Nathan Crumpton’s upward climb to skeleton success
by Kristen Gowdy
Nathan Crumpton didn’t even think he was going to slide this season.
It had been a long road to get to team trials in October. Having just undergone knee surgery and having never previously earned a World Cup tour berth, the skeleton athlete figured he may as well cut his losses, save some money and focus on rehabilitating his knee for the 2017 season.
“My expectations were so low going into the season,” he said. “I actually didn't work on anything skeleton related in the offseason, apart from getting my knee surgically repaired. But it was touch and go for a long time, and it still isn't back to 100 percent. I was considering taking the entire year off and just sliding on my own in the event my knee didn't recover in time.”
The October national team trials were a last-minute decision. Crumpton’s knee wasn’t completely recovered — his surgery had been in July — and he didn’t think he would be able to match the tough slate of competitors.
Instead, he finished second behind Olympic medalist Matt Antoine and earned a spot on the World Cup tour. Thus began a completely new experience for Crumpton, who had been sliding for five years to reach this point. His knee still wasn’t completely healed and paired with his inexperience at the highest level, Crumpton found himself entering the season with low expectations for himself, just as he had with team trials.
“I’m just trying not to get overwhelmed by it all,” he said. “It's a new experience racing against the very best in the world, and I'm doing my best to hold my own as one of the rookies on tour.”
But even with the lingering knee injury, a chance to compete at the highest level of his sport was too good to pass up for the ever-competitive Crumpton. He had grown up playing a host of sports, including rugby, lacrosse, field hockey and squash, but had eventually settled on track and field.
Crumpton turned down several Division I scholarship offers in order to apply to Princeton University, his dream school. He was accepted and spent the next four years as a long jumper and triple jumper for the Tigers, earning all-Ivy League honors his senior season.
Skeleton first caught Crumpton’s eye when he watched the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, two years after he graduated from Princeton.
“I thought, "That looks insane,’” he said. “‘I need to try that sport.’"
Given Crumpton’s personality, it was no surprise that he was attracted to the sport that allowed athletes to speed headfirst down an icy track. A self-described adrenaline-junkie, he has always been into extreme sports, frequently attempting “pretty risky stuff,” while snowboarding, skiing, surfing or skateboarding.
Crumpton was living in Colorado at the time, and drove to Park City, Utah to watch a practice session. It only intrigued him more, and Crumpton decided to attend a combine in the summer of 2011.
After doing well at the combine, he was invited to compete in the push championships. He took his first trip down the track in Lake Placid, N.Y. that November.
“It was thrilling,” he said of the first run. “Don Hass pushed me off from about halfway up the Lake Placid track, and it felt like nothing else I had tried before. The sensation of speed being that low to the ground was overwhelming, even though I don't think I was going faster than 40 mph.”
But from there, Crumpton’s path to the World Cup tour this year was anything but easy. After taking the rest of that first season to learn the subtle technique of sliding in Lake Placid — acquiring so many bruises along the way that his arms looked like they were “painted purple” and his hands were so swollen that he couldn’t hold dining utensils — he spent his second year traveling around North America to learn other tracks.
“Each track is different, and it takes experience on each one to become proficient,” he said. “There are many principles, which translate from track to track, but at the end of the day each track has its own idiosyncrasies that one can only learn through direct experience.”
In his third year, Crumpton was not selected to a tour, and he spent the season primarily training in Park City, occasionally traveling to Whistler, Canada to practice there.
Finally, last year, Crumpton was selected to his first national team and the Intercontinental Cup tour— though he would end up competing for most of the season on the European Cup. This worked to his advantage, as he was able to learn the European tracks while competing in his first full season of international races.
But getting through those first four seasons was taxing for Crumpton. During sliding season, he doesn’t have much time to work — he has a passion for photography and has also modeled for the past five years.
“I'm of mixed ethnic backgrounds, which I'm told gives me a marketable look,” he said. “But now that I've just turned 30, I'm getting a bit long in the tooth for the modeling world. I enjoy it though, and I hope to continue it where and when I can, but I'll be looking for some new activities to help bring in the income as well.”
So making the World Cup circuit came as a relief — at least financially — to Crumpton. From an athletic standpoint though, it was anything but.
As one of the only rookies on the tour this season, Crumpton didn’t know what to expect, particularly since he hadn’t trained in skeleton in the offseason due to his knee. He struggled a bit in the first half of the season, never placing higher than 18th on the European tracks.
But when the tour returned to North America, Crumpton found his stride. He finished a season’s-best fifth in Park City, and then turned in a seventh-place finish in Whistler the following week.
And now, as he prepares for World Championships next weekend, his first season of World Cup sliding coming to a close, he realizes how far he has come — and how far he still has to go.
“The goal is to continue to develop as a slider and a racer, which takes on an entirely new meaning while competing on the World Cup,” he said. “The competition is so experienced and talented on this circuit that it's tough for me to keep up sometimes. But Matt Antoine has been a great teammate and a fantastic help in getting me up to speed with the whirlwind of World Cup racing. Hopefully I continue to improve, as there's still so much that I haven't figured out yet.”