Patrick O'Brien Q&A: 'I broke five ribs, and a bit of my collarbone'

Patrick O’Brien is an Irish international skeleton racer. He recently returned to the ice at Park City, Utah in preparation for this weekend’s North American Cup, which comes at the end of a turbulent season...
Patrick O'Brien Q&A: 'I broke five ribs, and a bit of my collarbone'

Ireland has some history in skeleton competitions, with Clifton Wrottesley having finished fourth at the 2002 Winter Olympics. This weekend O’Brien will be competing at that same Park City track that hosted the 2002 Games and is labelled the second fastest track in the world. It will be a new challenge for the Kilkenny native who’s now living and training in Bath, where the successful Team GB’s unique push track facility is located.

Q: In short, skeleton racing involves sliding head-first on a sled down an ice tunnel at motorway speeds, with your chin an inch from the ice. So, when you stand at the top of that track, do you get scared?

A: You’ve got a little bit of fear. Everyone gets that feeling of fear when you’re standing on the start block looking down the hill, and that’s a good thing. You want to be running into that fear and channelling that energy into your run. What you don’t want is panic, because panic is deadly. If panic sets in, you make mistakes and when mistakes happen, things go very, very wrong. But a little bit of fear is always good — it makes you feel alive!

Q: From that start block until the finish below, what do you see and hear?

A: You hear your name announced over the loudspeaker telling you that the track is clear and you’ve 30 seconds to break the first timing beam, which is five metres away. Once the beeper goes, the helmet goes on. There are crowds around you but you can’t hear any of that noise, you’re just focused on what’s ahead of you. You bend down and grab a hold of the sled, push as fast as you can and jump on it. Then you’re stuck there — you’re in for the ride of your life for the next 60 to 70 seconds.

Q: How difficult is it to control the direction and speed of the sled?

A: The blades on the sled — we call them runners — can be bowed. You can add a bit of a rock, so it rocks backwards and forwards. Then you have a balance point when you’re lying on your sled so if you want to crank a bit of a turn in some of the corners to help flatten out the oscillations — because sometimes you wave up and down — you can dig a shoulder or a hip into the corners of the sled. That helps to pivot the sled a certain way and brings you around the corners. You can also use your head for subtle movements and steers when you’re on the straight. That acts like a rudder on a plane. It’s not for huge steers but it can make a massive difference.

Q: Is it hard to tell where you are on a track when your head is so close to the ice?

A: If you’re not familiar with a track, it’s very easy to get lost. Everything is rushing by you at crazy speeds and some things become a blur. You’ve got the white of the track and the ice, and everything just looks the same. To avoid getting lost we need to do lots of track walks, track memorisations and printing out pictures of the different corners, so you know exactly what to expect. It’s all about mental cues so you know where you are at all times.

Q: How did you get into the sport?

A: I always had an interest in speed and danger so, growing up, I’d have gone to lots of motorcycle races with my dad and would’ve been involved in a heavy way. I always wanted to be racing motorbikes. I came across skeleton on TV when I was 13 or 14 and fell in love with watching it all the time, but I never knew of a way to get involved with it. Then, a few years ago, Sean Greenwood, who’s the 2014 Irish Olympian, put a call out for athletes who’d be interested in trying the sport.

They were looking for people who were powerful, strong and fast, and I seemed to fit the bill. But it was always that element of speed and danger that attracted me to the sport in the first place because we’ve got no brakes on the sled so it’s total commitment. You need to be a small bit tapped to take part!

Q: What makes a good skeleton racer?

A: The heavier you are, the more momentum you can build up. It’s all about striking that balance between being as heavy as you physically can, while maintaining your fastest speed possible.

Athletes try to get as much weight put onto themselves in the form of functional muscle so they can utilise that when it comes to building speed.

Q: I believe your physical size also causes some problems?

A: It can be a bit of an issue at times, yeah. The rules state that the sled can only be a maximum size and a maximum weight, and even though I’ve the maximum width on my sled, I tend to stick out over the edge of it if I can’t get myself tucked into a good enough position. When you end up brushing off a wall, you get that friction burn at 130 kilometres an hour and all you’ve got on is a bit of a Lycra speedsuit. You don’t have much protection, so that burns the arms on you. Then you cross the finish line and it’s impossible to maintain control in that area of fresh snow and choppy ice, so you end up bouncing from side to side along the outrun.

Q: You had your first big crash in December. What happened?

A: Over in Latvia at the Europa Cup I had a bit of an accident. I ended up crashing at about 65 miles an hour and I got launched up into the air and into the roof. I broke five ribs, and a bit of my collarbone. That put an end to the Latvian adventure for me, unfortunately. This will be my first competition back on the ice since the crash so I’m hoping there’s no mental scarring there and that I’ll be able to go straight back into it without any issue.

Q: What are your immediate and longer-term aims?

A: My main focus is on constantly improving and getting better. I’m hoping to get a bit more support from the Olympic Council to enable me to get more ice-time on tracks around the world over the next couple of years. I’d love to try to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics — it seems like a bit of push after the setbacks this year with injuries and everything, but that’s one of the goals. The ultimate goal is the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and being competitive there.

More in this section

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day. PS ... We would love to hear your feedback on the section right HERE.


Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up