Skeleton is a sport I'd never heard of and at first, it was difficult to see the connection between this winter sport and Israel. But soon enough, it all came clear. Brad Chalupski isn't asking for much as far as crowd funding campaigns go—just $5,000. So there's some good old-fashioned Israeli modesty for you. And Skeleton is certainly gutsy being that it impels the athlete to lie face down on a board while shooting down an ice-covered track. So you've got Israeli chutzpah covered, especially if you figure in Brad's quest to become Israel's first ever Olympic Skeleton athlete at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang.
Here's the thing: there are just five days left on Brad's crowd funding campaign: https://www.rallyme.com/rallies/4507/bradleychalupskiisraelskeleton, and after chatting with him I'm convinced the cause is a worthy one. That means that if you want the honor of helping a wannabe Israeli Gold medalist, you better get cracking. (Why not? It's a cause that can help Israel shine.)
Read all about Brad, Skeleton, and his bare bones (ouch) quest for Olympic gold here:
VE: When did you first discover Skeleton? What made you fixate on this particular sport?
Brad Chalupski: I first decided to try Skeleton when I saw it on the television during the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino. Like most people, I think that I was attracted by the paradox that the sport presents to people watching it. On the one hand, it looks incredibly fast, dangerous, and thrilling—you think these people are crazy. And yet on the other hand, it looks like someone lying down on a board and heading effortlessly down the track—you think you can definitely do this yourself. I want to try that.
This initial thought process is what got me interested in trying the sport. But what made me fixate on it was also a little bit of luck being added into the mix. Skeleton had only become an Olympic event in 2002, making 2006 only its 2nd Olympiad. In essence, it was a new sport—and so one that was not entirely developed in terms of the numbers of athletes participating. That fact made getting involved much easier that it would be today.
I googled how to get involved with the sport, and discovered that all I had to do was send away a spreadsheet detailing how high/far I could run and jump. I sent that information away, and was invited to a beginners Skeleton camp the following winter. Once I actually tried the sport in December of 2007, I was intoxicated by the speed, and also the promise of being able to compete as a high level athlete. After that, I became fixated on improving as much as I could.
VE: What does it feel like when you're speeding down an ice chute headfirst?
Brad Chalupski: There are actually two different answers to this question.
When you first begin in the sport, I'd imagine it's exactly what people expect. You feel a lot of fear the first time you go down, even though they are only starting you from the middle of the track. I remember saying to the coach “You are either going to send me home on the team, or send me home in a body bag.” I think that is a good window into my mindset at the time. From there, the rush is immense.
One thing about Skeleton is that it's not like driving a car, your face is only inches from the ice, and your helmet will often actually be pushed down on the ice due to the gravity in the curves. So, in that sense you don't get a panoramic view of what is coming at you like driving a car. You're very close to the ground and kind of watching things go by from the floor.
Also, the sensation of getting pulled up and down by the gravity is very intense, because it's like nothing you've felt before in your life—think of an Egged bus stopping short and multiply that by 100 and that's the type of gravitational force that is acting on you. I'm convinced that it is impossible to be indifferent about your first Skeleton ride. When the sled stops, you either say “take me back up to the top right now” or “you're all insane and I'm never doing that again.”
I was the former.
As you get better, however, this changes drastically. When you begin to really take the sport seriously as a competitive activity, the speed becomes normal. The rush of going fast and feeling the gravity gives way to an obsession with how to use those to your competitive advantage. Today, I don't ever notice how fast I am going in the sense of “having fun.” Pressures that were once exhilarating are now places where I can get more speed for racing.
Today, I will come out of a run where I just went 138km/hr cursing at myself because I was one foot too far to the right going into the 6th curve. Just like any other sport, I have a plan for what I need to be doing on a track and that's all I'm thinking about. It's a clinical, precise sport that requires huge amounts of mental focus. When you really start to compete, the joy rides are over and it's all about improving and going faster that the other person.
VE: What types of injuries are common with Skeleton? Does your wife worry about you?
Brad Chalupski: Believe it or not, Skeleton is actually a very safe sport. I am constantly battered and bruised—sometimes bleeding—but never actually “injured.” The most painful thing that happens is hitting the walls as you are going through the track, and my arms can end up very swollen if I have a bad run during a race (when I will not wear any padding at all to protect myself).
I've also come off my sled several times, and always walked away without a scratch. I know that may sound totally impossible, but because you are so low to the ground and the sled is going so fast, you can simply let it go. The sled will continue along much faster than you will; you just need to roll, making sure to never keep one piece of skin on the ice too long (or you'll get burned) and eventually you come to a stop. The idea that you can just shrug at coming off of something going 60mph probably sounds psychotic to many, but it's true. It's not fun—but you can walk away from it just fine. In fact, both times I came off of my sled, I demanded they take me back up to the top so I wouldn't get shy about it. And they did.
VE: How do you train for a winter sport like Skeleton when your home base is Israel?
