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Drive is no issue for blind bobsledder Bryant

March 21, 2009
By MIKE LYNCH, Enterprise Sports Writer

LAKE PLACID - As Blaise Bryant and Mike Drake slid by the finish line in their blue bobsled, Blaise yelled out in an anxious voice, "What was our time?"

Drake, the brakeman, looked to the timer on a nearby building and yelled to Bryant, his blind driver, that they had finished in 48.93 seconds. The pair then got out of the bobsled and pushed it up the ice.

As Mike steered the bobsled over the deck from the ice to the sled truck, the 17-year-old Blaise scolded him for not transporting the sled properly. Blaise appeared fired up after the run. In fact, after each of the three runs Sunday at Mount Van Hoevenberg, Bryant was animated. Sometimes he slammed the side of the bobsled with his hand if a run didn't meet his expectations and sometimes he was loudly telling jokes to the crowd of bobsledders gathered nearby. And of course, he chided his brakeman, something that apparently extends beyond the track.

Article Photos

Driver Blaise Bryant and his brakeman Mike Drake approach the finish line at Mount Van Hoevenberg on Sunday.
Enterprise photo by Mike Lynch

"I give him a hard time but that's part of my job," Blaise said about his partner Mike, who was sitting next to him. "It's funny, in school we'll walk by each other and he'll say, 'Oh, there's that blind bobsledder and I'll say, 'Hey, there's that weak brakeman.'"

Both Blaise, who is a junior at Moriah High School, and Mike, a senior, laughed at that statement.

Blaise seems to be at home at the Mount Van Hoevenberg track, a place that he has been visiting since he was a young child.

"I was up here every weekend since I was knee-high because my dad slid skeleton for 17 years," Blaise said. "We basically lived here on the weekend."

Blaise's father, Daniel, was a World Cup skeleton athlete. After Daniel retired in 2000, he moved on to coaching, including helping to train Jimmy Shea, a skeleton slider who won the gold in at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games. Daniel also coaches Blaise, who participates in the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation's Junior Bobsled Program.

A fast learner

Blaise and Daniel have only taken about a half-dozen trips down the track together. The first one was in the winter of 1999-2000. During that first run, Daniel helped Blaise with the turns and also told Blaise to count - think, one-one thousand, two-one thousand - as he went down the track, a normal practice for beginning bobsledders going down the course.

The counting, which he still does, helps Blaise to know where he is on the track and therefore turn at the appropriate times. But Blaise must do more than count when going down the track. He also pays attention to how gravity effects his body as the bobsled slides through the twists and turns.

"He pulls the rope according to how his cheek feels," said Daniel, referring to the rope that steers the bobsled.

Blaise's sister, Joy, said that probably nobody knows the track better than Blaise. Joy should know. She helped teach him the track, riding as his brakeman.

"I would say, 'go left' or 'go right' or I would tap the side he needed to turn to, and after a season of him doing that I didn't have to do that anymore," Joy said.

Now Blaise relies heavily on his memory.

"It's one of those things where I know the track, and I've slid down the track a long time. I just have to count and memorize and feel where the turns are," Blaise said.

On Sunday, Blaise and Mike finished 10th of 13 teams in the final race of the season for the Junior Bobsled Program for 12 to 18 year olds. The race started at Turn Four, which is halfway down the bobsled run. Making their way for the finish, they travelled between 50 and 60 miles per hour.

While going that fast may intimidate some people, it is appealing to Blaise.

"He always had an interest in (bobsledding) because he likes speed," Daniel said. "He surprises a lot of people."

Racing with Joy

Blaise is proud to point out that in his first year of bobsledding, at the age of 8, he won a gold medal for his age category at the Empire State Games at Mount Van Hoevenberg. That was in 2000 and his sister Joy, who is a year older than him, served as the brakewoman.

"My first race was Feb. 28, 2000," Blaise said. "I remember that clearly. The best year was my rookie year. I won a gold."

The pair went on to race together for three years, winning a silver and bronze in the following years. Joy said she appreciated being able to share that common experience of bobsledding with her brother.

"It was cool to go down the track and share that bond with my brother," Joy said.

Joy said one of the aspects of Blaise's character that makes him successful as a bobsledder is his resiliency. He has the rare combination of being a strong competitor who always wants to improve while also being the type of person who can bounce back quickly from failure.

"He's such a happy go-lucky person that he's always making jokes and looking on the brighter side of things, because that's the way he's had to live his whole entire life, being blind," Joy said. "That that really helps in his career in bobsledding."

Today, Joy and Blaise don't race together anymore. She gave up bobsledding, then moved on to luge several years ago, and now is a skeleton racer. Her goal is to make the 2014 Winter Olympics.

When Joy moved on to other sports, Blaise picked up other partners, including Mike for the last two years. One of those partners along the way was a boy named Steve. Blaise jokes that he convinced Steve to give up bobsledding after one particularly hairy ride.

"Maybe a year or two after I won a gold medal, we were going down through on the old track and I T-boned the wall in finish curve," Blaise recalled with a laugh. "Helmet flies off, hat in it, the kid never went down a bobsled again."

Life beyond bobsledding

A well rounded teenager, Blaise has many interests beside bobsledding. He plays the violin, keyboard, is a honor roll student, and he also enjoys playing baseball. Blaise is able to hit by listening to the pitch as it approaches him, Joy said.

"He's a decent hitter," Joy said. "It's just like anything. When he practices, he's better than when he takes a couple weeks off."

Blaise also already knows what he wants to do with the rest of his life. He wants to attend college and get a degree in communications, so that he can pursue a career in sports radio as a broadcaster.

"Radio to me is like a teenager's TV pretty much, in this day and age," Blaise said. "That's where I get all my info from. I hardly turn on a television set. The radio has a taught me a lot. In a sense, I want to give back to what was given to me."

Going to college will mean he won't have the time to travel to Lake Placid every winter weekend to train. But that doesn't mean he will give up bobsledding completely. He said he hopes to return to Mount Van Hoevenberg when he has free time and take some runs, perhaps moving higher up on the track. The sport of bobsledding has been good to him, and so have the athletes, both those who have trusted him as a driver and those he's competed against.

"Bobsledding has been one of the most instrumental parts of my life," Blaise said. "I'm fortunate enough to have slid with a bunch of athletes, both past and now, that have become just been great (friends), off and on the track. To have that is just so uplifting to me."

But it's too early to get nostalgic yet. Before Blaise heads to college, he has one more year of competition left. It will be an important year, and he plans on training hard for it.

"The goal for next year is the goal I've had for a few years," Blaise said. "That's to get that same medal that I had in 2000 - that precious gold. You know, there are seasons where if I can just get a top 10 or a top five, I'd be happy. But if I get less than a gold, I'm not going to be 100 percent satisfied."



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