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Fast, Geek, and Out of Control

My high-speed Olympic experience.

In February 2002 I was 50 pounds overweight, bored with technology, and looking for something to get me started again. And then I saw it on television: skeleton at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. This looked about as cool as you can get: lying on your stomach, hurtling head first down an icy, three-sided track on a glorified cafeteria tray at 80 miles an hour and five Gs, with no brakes. Although I’m not one to jump headfirst into anything, I just had a hunch about this skeleton thing.

So as any good MIT graduate would do, I researched the subject. I read everything about it (there’s not much), spoke to several Olympic skeleton athletes (some friendly, others snooty), and studied the rules (many people don’t bother). When, at 38, I contacted the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation to see how to get started, they politely snubbed me, which made me all the more determined. Luckily, I am also a Lebanese citizen. After receiving the formal okay from the Lebanese Olympic Committee to represent Lebanon, I enrolled in the once-a-year skeleton school in Calgary, Canada.

I was never so scared in my life. Our first run started off halfway down the icy track, and we worked our way up to the top – where the brave chose a running start and most normal people began slowly from a stopped position. I opted for a jogging start, not wanting to look too much of a sissy. (I was, after all, the biggest person ever to try this sport, the Lebanese Tony Soprano of skeleton.) Since I am considerably larger than my sled, I, not the sled’s bumpers, took the hits as I consistently rose up high on the banked turns and slammed down on the exits. My arms and shoulders did not recover for a week.

After one run, I decided that this was just what I was looking for and stuck with it for the next four years to qualify for the Torino Olympic Games. I found that while I am a firm believer in Newton’s laws, I really had to believe in them while sliding, lest I panic and become convinced I’d fly out of the track. I also realized I needed to apply some engineering to improve my performance in this most unnatural activity.

At MIT, my electromagnetic-field-theory professor, Hermann Haus, used to tell us, “An EE can do anything, but he can’t do everything.” And sure enough, going down the track was such a traumatic experience that I usually had no idea what had happened when it was over. It’s hard to learn from your mistakes when they are many and come at you so fast that it’s just one big blur. While the younger, more athletic, and sleeker-looking competitors seemed to recall every slight maneuver at each of the 18-plus corners, I was just glad that it didn’t hurt too much.

After my first season, I decided to embed a host of self-developed electronics into my sled to record my runs. So as not to change any of the critical aerodynamics (notwithstanding my big torso and behind), I squeezed a set of solid-state accelerometers, gyroscopes, and multiple cameras inside my sled, as well as some memory and software I wrote to tie it all together. In theory, if I could record and analyze the details of each run, then I might be able to improve at a faster rate than others and qualify for the Olympics ahead of my unfairly younger and more athletic competitors. As it turned out, I generated more data than I could use and concluded that this stuff is only useful when you are at the 90 percent skill level (where I am now, after Torino) and trying to achieve perfection (a gold medal). It also became clear that I still had to get in shape and lose weight to be able to lie down on the sled on four points (shoulders and knees), rather than on my less-stable middle section.

The rules for skeleton explicitly (and in my opinion, unfairly) prohibit the use of any form of electronics during competition runs. But in training, I continue to expand my database with information that will help me achieve the 5 to 10 percent performance improvement I need for Vancouver in 2010. Then I will be four years older but hopefully 10 years more experienced.

Olympian Patrick Antaki ‘84, a self-employed engineer and entrepreneur in Texas, placed 27th out of 27 in the skeleton event in Torino but finished just 3.35 seconds behind the gold medalist in the final run.

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