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"All you can hear is the wind and your own thoughts."

American skeleton riders James McGuire and Teddy Fitzsimons talk about their experiences of Lausanne 2020 and future ambitions in our new Original Series 'Sliding Madness'.
By Rory Jiwani

"Three inches off the ice going face first down the track, reaching sometimes up to 85 miles an hour (135km/h). You just don't get that with any other sport."

So says skeleton rider James McGuire in Episode 3 of the Olympic Channel Original Series 'Sliding Madness' following athletes at the Lausanne 2020 Youth Olympic Games.

The sliding events were held on the historic St. Moritz Olympia Bobrun track, uniquely made of natural ice.

McGuire was expected to win a medal after impressing in practice, but lost valuable time by stepping on his sled before mounting it on his first run.

Olympic Channel followed him and team-mate Teddy Fitzsimons as they trained and competed in St. Moritz, and enjoyed activities away from the sliding track.

Almost a year after that event, we caught up with both of them from their homes in the United States with COVID restrictions preventing them from getting ice time in recent months.

Fitzsimons talked of how listening to the Beatles got him too "amped up" before competing and his love of maintaining his sled, while McGuire expressed his desire to make the 2026 Olympic Winter Games in Milan Cortina.

Questions and Answers with skeleton athletes James McGuire and Teddy Fitzsimons

Olympic Channel (OC): Obviously you can't train on the ice with COVID at the moment. Do you know when you'll get back on it?

James McGuire (JM): They've kind of speculated when nationals will be, and that's when we're hoping to be back on the track. But everything's still in the air with the vaccine and the amount of COVID cases that are spiking in New York and around the country.

OC: Onto something more positive - Sliding Madness which gave a really nice insight into what life was like for you guys. James, I'll come to you first. What was it like to have a camera crew following you around?

JM: It was a unique experience that I haven't had before. I remember one time when they followed us to a team dinner and we had other athletes there. I remember eating and thinking, "Wow, this is very strange to have a camera crew filming me." But I think the whole overall episode came out very well.

OC: What was the reaction like from family?

JM: They all said it was like super cool and that they really enjoyed it.

OC: Teddy, same question to you. How did you find it having the camera crew following you around?

Teddy Fitzsimons (TF): I felt kind of strange about it. At the time, like, some of the stuff I was doing I didn't think it was that weird if someone else was looking at me.

"I see myself rubbing tape in the video, and somebody else watching that has no idea what I'm doing. It's like I'm almost massaging it." - Teddy Fitzsimons

OC: And what did your family and friends make of it?

TF: They loved it. It was weird because I knew the thoughts that were going in my head when I was doing this stuff. So it was weird seeing different people have a different perspective of what I was doing.

OC: But it must be pretty cool that you've got sort of a memory that you'll be able to keep of that forever, right?

TF: Yeah. Also looking at it... I don't know if you felt the same way, James, but I forgot a lot of stuff about it. Then looking at it. I remembered all the small details that I forgot.

JM: Yeah, it's like a reminder. You remember the big picture, but once you look back at it you remember, like, all the tiny details that happened.

We went to go watch the speed skating races, and I totally forgot about the camera crew being there and them stepping aside and interviewing me there. So I was watching the other episode about speed skating and I like showed up there, too. Like, I just didn't even remember that.

OC: When you take to the hill, when you put the USA uniform on, how does that make you feel inside representing your country on such a big stage as the Youth Olympic Games?

TF: I don't know, it raises you to a higher standard so you know that you represent something besides yourself. So you have to do things differently and think differently because every action doesn't only represent you, but it represents your country.

I'm not a talkative person, I'm shy. But I had to put myself out there and communicate with other athletes and, like, try to like show them like this is what Americans are like, I guess.

OC: How about you, James? Did it make you feel like Superman wearing the USA outfit?

JM: Yeah, there's a great amount of pride to be able to put it on, just to be able to say that you're representing your country and to know that your country has your back, too.

"There's not a lot of people out there that can say that they were representing a country on a world stage. It's a great amount of pride." - James McGuire

OC: How did you guys choose to do a sport where you go headfirst down an icy chute at over 100 kilometres an hour? I mean, it's not big in America compared to NFL, baseball, etc. Starting with James, how did you get into it?

