Tensions are swirling at the Utah Olympic Park around a bobsled team that's a little bit different. The athletes have disabilities and they're trying to get some respect, both in the international sports world and on the track near Park City.
Dave Nicholls, director of the U.S. Adaptive Paralympic Bobsled Team, complains his team has been hassled, ridiculed and treated unequally with able-bodied athletes. "Myself and some of the other (disabled) athletes have been dealt with a little bit unprofessionally and misappropriately," Nicholls said. But after sharing his grievances with a reporter on Saturday, he called back later to say that Olympic Park management now seems to be listening to his concerns.
For years disabled bobsledders have had only one track in the world to use, Utah Olympic Park. Only recently, the Canadian facility in Calgary began allowing limited access to such teams.
When he's training, Nicholls trades in his wheelchair for a seat in a specially modified bobsled, which he pilots down the Utah track. Nicholls used to be a competitive skier but was partially paralyzed when an out-of-control snowboarder rammed into him and broke his neck.
The bobsled he pilots was donated by the National Abilitiy Center. "It allows us to do what we need to do to get down the track," Nicholls said. "It's a rush, it's a challenge, and it's my dream."
After a running push from his brakeman, who is not paralyzed, Nicholls' sled made it down the track in 57 seconds. He was euphoric. "Whoooo!!!" Nicholls exclaimed. "That was a run, man! That was a run!"
Nicholls says he has complained to management at Utah Olympic Park that the facilities do not comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. That law sets standards for things like wheelchair access, special restrooms and handicapped parking. "And we're yelled at," Nicholls said on behalf of his team. "We can't park here, and we can't park here."
He claims the team gets harassed regularly by at least by one track employee who is impatient and acts angry with team members. "We've been yelled at, and we've been hollered at," Nicholls said. "We've been told that, you know, 'Come on guys! Get with it a little faster here! We got a real program that we got to run!' "
The pace of activity at the track can be hectic because luge, bobsled and skeleton athletes compete for track time. Nevertheless, the official who recently took control of daily operations says the paralympics team is welcome. "They've shown that they can get down the track," said Marc Norman, vice president for Venues & Sport for the Utah Athletic Foundation. "I think it's a great fit and one that we're anxious to keep moving forward."
But the two sides have tangled over issues like fees, coaching, advance notice when the paralympic team is coming, and whether they need extra helpers at the track.
Norman describes the controversy as a communication issue he is eager to resolve. He said he wants the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation to adopt rules and guidelines so everyone will know what practices are appropriate for disabled bobsledders. "We agree they can do it," Norman said. "We just want to start trying to define what it is that needs to be in place to make sure it's safe."
As for alleged deficiencies under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, Norman said he's willing to look into it and make changes if necessary. "We should be as compliant as we can be and are required to be, definitely," Norman said.