Cocalico grad sliding down the right trackOlympics are the ultimate goal for skeleton racer

By on July 20, 2011

By: TODD RUTH Review Sports Editor, Staff Writer

Things have literally been spiraling downhill, and sometimes out of control for Savannah Graybill, who graduated with a degree in broadcast journalism in 2010 from American University after a stellar field hockey career there.

But it’s not what you think. In fact, things couldn’t be better for the former Cocalico High School star athlete, who for the past year or so has been honing her skills as an up and comer in skeleton racing with hopes of one day making the US Olympic squad.

So how exactly did someone who grew up in Amish Country end up making runs down a slick, icy course in places like Lake Placid, N.Y. and Park City, Utah, competing against some of the best the sport of skeleton (similar to bobsled only you go headfirst and are solo) has to offer?

Well, it all started in February of her senior year in college when her strength and conditioning coach received an email from current Olympic bobsled bronze medalist Elana Meyers, who was looking for athletes who might possibly like to try their hands at bobsledding.

"(Meyers) was looking for athletes with a certain height and weight requirement," Graybill said recently. "Our coach had sent it to me and a couple of my teammates. He was like, ‘You should totally try this, you’d be good at it.’ I filled out the recruitment form online and sent it in, but it was a joke. Then my uncle called me and was like, ‘What are you up to?’ I said, ‘I’ve decided I’m going to be a bobsledder… He was like, ‘Excuse me?’"

And so her odyssey began. A few days later, Meyers contacted her directly and the rest is history.

"I was kind of in shock," Graybill admitted. "I really didn’t know what to expect, but we set it up that I’d be training all summer and then come up (to Lake Placid) in August for the combine test. I was in."

But things didn’t go quite the way she had planned.

"You have to pass the combine test," she explained. "It’s like a lift and a sprint to check your overall fitness because they know that this girl is squatting 50 kilos but this girl is squatting 100 kilos so she is definitely going to be faster. But I went up and took it and I missed by like five points of making the 600, which is what you are required to do. And literally if I would have thrown the shot put toss five inches farther, there are my points. It was so close, so they encouraged me to come back and take it again."

But again, she tasted disappointment the second time around when she was battling illness and failed the test.

However, sometimes disappointments lead to other opportunities, and she received another one when a coach encouraged her to try skeleton, which has less stringent requirements.

"For skeleton, you get extra points per event because you don’t have to be quite as strong because you are not pushing a 400-pound sled," Graybill said. "You are pushing like a 70-pound sled. I just thought about it and was like, ‘I’m mad that I got so close and missed the bobsled thing,’ but I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll try this.’"

She made a second trip to Lake Placid in November of 2010 for skeleton school and needless to say she found her niche.

"I went up and I loved it," Graybill said. "I stayed a second week and came back for the advanced camp, and then was invited to come back in January for their open training and stayed from January until the beginning of April."

How fast did it take for her to learn all the idiosyncrasies of the sport while overcoming the fear factor that comes with heading down a track going 70 miles per hour?

"It was gradual," she said. "That first week they kind of covered the basics. We were all scared out of our minds. We had never done this before and, I mean, sledding down a hill on your stomach isn’t going to prepare you for this."

She was basically learning on the fly.

"They start you on one of the lower starts, at start four and it comes into turn nine," she explained. "There are 20 turns on the track so it’s really only about half the track you are using and at that point most of the downhill parts have already occurred so you are not going to pick up a lot of speed. But they lay you down on a sled, they show you how to lay there and all they said to us was to look through the turns. The time goes, the clock goes, they give you a little push and off you go.

"I was terrified," she continued. "The first day we went from start four and the second day we took a run from start four and then they bumped us up to three, and you get a lot more speed there. From start four you can’t really do a whole lot of damage, you can’t hurt yourself, you can’t crash. It’s the bunny hill. It’s a scary bunny hill, but it’s the bunny hill. But start three you definitely pick up a lot more speed and we were there for the rest of the week."

By the end of week one, Graybill was convinced she had made a good choice. She was enjoying herself, starting to gain some confidence and most importantly, was overcoming the fear factor of the course that was constructed in 1932 for the Olympics and also hosted 1980 Games.

