Tahoe skeleton athlete chases Olympic dream
There was a flash in Larry Sidney’s eyes when he thought about becoming Israel’s first skeleton Olympian.
The South Lake Tahoe resident left Monday, Sept. 25, for Calgary in Alberta, Canada to continue his training, and dream, of competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics in February at Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“Oh my God, that would be amazing on so many levels,” Sidney said. “But I have no expectations because I know how hard it will be and I know how many good athletes are out there. But just that possibility is a huge driving force.”
What is skeleton?
Skeleton is similar to bobsled and luge and they all use the same icy track. It has been an official Olympic sport since 2002 and Team Israel has been trying to qualify since. No Jewish slider or sliding team, luge or bobsled, has qualified for the Olympics.
Sidney, 45, who is also a United States citizen, will lean down on his sled, called a skeleton, and slide it on the ice while he sprints for about 30 yards. He’ll gain as much speed as possible before jumping on face first and laying face down in a prone, aerodynamic position.
“It’s like being a power lifter (at the start), then yoga (the rest of the way down),” Sidney said.
With his chin about 2 inches above the track, Sidney will slide down the course reaching speeds up to 80 mph, hopefully more. The g-force while turning makes it even more difficult to keep his head from dropping and his mouth from tasting the ice. He wears a helmet that features a special chinstrap, which doesn’t always work. He has the stitches to prove it.
“I had one run in Calgary where my helmet popped up and I hit my chin and needed stitches,” Sidney said. “But normally that doesn’t happen. The key is to know that turn well enough that you don’t need to look at it. I haven’t broken any bones in this sport yet (as he knocks on a wood desk) and hopefully that can last throughout this year.”
Sidney was hooked after his first run
Sidney and his brother, Ray, who was one of the reasons Sidney moved to South Lake Tahoe in 2012, were talking about doing something fun together. And they weren’t interested in going to the latest movie or checking out the South Lake Tahoe bar scene. They both wanted to try one of the sliding sports. Sidney wanted to try bobsled and Ray was leaning toward skeleton.
“I called up the Olympic track in Park City, Utah and they wanted to know what size we were,” Sidney said. “I told her I was about 150 pounds and Ray was about 160. She laughed and said, ‘you definitely aren’t bobsledders.’”
So the two ended up learning skeleton in Park City.
Sidney is afraid of heights, and despite being a longtime skier, who raced a little in college, he wasn’t sure how he would respond the first time to being placed on his chest on a tiny sled pointed face first down the ice.
A bit of sibling rivalry helped him overcome his fear.
“Part of me thought, ‘I’m gonna lay down and look at the track and I’m gonna get back off this sled and I’ll watch my brother for the week.’ But he had gone, and I had to do it at least once.”
He got to the bottom of the track with his throat and mouth parched, but felt exhilarated and wanted to go again.
“It was scary, but it was really cool!” Sidney said.
He was hooked.
The brothers finished that week and Sidney did another week in Lake Placid, New York.
He moved to Park City for the rest of the season to train and has spent the last couple of years competing for Team Israel.
Sidney cooks crépes and named his son after a famous French slider
Sidney was born in France and lived there through the first grade where he attended a small school in the mountains.
He moved to Connecticut where he grew up and became a school teacher — an occupation that he held for about 15 years.
He moved to the West Coast to be near his brother and also to work on the Olympic bid going on in Reno/Tahoe at the time.
He started Epic Curling in South Lake Tahoe in 2013 and was selected in the fall of 2015 to play in the mixed championships for Team Israel.
Being a skeleton athlete competing on the circuit for the past couple of seasons made employment an obstacle.
Sidney needed something to keep him busy and bring in some money while not sacrificing skeleton.
He opened Crépes au Laurent. He brought with him from France a family recipe for crépes and shared it with people at markets and summer events in the Tahoe Basin.
The business was put on hold when he and his wife, Kerstin, had a baby. They named their newborn Lucas, after a famous French slider.
Lucas and Kerstin will travel with Sidney throughout this season.
“It’s going to be exciting to have them there,” Sidney said. “Lucas will get to see his daddy and see all the people cheering and ringing cowbells.”
The road to Pyeongchang
Sidney and his family will be in Calgary until just before Christmas. Other tracks in North America include Whistler, also in Canada, Lake Placid and Park City. He’ll also attend a race in France during the first half of the season.
Team Israel has four “established” men competing for a possible Olympic berth. All four will get to race throughout the season. There will be a race to see who gets priority in certain races and whoever has the best finishes will score more points.
“So that means when we get to middle of January and the international committee has their cutoff to qualify, whoever is the No. 1 Israeli at that point has basically the only chance. If I can’t make it, I want one of my teammates to make it. We know ultimately, at best, one of us is going to make the Olympics.”
The road to South Korea is not cheap. And the area’s volatility is also a “small” concern to Sidney.
He plans to spend about $15,000 for the next few months and then “it will depend on how things go,” he said. Since most of the events are in North America it makes travel easier and helps keep down the cost.
Sidney loves several things about competing in skeleton but a couple stand out: the camaraderie and representing Israel.
“Representing Israel as an athlete, and in my mind as an ambassador, when we put on Israel onto our backs, it’s an amazing feeling,” Sidney said. “It’s bigger than me.”