Still, for all the hoopla starting to surround the Olympics--pin collecting is already hot along the Wasatch Front--most athletes train here in relative anonymity. Even some of their sports are low-profile.
Take skeleton. One evening at the Olympic Park, I bump into Lincoln DeWitt, who until 1997 couldn't tell you the difference between a skeleton sled and a Flexible Flyer. A Vermont transplant who moved to Park City to teach skiing, he discovered the obscure sliding sport when a friend suggested, over beers, that they sign up for a clinic being held at Olympic Park. A lanky computer programmer then 30 years old, DeWitt wasn't fazed by a sport in which you ride face down, trying to hang on to a dinky sled while whipping through the bobsled track's 15 curves at speeds faster than 80 mph. North American champion last season, DeWitt is now a serious Olympic contender.
After watching DeWitt do a few practice runs, I too think it would be cool to roar down the track. Even cooler to do it in a four-man bobsled. And in fact it is incredibly cool--until the second turn. The professional driver keeps the sled upright, but slamming through the curves at 70-plus mph while pulling several g's on the biggest turns leaves me with a sore neck, wobbly knees, and a healthy new respect for bobsledders. After I pull myself back together, I am also left with a hunger to try it again--even at $175 a ride.
Still, sampling Utah's Olympic venues isn't all about speed and potential for bone-jarring crashes. Though Olympic Park visitors can also try soloing on a modified luge called an Ice Rocket or learn how to ski jump off one of the venue's smaller ramps, there are tamer sports to try. Turning my back on Park City and the Olympic Park, I head northwest 60 miles to Ogden and the Ice Sheet.
Within this nice, warm indoor ice arena, I come face-to-face with a 42-pound stone and quickly learn some of the intricacies of curling. A sport of sweat as well as touch, curling dates to 16th-century Scotland, where farmers exorcised winter's boredom by sliding river-smoothed cobbles across frozen ponds and lochs. Fitted with a "slider" over one shoe and armed with a broom to sweep the ice-covered court in a frenzied bid to control my teammates' stones, I quickly come to enjoy this slippery cross between bowling and shuffleboard.
Gliding along the neatly groomed nordic tracks at Soldier Hollow is a great way to appreciate the daunting task facing the world's best skinny skiers in 2002. The hilly course, cradled in a northeast-facing bowl and surrounded by the rolling sage- and willow-covered hills of Wasatch State Park, quickly brings a burn to your thighs. It also takes you back into silent, snow-covered country for mountainside views. The timbered day lodge, scheduled to open January 1, is the perfect place for contemplating your Olympic stamina over a hot drink in front of the stone fireplace.
While the process of bringing the games to Salt Lake City has been tarnished by controversy, the results so far have been nothing short of spectacular. Olympic Park's sledding tracks and ski-jumping hills appear destined to become the West's first national training centers for those sports, and a legacy fund is expected to keep the park in business. Ski areas that have been drawing winter lovers to the Wasatch Mountains for three decades have put on new faces, upgrading facilities and services that will be worth visiting long after the Olympic Torch is extinguished.
Having survived the bobsled, safely negotiated the downhill course, and learned how to heft and somewhat deftly slide a curling stone, I've come to better appreciate what it takes to become an Olympic athlete. More selfishly, though, with Utah's 2002 venues now up and running, I know I won't have to wait another four years to improve on my performances.
For details on the Olympic venues and test events, updates on the 2002 Winter Games, and ticket information as it becomes available, check the Games' official website, www.saltlake2002.com.
Most years there's dependably good skiing from Thanksgiving into April. Information on Utah's alpine and nordic ski resorts, including trail maps, ticket prices, and packages, can be obtained from Ski Utah at (800) 754-8824, (801) 534-1779, or www.skiutah.com.
For travel guides including lodging, dining, and local activities, contact the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau (800/541-4955 or www.visitsaltlake.com), Park City Visitors Bureau (800/453-1360 or www.parkcityinfo.com), or Ogden/Weber Convention and Visitors Bureau (800/255-8824 or www.ogdencvb.org).