. You start hitting walls and you get up to 40 mph, but you are alive at the end."

To be honest, Sorensen, 31, has never been more alive.

A dream is born

As a little girl, Leslie Sorensen said her daughter didn't express much interest in the Olympics. But by the time Becca Sorensen was in seventh grade, she had become drawn to the games. With the help of a junior high teacher, Sorensen had the Olympic rings painted on half of a white bed sheet that she tacked above her bed.

When Richard and Leslie Sorensen built a new house, the homemade Olympic flag made the move, as well. Now, the Olympic flag is taped next to an American flag above their daughter's bed.

Sorensen's Olympic dreams were born on a track at Utah State, where she excelled in the 400 meters. She moved to Los Angeles to train and eventually qualified for the U.S. Nationals in the 800 meters. Her aptitude on the track garnered her an official U.S. Olympic hopeful letter from the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Her Olympic path changed course, officially, when she set two track records in Lake Placid during the 2003 U.S. National Skeleton Championships, her first major competition.

Blessed with one of the quickest starts in the country because of her track background, Sorensen set the push start record (5.35 seconds) and the overall down-time record (56.54 seconds) on the New York track.

The previous down-time record was set by Lea Ann Parsley, one month after she won silver at the 2002 Olympics.

Sorensen's performance at nationals earned her an invitation to move to the Olympic Training Center and train full time.

She packed up her California apartment and began the pursuit of a dream that started before she became a teenager. In May 2003, Sorensen received a grant from Balance Bar that enabled her to travel to Park City and Calgary for training. It came at the perfect time.

"I got so many things I needed to prepare," she said. "That was one truly amazing thing that happened. Someday you think, 'I'm really going to have to do this by myself,' and when you come to that realization it's sad, but that was one great thing that really happened."

On her own

Sorensen is one of many athletes from a middle-class background who is more interested in depleting her bank account than giving up on the Olympics. The U.S. government does not fund Olympic athletes, so unless an athlete is on a national or World Cup team, he or she pays for nearly all travel expenses.

Sorensen has lived in Lake Placid off and on since 2003. She is in New York now, working and taking advantage of the services given to her: lodging, food, weights and a massage therapist, as examples.

It sometimes gets lonely in the small New York town, but as one of the older residents in the complex, Sorensen said she understands why she lives there and the sacrifices she must make to be successful. Leslie Sorensen has been up to the center to visit.

"It's a beautiful setting," Leslie Sorensen said. "It's quiet and peaceful. It wasn't real busy. It was summer, but you get a feeling of the presence of the important clientele. You walk in and look through glass and see athletes training."

Sorensen's season training resumes in October and runs through March. She is eyeing a spot on the World Cup team, which would give her the international exposure and competition she wants and needs.

A place on the World Cup team also would put her in line to get one of those coveted Olympic spots. The number of athletes the United States will send to Italy is dependent on World Cup results.

She checks the Torino, Italy, Web site every couple of weeks. The countdown to the Olympic Games is on the site. Each time Sorensen checks, the numbers have dropped, reminding her that this winter is the time to make a move.

The athletes living in Lake Placid spent much of August gathered in front of televisions watching the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Watching the Olympics reminded Sorensen why she gave up everything for one 50-second race on a 75-pound, brakeless sled that reaches speeds in excess of 80 mph.

"That couldn't have come at a better time," she said. "It aided in motivating. Next summer is important, but this summer was important too, to have that energy and all that excitement. It reaffirmed how exciting the Olympics are."

Magical moments

Looking back on the day Becca Sorensen was born, Leslie Sorensen laughed. She hadn't seen the signs. It was Dec. 28, 1972, and Colorado Highway 131 was a sheet of ice between Steamboat and Toponas. Before they moved to Fort Collins, the Sorensens had a small house just off the highway in Toponas, and they raced to get to Routt County Memorial Hospital.

"We went on a bobsled ride from Toponas to Steamboat," Leslie Sorensen recalled. "It was a sheet of ice the whole way. Maybe that was fortuitous in a regard."

Perhaps. No matter how hard Sorensen trains, luck does play a role in skeleton. She knows because she had that one competition -- the 2003 national championships -- when everything went right. She will draw on that feeling in the upcoming year.

"If your sled's right, the runners are right and you're right, things just click," Sorensen said. "If nothing else happens in this sport, I have that totally awesome memory of that one magical race. ... It's so worth it. I'm here for a reason. I don't know what it is, but I'm definitely going to stick it out and see what's on the other side."

-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208 or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com

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