LAKE PLACID - Luke Schulz and Megan Henry claimed the 2011 U.S. National Skeleton Push Championship titles Saturday. The two-heat push contest was the first competition for the skeleton team since nationals last March.
"We had an outstanding group of 37 athletes compete this week," said skeleton head coach Tuffy Latour. "Our program is growing and some of the newer athletes are already competitive with some of the fastest athletes in the nation. Brian McDonald was here to tag team coach with me. It's great to see everyone back in competition mode."
Schulz claimed his first skeleton push title by 0.15 seconds after clocking a total time of 9.72 seconds. Schulz, a Davenport, N.D. native who is entering his fifth season, pushed identical runs of 4.86 seconds to post the fastest times of each heat.
"I didn't allow anything to disrupt my concentration," Schulz said. "I've had trouble putting together two consistent runs throughout my career and this was the first time I was able to do that. My mentality changed from a timed performance to just trusting the process and competing at my best. I'm looking forward to applying that on ice."
Schulz took advantage of the U.S. Olympic Committee's resource of sport psychologists for the first time last week. Schulz met with sport psychologist Alex Cohen to gain insight on how he could better his performance through his mindset.
"I'm a guy that doesn't want to talk about my problems, so I was skeptical," Schulz said. "Meeting with Alex changed my opinion of how sport psychology works, because he helped me a lot with how I approached today's competition."
Schulz was the fastest of 23 competitors today, and the field was an even mix of veterans and new recruits.
"The competition is looking really good this year," Schulz said. "It's really cool to see the rookies come out and progress and to see how the veterans have all improved over the off season. The men's program is really strong, which means team trials will be a tough battle."
John Daly of Smithtown was the runner up with a two-push total of 9.87 seconds. The 2010 Olympian clocked heats of 4.90 and 4.97 to finish just 0.07 seconds ahead of Mike Delleman, who finished third with a combined time of 9.94 seconds.
Steven Holcomb withdrew his entry from the competition. The 2010 Olympic gold medalist was on a quest to win the push title in all three sliding sports after already having won the bobsled pilot push title and the luge open start title this summer. Holcomb opted out of the skeleton competition at the last minute.
"Out of respect for my teammates and erring on the side of caution, I withdrew from the skeleton push championships," Holcomb said. "While it would be really neat to potentially hold three titles in all the sliding sports in the same year, I can't risk injury and letting my teammates down."
Holcomb and his four-man bobsled team claimed the first world championship title in 50 years for the U.S. at the 2009 event in Lake Placid, and the team has its sights set on a repeat performance this February when worlds return to Mount Van Hoevenberg. With his ultimate goal in mind, Holcomb decided competing in skeleton push championships would have to wait.
"That's not to say that I wouldn't be willing to try this again in the future, but my sight is set on the prize, and that is another world championship title here in Lake Placid," Holcomb said.
Henry started only her second season in the sport by winning the women's skeleton push title with a convincing lead of 0.28 seconds. The rookie from Roxbury, Conn. was excited to kick off the sliding year with a win.
"Push championships definitely brings you back into the sliding mentality," Henry said. "Summer is ending and it was really cold here this week, so it's a wake-up call that the skeleton season is approaching. Even though this competition doesn't determine selection for skeleton, I think it's still important to get the competitive edge back after a long off-season. I'm so excited."
Henry posted the fastest times of the competition, 5.40 and 5.43 seconds, to take the lead with a two-push total of 10.83.
"The coaches made some adjustments to my push this week and I was able to adapt really well," Henry said. "The competition was really tight and exciting, so it was awesome to be here and learn and feel the pressure of racing again."
Megan Sullivan pushed start times of 5.54 and 5.57 seconds for a total of 11.11 to finish second and Texan Caitlin Carter came from behind after the first heat to claim the third spot with a combined push time of 11.25 seconds.