"I think it was more the fear of not knowing what you’re doing," she said. "They tell you to look through the corners. Well, I’m doing that but now I’m picking up more speed… And they teach you how to steer. You steer with your shoulders and your knee so steering is opposite, meaning if you push with your left you go to your right. We were brand new to this, and you are going down this mountain 60 to 70 miles an hour… It’s a whirlwind. I think that first week, you don’t even remember it because you were just so afraid. I didn’t sleep or eat like the first four days I was there. Now, there’s not that much fear there. I’m used to the speed and I know what I’m supposed to be doing on every turn so it’s not so scary. And I figured it out a little better now. There were a couple curves that make you stand up there and say, ‘Oh my Gosh, what am I doing?’ I had issues with curve 12 for a while. I would come flying off that in every which direction, airborne off the ice, sideways… It was like every time I went down I was cool until I got out of 10 and I was like, ‘It’s coming…’ So once I kind of figured out those turns, and I don’t fly off that turn anymore, it’s a little less terrifying."

At the beginning of March, Graybill got her first taste of competition and found she could compete with some of the best this country has to offer.

"We all got to compete in the national championships, and it was really cool," she said. "It was all the US sliders, guys and girls. You had a couple days of training and they actually did a four-heat race where you combine scores for a total overall. That was really cool because we were sliding with the girls who are on the national team, and I happened to end up doing really well. You get into that situation and you are like, ‘I just don’t want to be last…’ But I ended up doing very well."

From that performance, Graybill advanced to team trials and then raced in the America’s Cup circuit race at the end of March when she earned her first podium, finishing fifth in her first FIBT sanctioned international race.

"That was so cool," she said of her podium experience. "All the girls that beat me have been sliding for at least three years and I had been doing it for only three months. I was like, ‘OK, obviously you want to win but if anybody is going to beat me at least it was the girls that have been doing it a long time."

With that successful experience behind her, she headed into the off-season committed to the sport she discovered just a few short months ago. Graybill has been home since April, training at the Ephrata Rec Center, as well as with Dr. Lee Lausch of Proactive Pain Relief and Wellness in Ephrata. She’ll return to Lake Placid in October, and as a member of the elite developmental team, she’ll be trying out for the national team this fall and eventually hopes to have an opportunity to try out for the Olympics come 2014.

"Ultimately I want to make the Olympics," she said when asked of her goals. "Ever since I was a little kid, I just always watched them and was like,’ I can do that.’ I had no idea what I was going to go for. I thought field hockey or this or that. I never thought skeleton in a million years, but if that’s my way in then that’s my way in. Ultimately, that’s what I always wanted to do, and if I end up not making it, trying this for a couple years and it doesn’t work out, then at least it has been an incredible experience."

In the meantime, she’d like to be able to purchase her own equipment such as a sled, runners and a helmet, but that is quite expensive. A brand new sled, for example, can be anywhere from $3,500 to $10,000.

"I rented a sled through this past season," she said. "I mean I slid well and liked it while I was there but I wanted to make sure over the next three months that I was actually progressing. I didn’t want to buy a sled and realize that was all the better I was going to get. I wanted to make sure. Now I just need to work and just workout and hopefully make as much money as I can because I also have to pay for travel too. Unless you are on the national team everything is on you."

She is reaching out to the community, looking for some sponsorships to help her with some of her costs. Anyone interested in a sponsorship may contact her at: savannah.graybill@gmail.com.

"The money is the biggest stress about this," she said. "I don’t mind committing my time to it if I don’t make this Olympics spending the four years until the next one. But the money thing, it’s a stress. Now I’m paying for that, I want to make the national team so it’s not so awful but I have my own bills to pay too. I have student loans and this and that… You do have to look at your daily finances hard when you are not working from October to March."

A side note to all of this is in addition to Savannah, her brother Donnie has caught the bug too. A recent graduate of Shippensburg University, where he competed in the decathlon, Donnie dabbled in the skeleton last year when Savannah was getting her start but had to return to school. He’ll be returning to Lake Placid with his sister in the fall and perhaps he too can enjoy the success his sister has had. More GRAYBILL, page B-2

About Ephrata Review