Ellicott City resident, 14, on track for bobsled career

YOU RECALL, no doubt, the piece here three Sundays ago about Ryan Harrigan, the 13-year-old soap-box car racer waiting to hear if he'll be selected for the next national level of training in luge - competitive sledding. But if someone asked what a columnist on amateur athletics in Howard County, Md., would never write about, luge would be right there. Ditto bobsledding.

Today, meet Courtney Zgraggen, Ellicott City resident since August, Mount Hebron High School freshman, JV soccer goalkeeper, bobsled driver.


Courtney read that luge column and, hoping to track down the Harrigans, wrote this in an e-mail: "It would be great to get in touch with someone whose path I may cross later in life at an Olympics, or just at the Lake Placid track."

She'll be 15 on April 30. And Courtney knows Lake Placid, N.Y., more thoroughly than Ryan, who was there for eight days of luge training and testing in January. She's been racing two-seat bobsleds there - on America's only bobsled track until one opened in Park City, Utah, last year - since she was 10.


On Feb. 3, Courtney and a boy brakeman she had never met but who was assigned to her sled won an Eastern National youth bobsled championship. Today, she's in Lake Placid again, racing in her fourth Empire State Games. Her awards include four medals from her first three Empire appearances - gold, silver and two bronzes.

Courtney is in the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation's youth program (yes, that was "skeleton" - be patient). She chose bobsled as her snow sport despite the fact that friends and even her mother and brother Kyle, now 16 and also a soccer goalkeeper, preferred skiing.

Until this month, last summer's move from upstate New York to a warmer clime and proximity to a major airline hub that, she said, helps in her father's computer-related work had kept Courtney from bobsledding this winter. But topping her discovery of cheap air fare to Albany, N.Y., with winning her first 2000-01 race rekindled a bobsled fire inside her that began burning at 10.

Her mother, Deborah, recounted the original moment: "A friend who shared Courtney's first bobsledding trip told us one thing they had learned was that women couldn't be in Olympic bobsledding. Then, Courtney and Morgan [Lindsay] said together, 'We're going to change that.' And they've been trying ever since."

Last week, Courtney smiled - and nodded - at the story. Someone older at Salt Lake City next year will be the first woman bobsledder in an Olympics. But Courtney's thinking future Winter Games, because the addition of women's bobsledding as an Olympic event next year opens up new horizons for her and other girls at the sport's entry level.

She rattles off names of American bobsledders. She accepts that hundredths of a second separate winners from losers in a race that at her competitive level requires less than a minute.

And, with insight that sometimes surprises her parents, she talks confidently about questioning other drivers on track angles and conditions, imaging her runs, deciding instinctively before a turn how to adjust her speed and "line" after completing it, adapting to ice conditions, air and runner temperatures, differences in sled design, and working a sled's steering cables.

That's all born, of course, out of experience from practice runs in Lake Placid-provided bobsleds on many winter weekends, competition, and, yes, even summer camp, where bobsledders pilot "push" sleds that run downhill on rails. Same game: You race the clock. Courtney has a trophy or two from push races, too.


"The first time [bobsledding], I was scared out of my mind, and I was just the brakeman. All you do is sit there," she said. "But it was such a thrill. I wanted to do it again and again. ... I guess I'm just one of those people who likes extreme sports."

Less than a year after her first ride, Courtney started driving, which is the what football coaches sometimes refer to as a "skill" position. Brakemen, she said, provide "oomph" at the start and critical weight for the downhill ride. But drivers make the critical decisions about turns and speed.

She's learned from several coaches, the best and most consistent, she said, Bill Napier, a former federation president and U.S. bobsled driver for a decade who missed his shot at the Olympics, in 1980, because of a bad crash.

Even her own accident - not a tip-over but a bad wobble that cost her 16-plus stitches in her chin, caused by an edge on her helmet, ironically - didn't diminish Courtney's desire to keep racing and start higher (and thus go faster and through steeper turns) on Lake Placid's course.

Said her mother: "To think she's going down a mountain at 60 mph and knows what she's doing - I'm kind of envious."

Added her father, Kenneth: "We're going to be supportive if she makes the commitment."


Now, "skeleton": It's the flip of luge, in which a "slider" careens downhill feet-first. In skeleton, you go head-first as fast as 80 mph. An American man holds an Olympic gold medal in skeleton - 1948, St. Moritz, Switzerland, one of only two Winter Games that included the event, which might be revived at Salt Lake City.

Skeleton was invented in the 1880s in St. Moritz and, 'tis said, gave birth to bobsledding after a couple of zany Swiss tied two skeleton sleds together.

Skeleton, said Courtney, is safer than luge or bobsledding. Why? "You're facing forward. You can see where you're going."

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