A new kind of student athlete

Not content to participate in a more mundane sport, second-year BSc and psychology student Jamie Willetts decided instead to take up skeleton.

In 2009, Willetts began looking into how one gets involved in such activities and after a camp at York University was one of two selected to move on to race.

“Not many people do it,” he began. “It’s something adrenaline inducing and it looks like fun, I mean going really fast down a hill is pretty cool, right? [It’s] tobogganing but for big kids basically.”

Willetts described his first run, saying, “You’re going 100 [kilometres an hour]-plus and doing over a 90 degree turn and you just go up the wall and the G’s force you to the ice. It’s really weird because you go down and your head just gets drawn straight down and the first few times you do it you have no control.”

“Your head just gets pinned to the ice and almost drags your chin along the ground.”

Asked if he can see where he is going as his head is forced to the ice by downforce, Willetts replied, “To be completely honest, no, not really. You can do a lot of it based on feel. I could probably close my eyes and go down safely but a lot of it is just based on feel and you take little peeks up.” He added that keeping his head down and not moving improves his performance, so driving by feel is to his benefit.

Since there are no tracks in Ontario, racers like Willetts train out of Lake Placid, New York. Since Jan. 31, he has been in Lake Placid for a two-week training stint.

Willets is in rare company. He estimates that there are less than 50 skeleton participants in Ontario, though there is a larger population in Western Canada and he has seen a rise in the sport’s popularity — especially since the 2010 Winter Olympics.

“I’m considered young in the sport, not many parents want their 14-year-old kid doing something at that kind of speed, right?” he said. “Even with that, now there are people that are younger than me and just get involved.”

With travel and training commitments, Willetts said his education becomes difficult to balance, and he is considering a transfer to university in Calgary next year to be closer to a track.

He plans to continue to train and though he has yet to see competition, he expects to be racing in the next year, especially with a move to Calgary.

“I really can’t say how far I might go,” he said. “Obviously the Olympics would be great — what’s the real point if I’m not going to try and make it that far, right?”