November 28th, 2003, and Armenia’s two top bobsledders have made
the journey from their California homes to the Park City, Utah, venue
for the first race in the upcoming 2003-2004 America’s Cup 2 Man
Bobsled Championship. Driver, Dan Janjigian and Brakeman, Allen Babayan
are eager to participate in this first of 6 race championship series,
to be held over the next 6 weeks, in 3 different venues spanning 2 countries
and more than 5000 miles.
Dan Janjigian, pilot for the Armenian team is no stranger to the Park City track, as he drove Armenia to a proud finish during the 2002 Winter Olympics. Since then, the team has raced this track on only one occasion, during the 2002-2003 America’s Cup series the year before. The team’s best finish in any America’s Cup race up until this year had been 4th place, as the precious alloy medals have always seemed to elude the 2-man duo. Though the competition level was now higher than in years past, with countries such as Canada and the U.S. entering a large number of athletes, with Armenia’s new 260lb Brakeman, it was evident that this season would be much more successful for the Armenian’s.
Day# 1 of practice: It’s Saturday, November 29th, 2003, and the air temperature is a cool 5 degrees. Over the next 3 days, the athlete’s will be permitted to make 6 practice runs down the 1-mile mountain to get a feel for the track, and make adjustment’s to their equipment for optimal performance. Practice does not commence until 3:00pm, so many of the athletes are still asleep; all except for the Armenian team.
Due to a
lack of funding, the Armenian Team was unable to raise the necessary $2,500
to ship its sled from New York to the Park City track. As a result, the
Armenian athletes are up at 6:00am, and will have to drive their rental
car over 100 miles to rent a sled from a local team.
It is now 10:30am, and while most teams are just finishing breakfast, the Armenian team is just arriving back at the track with their rented sled. The two men franticly begin working on the sled, to ensure it will be able to accommodate the sustained 90mph speeds, and 5g’s of pressure that will be required of it. Just after 1:00pm, the Armenian athletes complete making all of the adjustments they can, but are unable to predict with any certainty how the bobsled will react once on the mountain.
It is just prior to 3:00pm, and all of the teams are at the top of the mountain awaiting their respective turns. The field is quite competitive, including teams from Slovakia, United States, Israel, Greece, Mexico and Canada to name a few. All of the teams make safe descents, and by 6:00pm, practice is over for the day. However, the Armenian team is experiencing some problems that cannot be solved, as the sled they have rented appears to be too small to accommodate the two athletes.
Day #2 of practice: It’s Sunday, November 30, 2003. Allen and Dan make their way to the track by 7:00am, to determine whether the sled can be modified to better fit the two athletes. They are able to complete some minor adjustments just prior to practice, and prepare for their first of 2 practice runs. Both runs yield the same results, as the men determine that the adjustments they made were unsuccessful. The primary issue is a simple one, but is quite serious. During the 90mph turns, the athletes experience a tremendous amount of pressure (known as G-force), which results in Driver’s head being pushed backward, while the Brakemen’s is pressed forward. As a result, the duo constantly collide into one-another during the decent, impairing Dan from clearly seeing down the track, which is analogous to a race car driver driving his car blindfolded.
Day #3; Final day of practice: It’s Monday, December 1, 2003, and the team has been plagued with equipment concerns and difficulties. To add to the problems, the cold weather and lack of sleep has taken its toll on the Armenian team, and Allen has found himself sick with a 102-degree temperature. The harsh conditions and circumstances have also taken their toll on Dan, as he is unable to extend is right arm due to an injury sustained during practice. The two-men courageously make their way to the track, and prepare for their final day of practice.
On their first descent, the team immediately begin to experience problems. The two athletes begin to once again collide into each other with their helmets, and Dan is clearly having difficulties seeing. As they round the 6th turn, approaching 65mph, the sled is smashing into the walls, throwing both athletes around like a pair of rag-dolls. By turn 9, the sled is continuing to accelerate in excess of 80mph, and Dan’s head is being hit from the back, and then being smashed forward into the front cowling of the sled, impairing his vision even more and eventually shattering his plastic visor. As the athletes come out of turn 11, the pressure is too much, and the sled is being forced up the 15-foot wall of ice at nearly 90 mph.
