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Bobsledders need to feed the rush



"War is a drug."

- Chris Hedges

So is sliding.

The Feb. 12 death of 21-year-old Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili affected everyone with a connection to the Whistler Sliding Centre track.

But as horrific as Kumaritashvili's crash was, it's an unlikely event in bobsled - and it's not deterring a team of 12 bobsledders who are sliding under the banner of the maple leaf at the 2010 Olympics.

They're football players, track athletes, entrepreneurs and engineers. They're also addicts who share a taste for adrenaline.

It calls them back to the ice-track like the drug that it is. And Helen Upperton, who is piloting a sled alongside Brakewoman Shelley Ann Brown, has been a junkie as long as she can remember.

"I've been like that since I could walk," she said in a media briefing outside the Whistler Media Centre. "Everything has been like Mach 50, you know, I was in and out of hospitals as a kid. I drive an 1,100 cc motorbike. Like I just, for me, this was sort of the calling."

She and Brown just returned from Disneyland, a trip to take a break from the Olympic fever. But fever caught up with them down south, dragging them to the rollercoaster to get their fix - though it doesn't nearly match up to the bobsled track.

"People always think that rollercoasters and bobsledding are similar," Brown said. "They trick you. They're like, 'It's just like riding a rollercoaster.' It's actually nothing like riding a rollercoaster. It's a completely different thrill altogether."

Adrenaline is a chemical that is pumped through the body like a drug. Housed in a spot near the kidneys called the adrenal glands, it can be triggered by any number of external occurrences. For a person walking home at night, it can be released when someone jumps at you from behind a bush. Adrenaline drains the colour from your face and makes you clench your fists.

For sledders it can come at any number of points. Athletes can psych themselves up before a run or even the very sight of the winding course can trigger its release. Once triggered it stimulates muscles, including the heart, forcing up the heart rate. It moves more blood through the body, gearing up the energy needed to drive the muscles when sliding.

"It can be released into the bloodstream to be distributed throughout the body," says Dr. Roger Brownsey, a professor of biochemistry at UBC. "It's all part of jazzing up the whole system too. The physicologist describes it as one of the classic 'fight or flight' syndrome responses."

Little else seems to matter when you're on the track. No matter that you experience five G's of gravity when going through curves - more than twice the pull you feel in a space shuttle in launch mode.

The danger of crashing is always there - but for these athletes, that matters less than the ride.

"I think if you compare the winter sports to the summer sports, there's a chance you could die or break every bone in your body," a sprightly Upperton said. "I like standing at the start line and being like, oh my God, I hope this goes okay.

"We're thrill-seeking athletes and I think after I'm done bobsledding I'll be looking for the rest of my life to try to replicate the feeling of standing at the top of an icy mountain and looking down 16 corners. It's amazing."