KINGMAN - After spending a few days in the mountains of Park City, Utah, 16-year-old Chris Novak learned a valuable lesson about the sport called skeleton. It's where sliders race down a bobsled track head first on a sled a little larger than a keyboard at speeds around 80 mph.
"It's not just how good you can drive," Novak said. "It's how well you push."
Sliders begin their run by pushing their sled before leaping on it to begin the downward hurl to the bottom of the mountain. Pushing was the focus for Novak when he teamed with coach Pat Brown of the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation July 14-17.
"We worked on the starting position, exploding and running with the sled," Novak said. "My starts and initial push need to get better. My form can be improved, and I'll be working on my sprinting."
It was the first time Novak worked with Brown, and the coach liked that Novak had already been to driving school in Lake Placid, N.Y., back in April. Brown noticed Novak's commitment to the sport and his desire to learn as much about skeleton as he could.
"Chris was very focused," the coach said. "He was intense. He wanted to continue pushing even after what I thought was too many. We had to tell him to stop pushing at times because it was getting to be too much."
The sport has gained popularity, returning to the Olympics in 2002, and the push has become an important aspect for scoring a good time. When Tristan Gale won the 2002 women's gold, she was a horrible starter who could make up time with her driving. That's not the case anymore as more and more stellar athletes enter the sport.
While in Utah, Novak tested in the combine, which includes sprints, squat, power clean, broad jump and shot put. He scored 74 points in the squat, putting him at the America's and European Cup Pilot level, just six points and one level shy of elite, the highest status that can be earned.
His power clean, broad jump and shot points were at developmental levels. He failed to score in the four sprints, though he was only 1/100th of a second from scoring.
"I'll be working on my running," Novak said. "I'll put in a couple of months of intense training to get ready for November."
That's when Novak returns to Park City. The plan is for Brown to make certain of Novak's driving skills and get him to the top of the mountain. When Novak does that, Brown will have a better handle on his potential.
"Honestly, I don't know yet. I haven't seen him slide," Brown said. "I do know he's very determined and very dedicated."
Another thing Novak has going for him is that he's easy to work with.
"Chris is absolutely coachable," Brown said. "Throughout the week we picked out small things to work on, showed him proper positioning to get him faster push-starts, and his times kept improving."
Novak is getting a lot of encouragement from his friends and people around town as he pursues his dream of sliding in the Olympics.
"My friends are still calling me Skeletonman," he said. "People are telling me I better make it to the Olympics. I just want to go sliding."