Eric Eierdam earned the top ranking in the world in the inaugural season of paraskeleton.
Three races. Two gold medals, plus one silver medal.
With those performances in the inaugural paraskeleton world cup season, Eric Eierdam of the United States had claimed the world’s No. 1 spot by just one one-hundredth of a second over Great Britain’s Matthew Richardson.
A rivalry was hatched.
And a sport finally arrived on the international stage as hopes of the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games danced on the horizon.
“After winning, I felt like I was on top of the world,” said Eierdam, who was one of seven U.S. men and women who competed this season in paraskeleton, in addition to another 20 in parabobsled.
Eierdam’s world cup journey began in November, when the inaugural paraskeleton world cup was held in Park City, Utah. He finished second that day to Richardson, a competition that was turned into a teaching point by 2010 Olympic bobsledder Bree Schaaf, one of USA Bobsled and Skeleton’s paraskeleton team coaches.
“My heart went out to Eric in that very first world cup when he took second,” Schaaf said, “because he learned a very important lesson right off the bat in sliding sports — there is such a thing as trying too hard.
“In skeleton you have to get amped up to push these surprisingly heavy sleds as fast as possible, but then you must flip a switch and find Zen on your sled, relaxing as much as possible to flow with an icy track.”
Eierdam and his teammates found that spot quickly. After all, this was the first world cup experience for a sport that many hope is able to make its Paralympic debut in 2022.
“Every time I get to put on the USA race suit, from the first time I received it in Park City, Utah, for our first-ever paraskeleton world cup race, I get filled with pride and emotion and gratitude for where my life is,” Eierdam said.
Schaaf has been surrounded by athletes with the same kind of energy and passion, not only on the course but off of it.
“These athletes are more than just surprising me,” said Schaaf, who began her sliding career in skeleton before she switched to bobsled and finished fifth in the women’s bobsled at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games with Emily Azevedo. “They constantly leave me speechless with their optimism, thirst to learn and ridiculously competitive nature.”
One day while she was coaching the athletes prior to the world cup races in Igls, Austria, a wounded war veteran noticed Schaaf and asked her if she missed competing.
“I said that I missed putting in all that hard work, honing skills to a ridiculous degree and then putting it all on the line to perform the moment it counts,” she said, recalling the conversation.
The Army veteran, who is now out of action because he was wounded, looked at her and replied, “Me, too.”
“It more than left me speechless,” Schaaf said. “It showed me what an opportunity parabobsled and paraskeleton provides to high-performance individuals that are in search of another way to channel that competitive and perfectionist spirit.”
Like many other sports that have found their way to the Paralympic Games, whether summer or winter, paraskeleton has quickly climbed to an impressive level in the United States. Team USA’s paraskeleton and parabobsled teams had the largest world cup numbers of any nation, Schaaf said. Paraskeleton currently has just one classification: Those with identified lower limb impairments that put them at a competitive disadvantage with able-bodied athletes.
Paraskeleton will not be a part of the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games. The International Paralympic Committee turned down a bid for paraskeleton and parabobsled by the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (FIBT) in 2014, but also instructed the FIBT to grow the sports and petition for inclusion in the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games.
“We want the sports to grow, and we’re proud to support the adaptive program and to see it develop,” USA Bobsled and Skeleton CEO Darrin Steele said in November.
Especially now that the sport has completed its first world cup season, talk of the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games may grow louder.
In order to be considered for the Paralympic Games, Schaaf said one of the IPC’s criteria is that there must be 12 participating nations from three global regions. Paraskeleton has not yet attained those numbers as six athletes from three nations (USA, Canada, Great Britain) participated in the Park City world cup. The Igls world cup had eight athletes from three nations.
Parabobsled's numbers were higher this season: 20 from eight nations.
“The process for inclusion in the Paralympic Games is very comprehensive, and we have been working closely with the IPC to satisfy the various milestones and thresholds,” Schaaf said.
That is exactly what the athletes want to hear, both those already on the team and athletes that Schaaf hopes considers joining USA Bobsled and Skeleton in the near future for paraskeleton.
“If this sport makes it to the Paralympic Games, that would be an amazing achievement for everyone that has put in the time, finances and effort along the way,” Eierdam said. “(It) would definitely be a dream come true for me and would mean so much for my family and for all the work put in.
“My only hope is that inclusion of this sport into the Paralympic Games gives more hope and faith to other people with disabilities or who have undergone tragic or traumatic life experiences and that their journey becomes worth it so much more than they ever thought their life could be.”
The path toward paraskeleton achievement has produced a few bumps and surprises along the way. This is a new international sport. In Igls, for example, Eierdam and teammate Alli Morgan were the only ones who had been there before.
“The ice was really cold and unstable, so at first a lot of the issues came down to just trying to get them going straight and avoiding ping-ponging off the walls,” Schaaf said. “This isn’t easy when you are missing a limb and (are) unevenly weighted on the sled. I can’t tell you how gratifying it was, though, after a tough week to see all of these guys nail the lines and have great runs on race day.”
One of those figuring out the proper lines was Ryan Gautieri, who was third in Park City. Dorian Willes finished third in St. Moritz.
“The cool thing about my teammates is that even though some of us are practicing the discipline of skeleton and some are practicing the discipline of bobsled, every single one of us is getting better and better and truly becoming a force to be reckoned with as an overall team for the USA,” said Eierdam, whose teammates also included Jason Sturm, Steven Jacobo, Dave Nichols and Lance Roop.
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1990 and was Olympic assistant bureau chief for Morris Communications at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. He also writes about Olympic sports for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. Bowker has written for TeamUSA.org since 2010 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.