Last Drive for the Gold
Former Olympic luger Bonny Warner, who is also Capt. Bonny Simi (United), makes a final bid for Olympic gold—this time driving a two-person bobsled through 4g turns at 80 mph, and she’s ranked third in the world.
Air Line Pilot, October 2001, p. 24
By Jan W. Steenblik, Technical Editor
Friday night, Feb. 16, 2001: The night air is cold and crisp in Park City, 7,000 feet up in Utah’s Wasatch Range. In the garage of Capt. Jay Maynard (American), however, the air is cloying sweet with the dizzying smell of acetone. Bonny Warner and her husband, Tony Simi, are hunched over, polishing the inverted steel runners of Bonny’s two-person bobsled, USA Two. They work wordlessly, using long strokes of elbow grease and increasingly finer grades of sandpaper wetted with acetone.
The hour draws late; Tony’s already reached 1200 grit.
"Hey, Bon, want to check this one?" he asks.
Bonny runs her fingertip along the rounded, glistening blade, letting her skin tell her what her eyes can’t.
"Yeah, that’s good," she says.
Moments later, Tony, indulging a visitor, holds the polished runner over the runners’ special travel case and poses for a picture—then accidentally drops the runner onto another. Steel meets steel with a sickening clank, begetting a nick.
Their faces fall. Nothing to do but start over again. It’s been a long day, and it’s going to extend beyond schedule.
On temporary leave from her other life as Capt. Bonny Simi (United), Warner and her brakeman, Vonetta Flowers, in late afternoon had competed in a World Cup women’s bobsled race at nearby Utah Olympic Park, site of the 2002 Winter Olympics, in Park City. Tomorrow, they’d race in a second World Cup on the same track, ending the 2000-2001 season.
No nicks allowed.
A child with goals
Bonny Warner should have been the poster child for those how-to-improve-your-life seminars that emphasize the importance of not only figuring out your goals but writing them down. At 14, she did just that; her goals were to go to a good college, work as a television reporter, become a pilot, compete in the Olympics, and build a log cabin.
Bonny’s mother, a single parent, raised Bonny and her two brothers on a schoolteacher’s salary in a small southern California mountain town. When her mother became increasingly ill with multiple sclerosis, Bonny took over running the household. A jock with good grades, Bonny deliberately took up field hockey in high school because she learned that it was a sport for which college scholarships often went unused. She began her undergraduate studies at Stanford, intent on becoming a civil engineer.
During her freshman year, while attending the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., as a torchbearer—and on one of her many leaves of absence from Stanford—she discovered the sport of luge (riding a small sled that reaches 80 mph on a twisting ice track) and was hooked immediately. Unable to speak German, she was soon on her way to Germany, where she camped out on the doorstep of the powerful German team until they took her in and taught her the sport (she’s now fluent in German).
Off-season, she finished her degree in broadcast journalism at Stanford, then landed a job as a television reporter for a Bay area station, covering sports and recreation. Finally, she was able to realize her other childhood dream—becoming a pilot. After the 1988 Olympics, Warner received a $10,000 education grant from the U.S. Olympic Committee. She used it to help pay for more-advanced airman ratings. Becoming a flight instructor and corporate pilot, her last job before joining United was flying various airplanes for the late rock music impresario, Bill Graham.
In November 1990, she became a United B-727 S/O. In 1992, she ran her last Olympic luge race and retired from the sport (see "Flexible Flyer," June 1992). In 1996, she married Tony, a firefighter and paramedic who’d been one of her flight students. Their daughter Kaitlin was born in June 1998.
From slider to sledder
Bonny served as a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1980 until 1996 and helped lobby the International Olympic Committee to include women’s bobsled in the 2002 Winter Olympics.
In January 1999, Bonny and her family vacationed in Salt Lake City for 2 weeks. She decided to try bobsledding, for two reasons—to get back into shape after childbirth, and to better understand the sport for which she was lobbying.
During that 2-week trip, she discovered that she had the sprinting ability and the driving skills to become a good bobsledder. And though her personal life and professional career were wonderful, that elusive goal—an Olympic medal—still haunted her.
As a luge racer, she placed 10th at the 1991 World Cup only 2 weeks after finishing new-hire school at United. She was national champion five times and was a U.S. national team member every year from 1981 through 1992. She ended up with more international top-five finishes than any other U.S. slider. The first U.S. gold medal winner in World Cup competition, she was ranked third overall in World Cup standings in 1987, the highest for an American.
