Members of the U.S. skeleton sled team could ride their way — fast and smooth — to victory at the Winter Olympics courtesy of the University of Cincinnati.
Grant Shaffner, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, worked closely with the team tasked with redesigning the sled.
Skeleton is a racing event in which individuals race down an incline covered in ice, with speeds often exceeding 90 mph.
Shaffner worked with the athletes — Matt Antoine, Katie Uhlaender and John Daly — and head coach Tuffield Latour to find out what they needed in a sled.
The result was a combination of engineering, science and trusting the intuition of the athletes.
More often than not, he said, the modification resulted in real improvements.
Shaffner originally helped design a skeleton sled known as the X2 for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Soon after the 2010 games, he and the rest of the team went to redesign the sled that is currently in Sochi, Russia — the ProtoStar V5.
The team used a different metal on the ProtoStar V5 because the standard steel previously used on the sled led to corrosion.
“While it may not have had a big impact on the steel, it just looked bad,” Shaffner said. “As an athlete riding on rust it doesn’t build your confidence. We learned very quickly, they need to feel they are riding on the best equipment.”
They also redesigned the frame to better absorb the shock from the track. The sleds are not actually allowed to have shock resistant system, but redesigning the frame helped make the sled ride smoother.
To help gain a better perspective, Shaffner tested the sled himself.
“It was quite a rush,” Shaffner said. “We learned very quickly over three days. All three of us admitted afterwards that there was a moment in the run we all thought we were going to die.”
Shaffner said the ride gave him a new level of respect for the athletes and helped him make needed improvements, including ways to improve the steering.
The sled does not have a mechanism that helps the riders turn. Instead, the rider puts pressure on the opposite sides on the sled with their shoulders and knees.
“It was a very good experience and we learned a lot from that,” Shaffner said.
The improvements were a collaborative effort between Shaffner’s team, Cincinnati-based ProtoStar Engineering, Fairfield-based Machintek Corporation, deBotech Inc. of Mooresville, N.C. and Carpenter Technology Corporation of Wyomissing, Pa.
“It was a real engineering challenge, but we live for it,” Shaffner said. “Still complying with the regulations and being innovative was just a great challenge and tremendously rewarding.”
Women’s Skeleton is scheduled to start Feb. 13 and the men’s is scheduled for Feb. 14.