"I was pretty clear my first time out," Ellis says. "I was clear that my first time was going to be my last."
Skeleton racing is similar to the sledding kids do, or at least the kids who see snow in the winter. It's "similar" in that there is a sled and you lie on it. After that, it's a bit more complicated. And dangerous. Skeleton racers hurtle down the track head first, never really seeing where they're going so much as feeling their way. They often average more than 70 miles an hour. The good ones, the guys like Ellis, max out around 85 mph.
The first time, though, Ellis went only 50 mph or so. Only. Much to his astonishment, that first time wasn't his last. He survived. Before long, he thrived.
He's from Dallas, by the way--the best world-class athlete you don't know. Don't be too hard on yourself; hardly anyone has heard of him. Ellis, 30, is the sixth-ranked skeleton racer in the world, but he may as well work the checkout counter at Wal-Mart for all the exposure he gets. Skeleton and bobsled racers are generally overlooked, unless it's an Olympic year. Even then no one notices them until they're actually on the track and trying to beat the Germans or the Canadians or whomever out of a medal in the name of patriotism. Only then do the rest of us pay attention.
All that considered, it's hardly surprising that today's tryouts at the University of North Texas didn't draw more people. The United States Olympic Committee sends a few members of its bobsled and skeleton teams on cross-country tours each year. They stop at college campuses and audition athletes--usually track and football guys--to see if anyone can be folded into the training program. The potential candidates will be asked to run 30- and 60-meter sprints, followed by vertical leaps. It's an overcast day, and it's early in the morning, and it's April, and the Winter Olympics are still two years away, but the turnout is depressing. Two guys, one girl. Maybe some more will show later. Maybe not.
"A big turnout for us would be 20 people or so," says Tom LaDue, the PR director for the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. When they're done today, LaDue and bobsledders Tom Allen and Steve Mesler will pack up their gear, throw it in a trailer, drive to Illinois State University and start all over again. (Ellis gets to stay in town.) They will make six stops over 14 days, ending at Duke University in North Carolina. It is a long, hard, strange way to find a future for U.S. bobsled and skeleton. "At the last stop, at Texas A&M, we had eight kids show up. We need the exposure. That's the thing. A lot of people don't know how to get into it, or they don't really know much about it in general. We were on TV once this year, on NBC for one hour, and that was a time-buy. In Europe, those guys are on TV all the time."
The Europeans also have feeder programs and multiple tracks on which to train. And respect--a lot of it. The Americans really have none of those things (though they're beginning to get more of the latter, for whatever that's worth). Ellis and his buddies have two options if they want to hone their craft--Lake Placid and Park City, Utah. In Germany alone there are three world-class tracks. There's another major difference between the Euros and our boys: money. Though the bobsled/skeleton season is only about three months long, the athletes train year-round. Some--like Ellis, who works in accounting for Vaughn Petroleum--are fortunate enough to have bosses who understand the travel and training demands. Others, like Mesler, aren't so fortunate. Mesler, 25, has no side gig. He survives solely on what the USOC floats him for expenses--a grand sum of approximately $1,000 per month. You could make more begging on a downtown street corner.
"It could be worse," Mesler says. "Only the guys at the top of the program, the guys who are medal contenders, even get that much."
It's a wonder that these guys are competitive at all. (The skeleton racers even have to buy their own equipment; that can get expensive. A good, custom-made sled costs more than two grand.) In the last Olympics, the bobsled and skeleton teams combined for six medals, which shocked everyone. Point is, despite having to deal with myriad impediments, these guys continue to progress. Especially Ellis.
He didn't compete in the last Olympics. There's no shame there because, at that point, he had been a skeleton racer for only three years, and besides that, he had other things to worry about. When he first started racing, he also served as team manager.
"I'd be in the start house, and guys would come up to me wanting to know about their plane tickets," says the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Ellis, who ran track at Stephen F. Austin. "Not only was I racing, but I was dealing with budgets, equipment, travel details, all kinds of things."
Eventually, he scrapped that part of his involvement and focused on racing. That's when he really started to improve, working his way from one of the hopefuls to the elite. He started shaving time here and there and everywhere, and before he knew it, there were only five others in the world better.
But here's the bummer: Even though he's the youngest member of the skeleton team (which finished second overall in the World Cup last year), nothing is guaranteed. Only three Americans will compete in the 2006 Olympics, and there are a lot of people behind him who would like a spot.
"We have to make the team every year," says Ellis, who until recently hadn't experienced one of those Wide World of Sports crashes that leaves viewers recoiling from their TV sets. He says that helped him get better, that he walked away from it knowing he could go faster. The rest of us would have just walked away--for good. "Just because you're one of the best this year doesn't guarantee you a spot next year. I would like to make the Olympics, yeah, but I'm not sure that's the biggest motivation for me. I would like to be the best American. But you have to have your own motivation. I wonder about that sometimes. Because you get cuts and bruising on your shoulders, and you get ice burns. And we don't get much exposure, and the travel, even though we go to Europe for two months at a time, it can be hard. So sometimes I wonder how much longer I'll do it. But I'm such a competitive person that when I get down the hill...I don't know. There's just something about it--I want to go right back up to the top."