JM: I got into it in Lake Placid through one of the junior programmes, because I live close by and I thought I would like it. Once I tried it, I really got hooked. It's an amazing feeling that you don't really get from anything else. The closest I could say, it's almost like feeling like weightlessness and flying almost. It's pretty amazing.

OC: And Teddy, how did you get into skeleton?

TF: Well, my mom used to do it when she was, I guess, my age. I used to be a wrestler in my school and my high school didn't have a wrestling team, so I decided to give it a try. It's a weird, thrilling feeling that gets you, like, scared and excited at the same time. And I kind of like stuck around with it.

OC: Any bad crashes, James?

JM: I've had a few times where I've rolled over onto my side and back, but I haven't had any bad crashes yet.

The first one happened in Koenigssee out of the Kreisel and I remember once it was happening, I was like, 'Oh no, am I going to crash?' And I just remember being on my back and then to have these two turns after the Kreisel... I remember flipping back over onto my sled and just being like, 'Thank the Lord, I'm on my sled and I'm still going face forward.'

OC: And you, Teddy?

TF: I did have one. I had to go to the hospital, which I think was a little bit much, but I hit a turn so hard, coming out of the Horseshoe at St. Moritz. That was the first track I'd ever gone to besides Lake Placid.

My right side swelled up immediately. And I couldn't walk only for like a couple of minutes. And that was about it, but they weren't sure if the bone was broken or not.

OC: What do you do before a skeleton run? Do you want to get really amped up and really buzzed up or do you want to try and remain as cool and calm as possible?

JM: It's almost like a mix of that. You want to be amped up for when you're starting and pushing, and then once you load your sled, you want to be able to lie down and be able to melt into your sled and relax so that you're not skidding or anything like that.

When you do go into a skid on your sled and you stay all stiff and you don't relax, you're going to stay in the skid and you won't ever come out of it because you're just too stiff and you don't absorb the impact of the track.

OC: There was a shot in the documentary where you're both getting your sleds ready. James, you were saying the closer you get to race time, the more excited you get. Whereas, Teddy, you seemed to be much more serious, focused sort of person. Does that sound about right?

TF: Yeah, I think so. I'm an engineer so everything that involves sled work, I'm just... I remember one time I went like seven hours straight after practice working on my sled at Lake Placid. So anything with sled work, I just kind of zone it.

Looking back, you're supposed to listen to calmer music and I listened to something that was in the middle. So it's like I'm a little bit more amped up and I'm trying to keep it lower. So that's like a bit of nervousness and a fault on my part in terms of preparing.

OC: And Teddy, is the engineering side what drew you towards the sport? There aren't many sports where you have to help maintain your own equipment to that level. Is that something you find really appealing?

TF: Yeah, that's what I love most about it. I mean, sliding is the most fun but you only get to do that for, like, three minutes a day. So the other part that really keeps you into it is getting to work on your sled.

OC: And what about you, James. Do you love the stuff with the sled as well?

JM: I love all parts of sliding. Our majority of work is done off the track because you only get three runs a day. If you're lucky, the shorter the runs are the better so you might not even get three minutes. I love doing all the work off the track on my sled and just training and everything that goes into it.

OC: And James, was it the first time you'd slid on the natural track at St. Moritz?

JM: It was my second time. We went the year prior for the training event that they had there. I would say is probably one of my favourite tracks, the atmosphere, the environment and just how it slides. I think it's just amazing. It has this almost like quiet feeling going down it that you don't get on any of the tracks that I've slid on.

In Lake Placid, Lillehammer, Koenigssee, even Park City, as you slide there's always some type of noise or sound made by the track.

"In St. Moritz, since it is naturally made and just snow and ice, it's just perfectly quiet and all you can hear is the wind and your own thoughts." - James McGuire

OC: And the fact it's so quiet, does that make you almost slightly more aware of your other senses at the time?

JM: Yeah, it really lets you zone in and focus on just sliding.

OC: Of course, Teddy, you had a bit of a spill at the Horseshoe corner. Why is it so famous and what makes it so difficult?

TF: When I first went into it, it was my second or third time going from the top of any course ever. You're supposed to, if I remember correctly, pull up and then at the bottom you pull down. At the beginning, I pulled down all the way and then you go like a second turn up and then you slam into this wall on the side... you hit this ice area that gets hit so much there there's a hole that develops over time.

