The U.S. bobsled team works constantly on being fast enough to compete on the World Cup tour each winter, and ultimately, to win medals at the Olympics every four years. But along the way, there’s something else it learns to do at a championship level: Packing.
More than any other sport in the Winter Games, bobsled requires heavy equipment, which for the U.S. team means moving roughly 10,000 pounds from event to event, over the Atlantic Ocean, between European cities and this year, of course, to South Korea.
“Bobsled is interesting to watch, but it’s very quick,” said Lenny Kasten, the national team manager for USA Bobsled & Skeleton. “The hours and hours of preparation before and after is incredible. It is a little bit complicated, but we’ve done this for a long time.”
Somewhere in a parking lot near the Alpensia Sliding Center, where the bobsled competition gets underway this weekend, are 11 crates for Team USA that measure four feet high by four feet wide by 13 feet long. Before every event, those crates are packed to the gills with the nine Team USA sleds for both men and women, several different kinds of runners specific to each sled that could be needed depending on the track conditions, an entire garage worth of tools and spare parts and even a full gym.
Indeed, because it’s often unclear what kind of workout equipment the bobsled team might have access to when it lands in the skiing villages of Germany, Austria and Switzerland where many major events are held, they go ahead and pack up stationary bikes, two squat racks with the accompanying weight plates, a trap bar and medicine balls.
“We travel with an incredible amount of stuff,” said driver Jamie Greubel Poser, who won the bronze medal in Sochi. “It takes us about 30 minutes to put it together in a giant puzzle and fit it all in, and everything has to fit a very specific way. But because we do it so often, we’ve become good at it. We’re pretty much expert packers and movers.”
For nearly two decades, USA Bobsled & Skeleton has relied on J.R.C. Transportation, a trucking company headquartered in Connecticut, to ship its equipment to events around North America at no charge thanks to the CEO, Ray Cappella, who took up an interest in the team. Kasten would love to get a major overseas shipping company to sponsor the team – “We’d put their logo all over our bobsled!” he said – but instead has to budget $100,000 for overseas journeys (and this year another $50,000-60,000 to go from Europe to South Korea).
Once the crates are dropped off at a U.S. airport, though, the work merely begins for Kasten, who has to plan for their arrival at the Frankfurt airport, the customs process on pick-up, then opening the crates and putting the contents onto specifically made cargo vans designed for bobsleds (including a longer van for the four-man sled).
“It has to be very synchronized,” Kasten said. “If somebody makes mistake or is delayed or somebody comes early, it doesn’t work. It’s very interesting when we arrive because local people, management of the warehouse, they don’t know what to expect. But then it’s like a machine. Everybody has to move in the right direction like a good symphonic orchestra. And 99% of time, it’s fine.”
The other 1% occurred last December when the equipment got held up in customs and sat at Los Angeles International Airport while the team was in Germany trying to prepare for the race in Winterberg, more than a two-hour drive from the Frankfurt airport.
Until the sleds actually arrived the day before the race, it was a tense preparation for the Americans, who had to borrow almost everything from other teams to train.
“I was in Great Britain equipment,” said driver Nick Cunningham. “We were all sharing. My brakeman was wearing a Canadian onesie, we had Korean helmets, Korean sleds, Japanese sleds. It was cool to watch the whole bobsled community come in to help us and it’s not like we’re a small country. It showed what the sport was all about.
“Every once in awhile I travel with my helmet because that’s not something I can find from somebody else, especially as a driver. I try to have the essential stuff with me, but everything else, especially with baggage fees, I can’t take everything with me. We lock it up and feel pretty good about it.”
Unfortunately, there’s no real way to simply or slim down the process, especially for a team as big as the U.S., which tries to qualify three four-man sleds and three two-man sleds for both men and women. And because those sleds are custom made in the United States, everything that might be needed to fix or adjust them has to be taken with.
“Bobsledders break everything. They could break an anvil in a sandbox,” said crew chief Richard Laubenstein, whose background is in IndyCars. “We have to bring everything with us because our parts are unique to us. There’s a couple bobsled companies out there that build sleds that people will buy. Nigeria isn’t building their own bobsled. Latvia buys them. But we have to carry all these extra parts and tools just for our sleds.”
That creates another layer of complication because all the U.S. sleds are built on the English measurement system while other sleds are metric. In other words, if you’re in St. Moritz and need a part, you probably won’t be able to find or borrow one that fits.
“In Europe, it’s difficult if not impossible to find nuts and bolts in a quarter-inch or three-eights,” Laubenstein said. “Everything is metric so we carry everything we need, nuts, bolts, bearings that are specific to us. That’s just part of the logistics behind the scenes.”
When the Olympics are over, the team will pack up those 11 crates again and head back to Lake Placid, N.Y. This time, they’ll put 10,000 pounds worth of equipment on a boat across the Pacific Ocean, hopefully with some medals as part of the cargo.