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October 25, 2014

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In the back of the bobsled, the not-so-scenic route

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Doug Mills/The New York Times

An Italian bobsled brakeman has his head down as he slides down the track at the Sanki Sliding Center during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, Feb. 13, 2014.

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Judith Vis is a member of the Dutch women’s bobsled team and, by all accounts, a dutiful and conscientious athlete. Yet this month — only minutes after she completed a practice run at the Sanki Sliding Center — she struggled with a relatively basic question.

What color is the finish line?

“Hmm,” she said, twisting to try to look over at the track. This silence dragged on. Finally, she shrugged and offered a guess: “Black?”

The correct answer, as Esme Kamphuis, the driver of her sled, informed her, is red. But to be fair, Vis had a very good explanation for not knowing the color of the finish line: She had never actually seen it during her runs.

Like backstroke swimmers and rowers (as well as anyone who has ever vied for glory blindfolded in a picnic sack race), the brakemen in bobsled never lay eyes on the finish line. Instead, they push, push, push the sled, then jump in and bury their heads into the back of the athlete in front of them until, about a minute later, they yank the sled’s brakes after the end of the run.

In the four-man version of the sport, the brakeman is joined by two pushers, who also tuck their heads. The pushers and brakeman rely on the driver to guide them down the squiggles and curves of the track as if they were on a colder version of a Space Mountain roller coaster.

Dwelling too much on their life decision to speed down a sheet of ice with their heads pressed against a teammate’s trapezius muscle could prove depressing, several brakemen and pushers said.

“We should be confident in the pilot,” Vincent Daniel Jean-Paul Ricard, a member of France’s four-man crew, said cheerily. “He has our lives in his hands.”

Ricard added that there was nothing quite like speeding along at 80 mph, wondering if at any given moment you will be turned upside down, also noting that the French sled endured “a few” crashes in the run-up to the Sochi Games.

“When you feel the ice on your shoulder all of a sudden?” he said. “That is not good.”

Even the smoothest rides might feel a bit claustrophobic for the bobsledders, who shoehorn four riders into a sled that can be no longer than about 12 1/2 feet. The driver gets to sit up straight, of course; for those in the back, however, the objective is to extend one’s legs along the sides of the sled and get as low as one’s hamstrings will allow.

“They’re basically just hanging on,” Cory Butner, a pilot for one of the U.S. two-man bobsleds, said. “They know the track and they’re counting the turns and leaning, but at five G’s of pressure, the leaning is sort of automatic.”

In a seemingly cruel twist, pushers and brakemen must also perform a majority of the upkeep on their bobsleds. After a run, the pilot will generally review video of the sled’s performance with the team’s coach, while the brakemen ride with the sled back up the mountains in a truck and make any required adjustments, such as sanding the runners.

Essentially, brakemen are the grunts of the team, moving the 400-pound sleds around and getting them into tiptop shape, then hiding when it is time for the glory of the trip down the ice.

“You can tell if it’s going well anyway,” said Steve Langton, the U.S. brakeman who won a bronze medal with Steven Holcomb in the two-man event here. “We can’t see, but you know how it’s supposed to feel.”

Some pilots, like Kamphuis of the Netherlands, begin their careers as brakemen, so they have an appreciation for the challenges of the job. Kamphuis said her teammates often have to chase her away from doing basic work on the sled — “It’s not my job anymore,” she said with a sigh.

She recalled how she would try to provide feedback to her pilot after runs even though the only thing she saw on the way down was her thighs.

“You have to trust your body,” she said, “to tell you whether something went wrong or right.”

When a coach suggested to Kamphuis that she might be a good pilot, her initial reaction was fear. She readily admits that she is afraid of high speeds and heights — “roller coasters are the worst,” she said — and the first time she watched video of a run from a pilot’s perspective, she was spooked.

Now, Kamphuis said, she embraces the role of pilot because she likes being in control of the sled. But there are times, particularly when a turn does not feel right or the sled begins to rock, that she thinks back fondly on her days in the dark.

“Sometimes,” she said, “not being able to see is a good thing.”

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