From street luge to the skeleton World Championships
by Kristen Gowdy
Photo Credit: Molly Choma
Kyle Brown was introduced to sliding sports earlier than most. But the skeleton athlete’s first memory of sliding was not on a skeleton sled, and he wasn’t on his stomach. His first sliding experience wasn’t even on ice.
No, when Brown looks back on his first time on a street luge — provided by a middle school faculty member as an activity for students — he never would have guessed that, years later, he would be one of the world’s most elite athletes in a similar sport.
But things change.
Now 26 years old, the Concord, N.H., native has come a long way from his first slide down the streets of his hometown. His dream of qualifying for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games has taken him far from the sleepy old town, but his familiarity with winter sport and year-round athletics have helped him in his transition to a new sport, even when he’s in the most unfamiliar places.
As a kid, Brown was always on ice. He grew up with a hockey stick in his hand and his love for cold weather was only spurred by the freezing Northeast winters.
“I have been on ice longer than I can remember,” he said, reminiscing on his lengthy and competitive ice hockey career. Brown also ran track and field and played football at Springfield College.
It wasn’t until 2011, however, that Brown found a sport on ice that didn’t involve a puck and a goal. Seeking a summer strength and conditioning internship with the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., Brown was invited to take part in a skeleton combine. He turned the offer down, however, to finish out his senior year at Springfield and to earn his degree in exercise science.
In 2012, fresh from completing his bachelor’s degree and graduating from Springfield, Brown revisited the idea of becoming a professional athlete — except he wasn’t thinking about skeleton just yet.
“I was in the process of trying to join an elite track club in Boston and didn’t really plan to become a skeleton athlete,” he said.
All it took to change his mind was one run down the Lake Placid track.
“I will never forget … my first ever run,” he said. “I have never felt so terrified in my life that quickly transitioned into pure joy.”
The unforgettable exhilaration and rush of adrenaline quickly became feelings on which Brown thrived and in an almost overnight transition, the ice hockey and track star became a slider.
In his first season with Team USA, Brown competed on the North American Cup, beginning the season late and joining the group for the last three races of the circuit. In his very first race, he finished sixth out of 20 sliders, then followed that performance with his first podium finish, a bronze medal in Lake Placid on Jan. 9, 2014. He finished the season with another third-place finish the next day as the Americans swept the podium on the final day in Lake Placid.
It was this past season, Brown’s second with the team, in which his career really took off. After beginning the year on the European Cup circuit — posting a season-best seventh-place finish in the final race before the winter holidays — Brown went home expecting to return to return to Europe for the Jan. 15 race in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
On Christmas Eve though, Brown’s sacrifice and hard work were validated.
“I was out to dinner with my girlfriend when, towards the end of dinner, my phone started ringing over and over again,” he said. “I didn’t want to be disrespectful by checking my phone.”
But Brown knew what awaited him on the other end of the line. He had celebratory text messages from his teammates before he even spoke to a coach.
His dream was coming true. He was joining
the World Cup circuit, the best of the best in the world of skeleton.
The youngest member on the men’s skeleton national team and in his first season at the highest level of skeleton competition, Brown had a steep learning curve this past season. He relied on more experienced sliders and Olympians Matt Antoine and Kyle Tress for advice as the strenuous World Cup schedule took the team from the familiar confines of Lake Placid to the snow-covered Alps of St. Moritz to the farthest reaches of Eastern Germany. For Brown, the presence of Antoine and Tress was comforting, especially while overcoming the culture shock.
“Those two have more experience than anyone else and are such great mentors,” he said. “I have so much more to learn and grow as a skeleton athlete, and thanks to those guys, I have made a big step in the grand scheme of things. I look forward to what the future holds.”
What does the future hold for Brown? Obviously no one can say for sure, but it is certainly bright. After finishing in 28th place — dead last — in his first World Cup race in Altenberg, Germany, one of the most difficult tracks in the world, Brown responded by finishing 16th just two races later.
The maturity and experience he gained in the second half of the season revealed itself during the U.S. National Championships in March, when Brown finished second in the nation behind only Antoine. In three of his four runs at the Lake Placid race, he finished with a downtime of less than 54 seconds, a feat that only a handful of skeleton athletes have accomplished.
“It was the first time I had ever broken into the 53-second finish time,” he said, recalling the National Championships as one of his favorite moments since he began sliding, right up there with his first-ever slide.
With an ultimate goal of qualifying for Pyeongchang in 2018, Brown returned to Woburn, Massachusetts, during the offseason to train and work as a strength and conditioning coach, which he cites as his other passion. He finds the work rewarding.
“There is something about molding young athletes and elite athletes and seeing your work in motion that is very satisfying,” he said.
There is something, however, that Brown will never quite be satisfied with, at least not until he is atop the Olympic podium, an American flag wrapped around his shoulders.
This season, Brown was named to the skeleton national team. He started the season competing on the Intercontinental Cup, where he claimed two bronze medals in four races. Following the holiday break, Brown was called to race on the World Cup tour in Lake Placid. In two World Cup races this season, Brown has two top-10 finishes, sixth in Lake Placid and ninth in St. Moritz.
While he has shown considerable improvements on the ice this season, Brown hopes that his progression will translate to the World Championships this weekend in Igls, Austria.
“I am always looking to improve my sliding style, speed and my start and will never be satisfied until it’s perfect,” he said. “I’m a competitor in everything … I love the never-ending challenge that the sport brings.”