She had competed in three Olympics (’84, ’88, and ’92); in 1988, she placed sixth, becoming one of only two Americans to finish in the top six in Olympic luge competition. But that wasn’t enough—she’d never won an Olympic medal, and she saw one last chance beckoning. By the summer of 1999, she was back in Park City, training hard—for bobsled.
In her first World Cup races that winter, she placed 9th and 8th.
The last races Bonny and Vonetta ran—the back-to-back World Cup races held in Park City on February 16 and 17—showed what strong contenders for Olympic gold they are.
In an ironic case of life imitating art (the 1992 movie, Cool Runnings) imitating life (the true story of the Jamaican bobsled team), Bonny recruited Vonetta, a nationally ranked sprinter, to be her brakeman. "The best brakemen come from the track athlete community," Bonny explains.
In the first Cup race, 30 teams competed in the first heat, in order of qualifying times. Bonny and Vonetta would go first.
At the start gate, the horn blows, signaling that the team has 60 seconds to start. Bonny and Vonetta are clad in tightfitting red, white, and blue suits and full motorcycle helmets. The Spandex suits show off their powerful legs and hide the scars on Bonny’s forearms, souvenirs of ice burns she suffered after falling at high speed during her luge career.
Suddenly, the two American sledders spring into the air explosively, in unison, twice, like manic frogs, shouting, "Back set, front set, ready, GO!" Before them lies the fastest bobsled track in the world—1,335 meters (4,379 feet) of hard ice contained in a narrow chute that twists through 15 turns in its 390-foot descent down the steep mountainside.
They grab the retractable push handles on USA Two and charge down the sloping start ramp, the steel needles on the front soles of their special shoes digging into the ice. As they whoosh past the 50-meter mark, the electronic scoreboard shows a new—albeit temporary—track record for the push: 5.39 seconds. They’ve accelerated the 450-pound sled to an average speed of 20 mph along the start chute.
At the start, the sled runners are guided by grooves cut in the ice. Bonny jumps in first, grabbing the two steering handles—like those used for low-lat pulls in the gym—that are connected to ropes attached to the steering gear.
Vonetta jumps in shortly after Bonny and crouches low; she will not apply the brakes until they reach the uphill slope beyond the finish line. The goal now is to keep the narrow confines of the track out of the way of the sled as it falls downhill during the 50 seconds or so it takes to reach the finish line. Bonny’s run this track so many times, as luger and sledder, her driving is instinctive reaction to turns and walls she knows by heart. Her concentration is intense—driving a bobsled is like trying to fly a precise course in severe turbulence.
When Bonny was a luger, she considered bobsleds to be "drunken elephants" and "thundering trashcans." A good luger, says Warner, can finesse a run down the hard ice within an inch or so laterally of where he or she wants to be; a bobsled driver, operating right on the edge of control, will do well to keep the sled within 6 inches of the desired track.
Generally, whacking the wall—or the wooden lip overhead that serves as the last restraint against leaving the track—slows the sled. But world-class drivers can salvage such heart-stopping situations.
In the second heat of Friday’s World Cup, Germany One strikes the wall near the end of the course. The sled is clearly flying through the curve on the very limit of control as it hurtles through Turn 14, but the German driver, Sandra Prokoff, recovers adroitly and takes the top spot for the day. Bonny and Vonetta come in second, lagging Germany One by only .03 second over two heats. Sandra, at 19, is half Bonny’s age.
The next day, Bonny and Vonetta are tied with USA One for first place all the way into Turn 14 of the second heat, after which USA One shaves .01 second off the total time recorded for Bonny and Vonetta. It’s that close.
With two strong second-place wins in her last two World Cups races, Bonny’s now tied for first place in the United States and ranked third in the world. She says, "This is exactly where I want to be right now—high up, but not yet at the top. The closer you get to the Olympics, the more the reporters hound whoever’s ranked first."
Focused on the goal
And so Bonny Warner/Capt. Simi keeps up a relentless pace, juggling job, family, and training for her final Olympics. On a typical day, she works out near her home in Discovery Bay, Calif., for an hour and a half—a grueling regimen of sprints, weights, and pliometrics (explosive jumps)—and then flies a B-737 shuttle trip to Salt Lake City. During a layover, she works out for another 3 hours, using a fiendish device she designed to increase her speed and strength in the all-important start.
