We often determine the extremeness of extreme sports based on two factors: speed and height. Most extreme sports — snowboarding and skateboarding, for instance — have a good balance of the two, but some make their bones by going very far in one direction or the other. Skeleton is one of those kinds of extreme sports, because it’s all about speed.
The first thing people tend to notice about skeleton is its primarily difference from luge, a very similar and related sport. In luge, riders lie on their backs, face up, and steer with their arms and hips. This provides the feeling of riding that we’re used to, where we see where we’re going and are able to face it. Skeleton, on the other hand, as the rider above accurately demonstrates, puts its riders face down on the sled, with their faces facing forward, so that they more resemble a bullet as they careen down the course. Positioned like this, riders then have to steer using torque from their head and shoulders, significantly changing the dynamic of the sport.
Riding face-first and stomach-down, this Skeleton rider looks more like a missile or a torpedo than a human riding a vehicle. This creates for the sport a feeling of speed and momentum that is basically unrivaled — riders can reach speeds of 70+ miles per hour, and their point of contact with that speed is their faces, the center of a body’s perceptive senses. That means that that speed is being felt even more aggressively than it would under normal circumstances, and there’s nothing that can seem like a barrier between the speed and the person. This demands a lot of the rider: they not only have to be physically strong, so as to control the sled, but also mentally and emotionally stable as well.
Skeleton originated in Europe back in the late 1800s, and it retains the frozen tracks and facedown style of tobogganing that it started with. Now, however, it takes place on constructed tracks, not just on courses rutted out of snowy hills and mountains. This not only increases the speed and velocity of the riders, but it also makes the sport far safer. All the rider above needs to contend with is his own incredible movement. This also lets him know where and when they’ll have to make turns ahead of time, helping to speed up the runs and ensure that the sport is based on technical skill and ability, not a sense of surprise.
One of the most remarkable things about Skeleton isn’t apparent at first, but it becomes more obvious the more you watch. It’s the way riders start: they run while holding the sled on the ground, then jump into the air, kicking their legs out behind them with their hands on the sled, and settle onto the sled as it begins moving. As hard as the rest of the sport is, this part of it – just getting started at all – is a chore in and of itself, and files Skeleton into that region of sports where even beginning to do it requires ability and skill. Not everyone can go and race Skeleton, and that makes the talent of the ones that do even more intriguing. The rider above has the technique down perfectly.
There aren’t a whole lot of other human experiences that bear much of a similarity to Skeleton racing, and the easiest way to demonstrate that is to show someone one of these videos, where a camera is mounted on the rider’s helmet. Your perspective becomes like that of a fish or a shark as they cruise through the water and very different from the typical human way of seeing things. And because it’s so different, it makes it harder to get used to in terms of processing what’s coming at you; when you lump that in with the fact that these guys and women are going 70, 80 miles per hour, it makes it pretty easy to appreciate how difficult and insane this sport is.