Para bobsled team share their love for the sport | News, Sports, Jobs

U.S. para bobsled slider Bob Balk races down the track during a practice run on Friday in Lake Placid.
(Enterprise photo — Parker O’Brien)

LAKE PLACID — U.S. para bobsled athlete and Veteran David Christopher loves the thrill of riding in a bobsled.

After a motorcycle accident left Christopher paralyzed from the chest down nearly 10 years ago, bobsled has been a huge passion of his.

“You kind of get that thrill,” he said. “Just the adrenaline. I’ve done other sports and it just didn’t click.”

The U.S. Para bobsled team, returned to Lake Placid this past week for its final race of the season — the National championships, which will be used for the team selection next season.

Christopher, who lives just North of Tampa, Florida, began bobsledding a few seasons ago. He joined the sport after learning that one of his friends was sliding for the U.S. para bobsled team. His friend introduced him to one of the coaches and Christopher fell in love with the sport.

“Originally, I thought I’ll just come and do it and just try it, because I’ll do anything,” Christopher said. “I’ve been sticking with it and trying to learn more and more about the fundamentals. I’m just trying to do better and better.”

Within a short amount of time, Christopher was already competing on the Para Sport World Cup circuit. This season, he finished 13th overall and won a silver medal at the Empire State Winter Games in February.

The manager of U.S. para sliding sports, Kim Seevers, said it’s common for para bobsled athletes to reach the World Cup level in a short amount of time. Some of the athletes can start with a couple of beginner-level camps, and after one or two experienced camps the following year, they could end up in the World Cup.

Seevers, who lives in Averill Park, has played an instrumental role in the success of U.S. para bobsled team on the Para Sport World Cup Circuit, which has included an overall podium finish each year since the 2021-22 season.

“Because we’ve been around the able-bodied more and we’re having a lot of success,” Seevers said. “These guys are getting to know the able-bodied more. It’s a closer group. The able-bodied (athletes) come to cheer for them. A lot of these guys that coach these guys are former bobsled athletes.”

Seevers began her journey after guiding Staci Mannella, a visually impaired skier, to the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia. After those games, Seevers began looking to find another sports to guide after applying for a state Department of Veterans Affairs grant. After speaking with a veteran who had just taken part in the first-ever para boblsed camp in Calgary, Alberta, Seevers realized bobsled might be the answer.

“It took me about six months to convince (the state Olympic Authority bobsled track managers) that having somebody with a disability would be alright,” Seevers said. “They were like, ‘Oh what if they get hurt,’ and I was like ‘They’re hurt already.’ I promised them that for the first camp I would find five or six really physically fit veterans.”

Seevers lived up to her promise and by the end of the week, the track manager began asking her how they could make Lake Placid the home training center for Paralympic winter sports in the United States.

After 40 camps over the last nine years, the para bobsled team continues to grow.

Guillermo “Will” Castillo, who became the first U.S. para bobsled athlete to win the overall IBSF Para Sport World Cup in 2023, said riding in a bobsled gives him another purpose in life.

Castillo, of Queens, was wounded in Iraq back in 2007 after a bomb explosion took out his left knee and killed everyone else in his truck. While suffering from depression and anxiety, Castillo met Seevers at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Seevers was starting a camp to get veterans out of isolation.

Castillo started in skeleton and ended up switching over to bobsled. Now, he’s a five-time national team member and takes pride in representing the U.S. on the World Cup circuit.

“After the military this is another chapter in my life that I’m sort of riding and going through it,” Castillo said. “There’s no disability on the ice. Once you’re on the ice. You’re as free as you can drive that.”

This season, Castillo finished sixth overall and claimed one gold medal at the Para Sport World Cup title in December in Lillehammer, Norway.

The Para Sport World Cup circuit only features one discipline features one discipline, which is for athletes who can’t physically push themselves off a the track. The para bobsled athletes are pushed off by a mechanical launcher.

Despite not being on the World Cup circuit, there are also other disciplines within the sport, including a push division and skeleton.

DJ Skelton has been on the push-division national team for the past four years. Skelton, a veteran who was wounded in Iraq in 2004, has played role in helping others on the team.

“Like many things in life, I had a friend of a friend who crossed paths with Kim and he was like, ‘Hey, I met this lady and she is looking for wounded vets to come try the sport of bobsled, would you be interested?’” Skelton said. “And the rest is kind of history.”

Skelton, who lives in the Washington D.C. area, was invited to forerun the World Cup circuit this past season. The forerunners are the first pilots to slide down the track, and essentially test if it’s suitable for the racers. Skelton said he enjoys just getting into the bobsled every single time.

“It’s not normal, it’s not comfortable and you’re nervous,” he said. But you have to figure out a way to overcome all of those emotions and concentrate in the moment.”

Dan Rizzieri, who was born without both of his legs, is also a member of the push division. The Cohocton native came from the para track and field world, where he competed in the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships and held the world record for long jump for half a decade.

“I kind of got out of that like five or six years ago,” he said. “There was another gentleman that I ran track with — he did skeleton — and he was like, ‘You should try it you live five hours away,’ so I said ‘OK.’ He hooked me up with Kim and I was here two weeks later doing a push camp. That was about a year and a half ago and I’ve been trying it ever since.”

This season, Rizzieri competed at the Empire State Games in the combined parabob/skele consistency race, where he placed third overall. Being apart of the team of has been a great experience because everyone is willing to help each other.

“You get done with a run and they’re cheering for you,” he said. “We’re competing, but it’s such a community that everybody is just great to be around.”

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