By BRIAN JENNINGS
Austin Florian has been well known to the Southington sports sections as a successful ski racer, but ski racing isn’t the only sport he can excel at on the winter track.
Florian raced nearly his entire life, first learning how to ski at Mount Southington and then moving up to the bigger slopes of Mount Washington Valley in New Hampshire to race for the Wildcat Ski Team and Mount Washington Valley Ski team, eventually becoming a standout at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y.
Florian raced in four consecutive United States Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association (USCSA) National Championships, earning overall All-American status this past spring at the USCSA National Championships at Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington, N.Y. However, he is racing on a new platform now—skeleton racing.
Skeleton racing takes place on a bobsled track using a very low profile, high tech 75-pound sled, in which you lay face down and go head first down the track. Skeleton racers can reach speeds of up to 90 miles per hour on some tracks. But that doesn’t bother Florian one bit.
“I love it. I want to go faster,” said Florian. “I don’t really think about it too much. I just worry about having fun and getting faster. I just like to stay focused on my task at hand. You’re not going to get faster if you’re afraid of it all the time.”
Florian dabbled in skeleton racing for the past two years upon graduating from Clarkson as an engineering management student. At one of the tracks in Lake Placid where Clarkson’s ski team trained, he noticed a skeleton racing track and saw that open tryouts for skeleton racing were being held there.
“I always thought luge and skeleton racing were interesting growing up,” said Florian, “so I figured I’d get a chance to give it a shot. I like going fast.”
The skeleton team liked sprinters, so they decided to keep Florian around.
“I think ski racing and skeleton racing translate very well to each other,” he said. “Just the athletic aspect of it going from the ski racing to a sprinter is relatively easy, tactically driving a skeleton sled as well. It’s very similar and easy to transfer that from ski racing to skeleton, as far as lines throughout the track in line ski racing.”
While he is waiting at the line before he pushes his sled, Florian said that he usually tries to focus on a couple key points of the upcoming run. But mostly, he focuses on clearing his mind. Then, it’s instincts and muscle memory as he hurtles down the course.
“Being a sprinter is very important to being a starter,” said Florian. “That’s why they recruit a lot of sprinters. Bobsled has recruited Lolo Jones, a couple of ex-NFL players, and college football players. Sprinters aren’t powerful athletes, but are very good at pushing. I just picked up the technique very quickly.”
Florian was always known as a fast starter, combining his speed as a sprinter on the Blue Knight track and field team with his downhill skiing fundamentals from the northern mountains to excel on Mount Southington’s short racing course.
Thos skills translated well into his skeleton racing. A couple of years ago, he ran the second-fastest start overall at his first national championship, and he finished 13th overall.
This year, Florian finished eighth with the third-fastest in the start after not being able to slide all season, due to a broken hand. He was invited to the national push championships where he placed second behind a track star that was not in contention for the national team. He was then invited to the National Team Trials at Lake Placid and Park City, Utah.
“The broken hand wasn’t so bad,” he said. “I just didn’t slide for a little bit. Last year, I was more focused on my last season of ski racing, as opposed to skeleton. The coaches knew that I was focusing on that because it was my senior year. It was more of me skiing with a broken hand, but I wasn’t sliding with a broken hand.”
There, Florian placed fourth in his first run, but pulled a hamstring in his second run, dropping him down a spot to fifth. He took the next race off and ran all four runs in Park City with a half-speed start, in order to protect his leg. He was named to the North American National Team and traveled to Calgary, Canada for his first North American Cup competition.
“The last month I’ve been rehabbing my hamstring,” said Florian. “I’m still not 100 percent yet, but I should be by the races in January. This year has been a little bit more difficult because I haven’t been able to push, but I’ve been learning new tracks and doing pretty well for my given situation.”
In his first international competition with the team, Florian was still nursing a pulled hamstring and was not able to push within a half second of his best, but still managed to finish 15th in the first race and ninth in his second race out of about 30 athletes from around the world.
“My hamstring was still relatively hurt, but given the circumstances I think I slid pretty well,” he said. “That track depends a lot on the push because it’s flat. I drove pretty well and was pretty happy with how I ended up overall after training there for a week and half with some difficulties.”
After racing in Calgary, Florian moved onto Whistler, British Columbia and came in 14th in the first race out of about eight to 10 world cup athletes. He reinjured his hamstring in that race and placed 17th the following day, not able to push as fast.
Although he was unable to compete at full speed, injuries have not slowed Florian from being considered as one of the fastest skeleton pushers and sliders on the team and in the country.
Florian was recently in Park City training, in the process of co-designing and building a new sled. If it proves to be fast, Florian’s team will begin manufacturing them to help fund his sliding.
“It was more of just a project that I wanted to do,” he said. “I figured I’d give it a shot and was very interested in the subject. I felt I was going to learn a lot about sliding and the sled just by trying to build one myself, finding out how it works, how it doesn’t work, and learning more about the mechanics of it.”
Florian was also invited to the Junior World Championships in Latvia, Europe this month where he will take an opportunity to become a Junior World Champion.
“I looking to mostly gain experience really,” said Florian. “Competing on a higher caliber and a track that I get to compete on at the Junior World Championships is a cool thing I get to check off my list. I’d like to do well, but we’ll see where things end up once I get to that point.”
Florian’s goal is to qualify for the 2018 Olympics in South Korea or 2022 Olympics in Beijing, China.
“I am aiming more so for the 2022 Olympics,” said Florian. “It’s an outside chance, so I’m not putting too much focus on that. I’m worried about developing as athlete.”
You can follow results and some live event video feeds of the United States bobsled and skeleton racing teams on their Facebook page or on their team web site at www.teamusa.org/USA-Bobsled-Skeleton-Federation.
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