Then the inevitable happens……..the sled flips over at 90mph.
The athletes brace their necks to avoid a serious injury. The two men slide for over ¼ of a mile on their heads, until the sled finally comes to a stop. Both men are moving, and as Dan emerges from the sled, drops of blood can be seen dripping from his chin onto the ice. Allen is still trapped in the sled, as his ankle has been wedged in between the medal frame during the crash. Once his foot is released, he too emerges from the wreckage. Both men embrace, and even exchange smiles, as if to say, ‘that was a close call’.
This is a common issue that comes up when teams are forced to rent different sleds for different venues. The goal becomes to not only prepare for the race, but to additionally learn the nuances of a different sled. One cannot help but think that this crash could have been avoided if only the team had the funding to ship and use their own bobsled!
RACE DAY: December 3, 2003. Allen is up quite early in the morning, as he was unable to sleep well. His temperature is now 103 degrees, and he does not know if he will be able to race. Dan prepares breakfast, in hopes that a good meal might help his teammate. By 11:00am, it does not appear that Allen’s condition is improving, and Dan is forced to call the Race Director’s office to explore the team’s options. The Director tells Dan that if Allen is unable to participate, Armenia will be disqualified from the race. He then requires that Allen be given a check-up by the race Doctor, to determine if he is fit to race. Both men begin to panic, as they begin to realize that there is a real possibility that they will be unable to race.
At that moment, it becomes clear to Allen that he has no choice but to overcome his ailment. Despite Dan’s concerns regarding Allen’s well being, Allen decides that NOTHING is going to stop him from racing. During the check-up with the race Doctor, the team was able to convince the Doctor that Allen would be able to race.
It is now 3:00pm, and the athletes have completed their pre-race warm-ups. Dan is visualizing the run in his head, gathering all of his strength and focus. Allen is reminiscent of a horse in the starting gates, prancing back and forth, ready to explode. The two men are up next, and make their way to the starting line for the first of 2 runs which will decide the race. The crowds of spectators begin to converge along side of the 50 meter starting point, to view the Armenian team’s explosive start. The Armenian team gives the crowd just what they wanted, posting a time of 5.13 seconds, one of the fastest starting times of the week. The team is in 3rd place after the first run, which puts them in a position to get a bronze medal, if they can hold on with another 3rd place finish in the second and final run.
After the first run, Slovakia has the first place slot, United States is second, with Armenia just five hundredths of a second behind for third. As the athlete’s prepare for the second and final run, the crowd is surprised to see Armenia in a top 3 position, as this has never been accomplished before. The question on everybody’s mind was whether they could hold on!
As the Armenian team approached the start line for their final run, both athletes seemed to be in a trance. There was total and absolute silence at the starting line, as the 60 second start clock began to tick……. 55……..50…..then 45 seconds. As the 2 athlete’s customarily do, they tightened their helmets, and removed the rubber covers that protect the sharp spikes on their shoes. They shook hands and hugged, and then assumed their starting positions. Allen began with the words “Botrast” (ready), and Dan relied with “Heema” (now). Allen began the countdown sequence……..”yerek, ……….yerkoo………mek!” The sled exploded forward, as if to be strapped with a rocket propelled engine. The two men were not only running for themselves, but for their country! With each step, the duo ripped up the ice under their feet, hitting the 50-meter mark in another blistering time of 5.14 seconds.
The run was beautiful, all the way down the mountain. As they crossed the line, they looked up at the clock to see that they had not only held on to third place, but moved into SECOND place, beating the United States and winning the Silver Medal! Both men looked at each other with tears in their eyes, knowing that they had done the impossible, overcome many adversities, and claimed the silver medal from the US team on their home track. When the two men were interviewed after the race, they stated that although they were surprised about winning the silver medal, they were not surprised that they were able to overcome all of the obstacles and complications. They’ve been doing it for years!
To help support the Armenian Bobsled team, please send tax deductible contributions to the Armenian Athletes Association at 12940 Atherton Court, Los Altos Hills, CA 94022, and visit their website at www.bobsledder.com.