Brad Chalupski: This is a very common misconception. I always answer this question by reminding people that there is no ice in Canada in August, either. All tracks are in the northern hemisphere, so the season runs from October – March, and then all the tracks are closed. During the summers, I will work on my explosive sprinting in the gym (we sprint, pushing the sled forward with us to start a run) and also on my mental concentration and focus through meditation. It's the same routine that all Skeleton athletes do.
While it is true that some countries have facilities that allow you to practice the initial sprint throughout the summer (most have sleds on tracks and wheels, one or two places will have an iced ramp throughout the summer), it's not essential. To prepare for the Olympic qualifying races next year, I will most likely leave Israel only in September to use a facility like that, if at all.
VE: You mention Bobsled Skeleton Israel (BSI) on your crowd-funding page. How many people belong to this club/organization? Are they all immigrants from cooler climes, like yourself?
Brad Chalupski: Currently, there are 4 competitive male athletes active with the federation. BSI has been in existence for nearly 15 years now, so throughout that time we have had competitors from across the entire range of Israeli and Diaspora Jewry. I should also mention here that we are recruiting!
VE: How cool is it (literally) that you made aliyah because of a sport that involves ice! There's irony for you. You say that, "An amazing journey into Judaism and my Jewish identity had begun." Did you study in a yeshiva?
Brad Chalupski: Although I have never studied in a yeshiva, my journey into Judaism has been such a blessing in my life. Growing up, I always considered myself Jewish, but I wouldn't have told you that it meant anything to me. It was a part of my identity that was there, but in a very neutral kind of way. Since I began to represent Israel, all that has changed.
For me personally, going on my birthright trip (which I only did after I had started competing) was when my life really changed. I remember taking a silent hike in the Negev, and just feeling so at home. It was a very strange feeling—and truth be told not one that I expected to find. But that was my first connection with the energy of the land and the sense of belonging. That was the moment I discovered that I was a part of this people, this history, even if I hadn't fully realized it until then.
And of course, I'm still learning more about it every day. Today, I have made Jerusalem my home for the last 4 years. I look forward to lighting the Shabbat candles, and find meaning in representing Israel and the Jewish people. I consider being Jewish a core part of my identity.
VE: What do your parents think of this whole thing? The at least somewhat dangerous sport, moving to Israel on what must have seemed like a whim to them?
Brad Chalupski: I had just graduated from law school in 2010 when I decided I was going to move to the mountains of Lake Placid, NY and compete for Israel. My mother cried, presumably both for my safety and for my lost legal career. My father didn't understand why I would want to do something like Skeleton, but he took it (much) better. The first job I ever had out of law school was actually at the Lake Placid McDonalds.
Surprisingly, I don't think either of them had seen it as a “whim.” I've always been full of wanderlust and a competitive spirit, and by that point my exploits traveling around the globe were well known to the family. This might have been the mother of all exploits, but yet at the same time not entirely out of character for me.
VE: You have had multiple surgeries as a result of injuries. How do your doctors feel about the fact that you're still "in the game?" Is it safe for you to compete?
Brad Chalupski: Actually, all of my injuries have come from training for Skeleton. None of my injuries come from Skeleton itself. I had hip surgery performed in Israel by Dr. David Morgenstern at Asuta Hospital in Tel Aviv to repair a pretty sizeable tear in my labrum. He was a wonderful, amazing surgeon and man and he told me that I would be able to return to Skeleton.
Really, for me it's about being more careful in the gym when lifting weights. I'm pretty sure the safest place I find myself in life is actually within the Skeleton track.
VE: The amount of money you're trying to raise is so modest! How will your family manage when you quit your job to train full time? Does your wife work?
Brad Chalupski: I definitely do Skeleton on a shoestring budget. Fortunately, I landed in B2B marketing for high-tech start-ups in Israel. There is actually a lot of great work that I can do over the internet as a freelancer from anywhere, so I am still working. My wife Chana also works at a Jerusalem-based start-up. We know that this is setting our family back several years financially, but it is something that we mutually agreed was important enough to pursue.
I am a very, very lucky man to have such an amazing and wonderful wife supporting me in this. I could not do it without her.
VE: Tell me your dream: do you think you can win the gold? What will it feel like to compete as a representative of Israel?
Brad Chalupski: My dream is to represent Israel in the Olympic games. Watching the way Israel was treated during the recent summer Olympics really upset me. I would love to be able to walk in and represent this amazing country and nation.
But more and more on a personal note, I'm also finding that my dream also includes using the time that I've spent in Skeleton to better myself as a person, husband, and someday, father. Being a high level athlete is something I had always dreamed about, and I get to live that dream every single day right now. It's a great challenge that comes with great excitement but also great responsibility.
When I ultimately retire from the sport, I'd like to think that I represented Israel and myself with dignity, proving that both of us have a place amongst the elite Skeleton athletes of the world.