The sacrifices Bonny and her family have made to strive for this Olympian goal are sobering. In August 2000, Bonny told the San Jose Mercury News, "The American women should win two medals in Salt Lake. I’m ranked sixth in the world after a three-quarters effort last year. By taking a leave of absence from United and training full-time, I should finish in the top three."
Her second-place wins in both World Cups in Park City in February resulted, in part, from her 6-month leave of absence from United last year so she could train full-time. So far, despite some limited sponsorship, she has spent more than $200,000, plus lost wages, pursuing her last drive for the gold. Joking that she’s sponsored by the United Airlines Credit Union, she’s used up all her savings. Recently, United Airlines jumped on board as her sponsor, and ALPA has joined in to help as well. An ALPA logo will grace her sled and suit until the Olympics themselves, when such advertising is prohibited.
Bonny has relied heavily on the pilot community in Park City to help her with logistics—people like Capt. Jay Miller (United), whose wife, Delta flight attendant Susie Blair Miller, knows from long personal experience how hard it is to mount a successful campaign to compete in the Olympics: her sister was skater—and gold medallist—Bonnie Blair. Capt. Rick Smail, Delta LEC chair in Salt Lake, and Capt. John Price, also Delta and also of Salt Lake, have been instrumental in organizing the Delta pilot community to help with housing, food, and "pit crew" volunteers to help Bonny during training and racing.
Meanwhile, anyone wanting to help Bonny Warner/Capt. Simi in her quest for the gold should contact one of the volunteers above or log on to her website, www.operationgold.com, to find out how to do so.
Bonny still has to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team this winter; given her current standings, however, she seems a good bet to make it—and to bring home a medal. The Olympic trials will be in Park City, December 22–23, and the Olympic race will be Feb. 19, 2002.
"It’s almost like this opportunity was made specifically for me," she says. "If I didn’t do it, I’d eternally regret it."
What It's Like: A Ride to Remember
You see the bobsledders push hard at the start, getting the sled up to a fast run, then jumping in and hunkering down. The sled disappears around the first turn at an almost stately pace. Later in the run, the camera lens shows the bobsled whooshing through the turns. Looks like fun, but nothing to change your shorts over.
You have NO idea.
By the time you reach Turn 4, the gs in the turns are squashing you down in your—whoops, can’t say "seat," because the sled doesn’t have seats. Seat pans, yes, but no seatbacks. And if you’re the brakeman, you don’t dare lean back, or you’ll soon be hanging out the rear of the sled, being whipped like a rag doll through the turns (not good).
The transitions from the short sections of flat track to the vertically banked turns and back again are abrupt. The vertical g change is almost instantaneous. The rough transitions into and out of the turns make your head bob right and left like one of those tacky rear-windshield plastic dogs.
If you’ve been a fighter or attack pilot, or been through military flight training or civilian aerobatics, you’ve pulled some gs—maybe as many as 9.
But you did that with the benefit of a seat and at least a seatbelt, probably a shoulder harness; in fighters, you likely had a rearward-sloping seat with a headrest, and your "speed jeans" (G-suit) increased your g tolerance by at least 2g.
A bobsled run is like an extreme roller coaster ride—except that you usually have a lot of air around you on a roller coaster. Huddled down in the bobsled between the ice walls, you sometimes can’t see 10 yards ahead of you—while you’re traveling 40 yards per second. Your reflexes must be fast and sure.
The risk? Today’s tracks, with their overhanging lip above the high-g turns, will keep an errant sled from hurtling in a terrifying arc from the top of the turn into the trees or parking lot. But if the driver misses the transition from straightaway to turn, well….
During the first heat of Warner’s next-to-last World Cup race at Park City, one driver missed the difficult transition into Turn 12, which is hidden from public view. The sled struck the wall with a resounding WHACK! audible above the clatter of the runners and the rush of air displaced by the sled.
A second or so later, the sled shot into view in Turn 14 under the electronic scoreboard—upside-down and yawed 30 degrees, still hurtling through the curve at impressive speed, pressing its 450 pounds (times nearly 4g) against the sledders underneath. Helping hands reached over the wall to slow the sled as it continued up the slope toward the last turn. One sledder went to the hospital.—JWS