Tristan Gale Geisler: Women’s skeleton’s first Olympic gold medalist
Like so many before her, Tristan Gale (now Gale Geisler since marrying Jonathan Geisler in 2008) didn’t grow up with thoughts of sliding head first down an icy chute at 80 mph. She had no clue she would win a gold medal in the skeleton. In fact, she didn’t even know the sport existed.
“I started sliding in Park City when my then boyfriend Steven Holcomb went to try out for the bobsled team,” Gale Geisler said. “This is when I heard about skeleton for the first time.”
She actually pictured herself performing in a different winter Olympic sport. Gale Geisler grew up on the mountain slopes in Utah and could have been a successful skier. She isn’t living with any second thoughts about which sport was right for her; a reality that is easy to accept when you have triumphed over the best in the world.
“I probably would have skied at a collegiate level, but I would not have been as successful at it as I was skeleton,” admitted Gale Geisler. “You never know what sport you are going to have a natural talent for unless you try it and that is what happened to me and sledding. I was hooked from the very first run down the track.”
It is hard to argue with her logic. Gale Geisler, a resident of Salt Lake City, Utah broke onto the World Cup skeleton circuit during the 2001-2002 season, just prior to the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games. Before 2002, the men’s skeleton competition had been on hiatus since 1952. The women’s competition however, had never existed on the Olympic stage.
Despite being relatively new to the sport, the stars seemed to be aligning for Gale Geisler. The track for the Olympic Games would be Park City, a town right outside of Salt Lake City and home to one of only two skeleton tracks in the United States. More importantly, it was Gale Geisler’s home track, where she had spent endless time training.
“I hadn’t lost a race on the Park City track in a year, even during the international training week,” Gale Geisler said.
Despite being prepared for the inaugural Olympic skeleton competition, the conditions for the track on race day were all but ideal for Gale Geisler.
“The day I won my gold medal was the only day of the 2002 Olympic Games that it snowed,” Gale remembered. “Snow is not my favorite weather condition, so I wasn’t thrilled, but Park City is my hometown track and I felt prepared for whatever came my way.”
The ability for an athlete to succeed in sport usually depends on his/her ability to prevail through the presence of adversity; and prevail is just what Tristan Gale Geisler did. Despite the snowy track with its limited visibility, and despite the nerves of performing in front of her home crowd, which included her family and friends, she slid her way to the top of the standings after the first of two heats. Gale Geisler posted an Olympic-best time of 52.26 and finished a mere one-hundredth of a second faster than American teammate, Lea Ann Parsley, who settled into second place.
The times began to slow as the second and final heat snaked its way to the top of the leaderboard. After Parsley finished her run with a cumulative time of 1:45.21, the pressure magnified for Gale Geisler, who was the last competitor to slide.
Most people don’t have the mind power to maintain his/her competitive advantage during these situations. We have all been there, whether it is in a sport, or even in our every day lives. We begin to let our mind slip and accept something that is less than our best. We settle. Our thoughts race and we begin to prepare ourselves for the chance that we might fall short. Second place is good, right? Third place still wins a medal.
On that cold winter day in Park City, there was no time or place for her to become complacent. We are often reminded that gold medals aren’t handed out, but rather they are earned. This competition would be no exception to the rule. In fact, as the rest of the field completed their runs it became apparent that Gale Geisler needed to produce at worst a time of 53.27 seconds, or she would fail to reach the podium altogether.
As she plunged down the track towards the finish line, the snow continued to fall. Everyone waited anxiously to see who would claim the competition’s first-ever Olympic gold medal. With a final run of 52.85 seconds, Gale Geisler sealed her eternal place in Olympic history, finishing a mere tenth of a second ahead of Parsley to claim the top spot on the podium. A lifetime dream of all Olympic athletes, Gale Geisler had reached the Promised Land; and yet she wasn’t completely satisfied.
“I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to set a track record the day of the race, but it still turned out okay,” Gale Geisler said.
So what does an Olympian do with a gold medal, once he/she earns it? Some medalists will wear it. Others will sell it or donate it to a worthy cause. Some have replicas made. Others will make it the centerpiece of a personal shrine.
Gale elected to keep her medal at her home in Southern California, which seemed like a good idea at the time. But in 2011, she fell victim to a robbery, which briefly shook her life. The criminals took several of her personal items, including her 2002 gold medal. The stolen relic, which represented years of hard work and dedication and served as a testament to the birth of the sport of women’s skeleton at the Olympic Games was gone.
“Having my medal stolen was a bad day,” recounts Gale Geisler. “It was harder on my husband than it was on me. I understood that I was an Olympic champion with or without the medal, so although I was not happy about it being stolen, I was not crushed.“
While the authorities eventually recovered the medal, the experience brought about a very valuable lesson to Gale Geisler; and it is one that she preaches to all Olympic medalists.
“Normal home insurance does not cover Olympic medals. So a note to all Olympic medalists, take a separate insurance policy out!” she pleads.
Today, she isn’t as relaxed about securing her medal.
“My medal is in a safe location now,” Gale Geisler said. “I made a promise to Detective Baxter that after he recovered my medal I would lock it up.”
While Gale Geisler will always be remembered in the sport of skeleton for her gold medal on that less than ideal day at the Park City sliding track, it isn’t the top memory she recounts from her career.
“I have so many great memories from my sliding days,” Gale Geisler said. “One of my favorite ones was when Noelle (Pikus-Pace), LeaAnn (Parsley), and I used little bum sleds to sled back to our hotel in Norway. We would take the sleds to the track in the morning in the team vehicle, which was uphill from the hotel, and then sled all the way back. I am sure some people would find it strange that normal sledding is so fun even after topping 80 mph on a skeleton sled.”
Participating in an Olympic sport doesn’t always bring fame. More times than not, it won’t bring monetary wealth. The lifestyle is a tough, constant grind, where you are very rarely rewarded after a cycle of four long years of stress and pain. It takes a special type of person to endure all of the negatives and find it worth continuing on the Olympic path. While friends and family members are living ordinary jobs, with regular hours and a consistent paycheck, Olympic athletes are up at the crack of dawn, with the hope that one day they will be able wear the American flag across their chest and represent their country.
“Some parts of being an Olympic athlete are amazing and some parts are less so,” Gale Geisler said. “Every four years, people will be interested in skeleton, but the other years are just as hard and fun. Skeleton is a sport you do because you love the sport, not for the attention. I wouldn’t trade the time I spent training and competing for all the money I could have been earning in the real world.”
While Gale Geisler has moved on from skeleton, retiring from competition in 2006, she still has a message she would like to pass on to current and future athletes of the sport. It is a message that people from all walks of life can benefit from hearing.
“My advice to future sliders is simple. Train your hardest, but know that sometimes you just get lucky and sometimes you don’t,” she said. “The ability not to dwell on successes or failures will give you the energy to progress past those that can’t.”
Whether it was hard work, or just luck, or a combination of the two, Tristan Gale Geisler will always be the first Olympic gold medalist in the women’s skeleton competition, and that is something that will never be forgotten.
by Cole McKeel