Rhys Thornbury started his sporting life like most New Zealanders: chasing a rugby ball, and in thrall of his country’s supreme international side. “I’ve played rugby all my life,” he said, “and it requires a similar combination of speed and power to skeleton. New Zealand could definitely have an incredible skeleton team if we had the money to tempt the All Blacks off the pitch.”
While that’s unlikely to happen, Thornbury is at least blazing a trail. Amid a sea of Germans, Austrians and Latvians, the Kiwi has been clocking impressive top-ten finishes in the World Cup over the past couple of years.
It’s a sport he describes as “like a rollercoaster ride – but you’re in control of the rollercoaster.” And with a brand-new track at the Olympic Sliding Centre in PyeongChang ready to level the playing field, he guides us through why it should be one of the Games’ most thrilling spectacles.
Skeleton is one of the Winter Games’ most extreme-looking sports, with competitors barrelling down a track headfirst on a sled at speeds averaging 120kph.
“People think we’re mad, but I look at the skiers and think they’re far more crazy,” Thornbury said. “Skeleton is quite controlled and not as dangerous as people think. Doing 140kph, standing up on skis – that’s insane to me.”
Skeleton races begin with a running start. Athletes then steer by using torque from their shoulders, head and knees. They have four runs down the track each, and the combined times determine the overall placings.
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Like bobsleigh, skeleton is about three things: the start, the drive and the equipment.
“The start is most important,” said Thornbury. “It’s the biggest area that you can gain an advantage. “The tiniest mistake puts you way back. The top guys all have similar times.
“I train six days a week for the push. It’s a mix of sprinting and weights. But the technique getting on the sled is vital. It’s a weird body movement we are doing, running bent over with one hand on a sled. I see a lot of chiropractors.”
When it comes to driving, “being relaxed on the sled,” is crucial, said Thornbury. “The more you can ease into it, the better you’ll be. You need the sled to go straight, and if you flow with it and don’t fight it, it will. Steering too much slows you down, so it’s a fine line.
“You have steel tube runners touching the ice. The front is smooth, the back has grooves. You want them on the ice as much as possible.”
Equipment, meanwhile, is also a factor. “If you don’t have that beneath you, you’re not getting a result,” he said. “Your runners are like the tyres of a car. There are all kinds of cuts, bends and lengths.
“Different temperatures and tracks need different runners, and they’re expensive. I have to buy my own, so I can’t have too many sets, but the likes of the Dukurs brothers (the experienced Latvian Olympians) travel with maybe 30 pairs, and years of spreadsheets about what works best. That gives them an edge.”
“Tomass and Martins Dukurs will be right up there,” said Thornbury. “They have great pushes, they’re fast, they’ve got years of experience, and their equipment goes through so much development.
“You can never count out the German guys like Axel Jungk. He won the last World Cup race and is a great pusher and driver. The Germans have an excellent in-house sled team, too.
“The Korean slider Yun Sungbin is phenomenal, and he has his sled really dialled in. He’s also got the advantage of training on the track. It’s a technical run, and the fact that lots of the rest of us don’t know it well will level the playing field.
“Corner two is unlike any other corner in the world. It never goes fully vertical and the risk is climbing up it too much. It’s deceptive, and you will pay for making any mistakes.”
“It’s hard to look past Jacqueline Lolling [of Germany], because she has dominated for the last couple of seasons,” said Thornbury.
“What’s really unusual about her is that she doesn’t have the best push. We’d always say that you need that to win, but she somehow wins anyway. She claws the time back on the drive. She can build speed and create something from nothing after being half a second down.”
“Tina Hermann, from Germany, and Janine Flock, from Austria, are also very good, then you’ve got the three Canadian girls: Liz Vathje, Jane Channell and Mirela Rahneva, who are strong.”
The star of Sochi 2014 also has a shot, he believes. “Lizzy Yarnold hasn’t had the best season but she shouldn’t be counted out. You only have to do it once, and she’s the reigning champion. She has dealt with the pressure before, and come out on top.”