I remember going to the hospital and they didn't even ask where I came from. They knew it was the Horseshoe immediately.

OC: Did that accident makes you very nervous to go down again?

TF: Not really, just because it was something I did wrong. Actually, I felt like I built more confidence because I stayed on my sled, I just wouldn't let go. I remember, like, kind of like slipping off my sled and pulling myself back on. So it gave me confidence that if something goes wrong, I'll be able to handle it.

OC: And James, you always looked so composed at the top of the run. How did you manage it in such a big event?

JM: Well, it comes down to almost muscle memory. You know you can slide the track, you know you can do it, so you just need to be able to stay calm and stay composed so that you don't mess up and you try to just stay in the moment and not get out of it.

OC: Your coach says that one thing about you that stands out is you're always really keen to learn about the sport. Would you describe yourself as a student of skeleton?

JM: I would definitely say so. I'm always looking at other athletes and looking at other coaches and how they're teaching their athletes, and how the athletes are actually heading down the track, and how they actually steer and all the little body haptics and movements going down the track to see if I can take a few milliseconds off my time.

OC: Teddy, what was your favourite thing about the YOG experience away from skeleton?

TF: I guess the activities afterwards. It was fun getting to know other athletes and actually doing something with them. In the past, at most you'd have dinner with them or go get pizza. It wasn't like anything like you'd go out, you'd do curling or you'd go walk around the lake. It was like you got to do something with athletes that you usually didn't get to do. I guess I Snapchat some of them every day.

OC: And for you, James?

JM: I would say just being able to interact with all the different athletes from different countries and just kind of the melding of different cultures, and being able to just learn new languages and just interact with people from all around the world.

The curling was a lot of fun, and then I remember the dinner. We had a lot of the Swiss team with us there and we had Colin Freeling from Belgium, he was also at the dinner. That was a lot of fun.

OC: So tell us what your hopes and dreams are in skeleton. Teddy first.

TF: St. Moritz is the last time I slid so it's been, like, grey because I don't know what's next. But I'm hoping to continue it until, I guess, World Cup or the next Olympic trials.

OC: James, you had that setback when you stood slightly on the sled and it was super frustrating because you were looking really good in training. And people say you learn a lot more from those moments than winning sometimes and better for it to happen at the start of your career rather than a senior Olympic Games. So what did you learn from that experience?

JM: I learned not to take anything for granted - nothing's a guarantee. You just need to put the work in, and that it can happen to anyone.

OC: Teddy, what were your main learnings from YOG?

TF: I guess, to stay calm and focused. If a small bad thing happened, it kind of took over everything because this was a much bigger event that what I've dealt with in the past. Looking back, I was a little too stressed at some moments.

The biggest thing is not overthinking stuff. If you overthink things, then it kind of builds on itself. And the classical music is a big thing because I'd listen to the Beatles beforehand and that gets you amped up and your heart's pounding before you're even sliding. So there's a lot of psychological elements that I just need to work on in advance.

OC: And James, does the mental side play any part for you in training?

JM: Yes, this is a big part of being able to, like, stay in the moment and even going through the runs in your head, and to be able to not crack under pressure or have like a panic attack while going down... to be able to control your breathing even when you're sliding.

Just before, I like to run through the whole track in my head as if I'm sliding it myself, just what I'm going to do in every corner, how I'm going to enter, I'm going to exit, how it's going to look. And then when I'm going down and I'm hitting those marks, it makes me relax and realise that this is how I want to be. This is the perfect run in my mind.

OC: And what are your future aspirations, James?

JM: I'm really looking at the 2026 Olympics. That's what I'm trying for. So hopefully the Intercontinental Cup then the World Cup and then the Olympic trials for 2026 Games.

OC: And finally, what would competing at the Olympic Winter Games mean to you? Teddy first.

TF: I haven't really thought about it much yet because I'm still taking stuff away from what I learnt last time since I haven't been able to put it to use yet on the track. I know it would feel good, but I'm thinking about each step at a time right now.

OC: And James, what does competing in the Olympics mean to you?

JM: It means a lot. I would enjoy it a lot. I enjoyed the Youth Olympics a ton. I enjoy travelling and just interacting with different athletes from all over, and I'm just looking forward to going.