High above the ground, looking down at a sloped, curved hill of solid ice, Stephanie Nolin stands at the starting line. She cannot see the bottom, only the little bit of track in front of her. In her hands, she holds a 77-pound sled. She starts to sprint forward, with her spikes digging into the slippery surface. She gets to full speed, then she dives forward, onto the sled made of metal and plastic. She lands on the slick, frozen slide with her hands gripping the handles of the sled as tight as they can. In front of her lies a white blur of twists and turns she will go through at speeds of over 80-miles-per-hour. This is a challenge that some will never attempt in life out of pure fright, but to Nolin, this is just another run.
Nolin started in the sport of skeleton at home in Alberta, Canada where she grew up in the city of Red Deer, which has a population of about 100,000. Red Deer is unique because it is in between two of Canada’s bigger cities, Calgary and Vancouver, and also because the city sits between the mountains and the prairies. Despite most stereotypes of Canadian weather, Nolin holds that New England gets much more snow than she saw at home, and it is not as cold as some would believe.
“It’s not as cold as you would think. Massachusetts gets way more snow than Alberta does. I never had a snow day or anything like that,” Nolin said.
Nolin grew up in a small household, only having one brother along with her mother and father. Her mother is a nurse while her father works for the Canadian government. Her younger brother, Nicholas, is also in graduate school and attends school in New York City.
When Nolin was younger, she was a dancer for a very competitive dance studio and also played rugby in high school. Being naturally athletic and playing sports all her life, Nolin is very competitive. She completed her undergraduate work at the University of Calgary with a degree in English Literature.
Her interest in skeleton started by seeing it on television while the Winter Olympics were on. She saw it and said, “That’s what I want to do.”
In order to become a participant in skeleton, prospective athletes have to complete a driving school where they learn the inner workings of the sport. Runs in skeleton usually last around 58 or 59 seconds. In that time, sliders cover over 1000 meters. While it looks like the sliders are just going down without much direction, they are actually steering the sled as it careens down the slope. Riders are taught in the driving school about the physics of the track and how to use banks and turns to increase speed and decrease the effort needed to turn, which would slow down the slider. Nolin, who also races bobsleds, says there is a high G-force on riders of both sports. In bobsled, riders can be under as much as 5 G’s.
Sliders have to be very athletic to participate in this sport, as they have to hold a sled before and while they are running, which can weigh as much as 77 pounds for women and 95 pounds for men. Nolin says that track athletes’ skill sets translate well to the sliding sport because athletes have to start from a standstill before running to a dead sprint. This quick motion requires a lot of leg strength and upper body strength to hold the sled in place as they move.
Luckily for Nolin, Alberta had a skeleton track because Calgary held the Winter Olympics in 1988, which meant she did not have to travel far to pursue her dream. The track in Calgary is 1475 meters long with 14 turns. As a comparison, the track in Sochi, Russia, where the 2014 Winter Olympics just took place, is 1814 meters long with 19 curves.
Nolin became good at the sport, which she claims is, “not for everyone,” and soon began competing at the international stage. With her competitions taking her around North America and having family in the United States, Nolin traveled in and out of the U.S. countless times. She trained in Long Island, which made her want to go to grad school in the Northeast.
The sled rocks from left to right. On television, cameras struggle to keep up with the speed of the sliders as they scream down the hill. Lying on a sled only five inches above the glassy surface, Nolin steers her way through all the twists the track throws at her. With her adrenaline pumping at the highest rate, she is able to slow down the plunge and make sense of her surroundings. Midway down the hill and she is already going faster on a sled than most people go in cars on the highway. In her head, she knows what is coming and it does not scare her.
The training in Long Island allowed the now-30-year-old Nolin to look into schools she potentially wanted to attend for graduate work. She knew she wanted to go into Sports Psychology because, while competing in skeleton, she had access to them.
“When I was competing for skeleton, we always had access to sports psychologists, so I basically knew that was something I wanted to get into when I was done competing,” Nolin said.
While searching for schools in the New England area, Nolin found that Springfield College was ranked the best in the region in her desired program.
Although the cultures are practically the same in the United States and Canada, the biggest adjustment for Nolin came from being so far away from home and not having the support system that so many students have. Although there is a great distance between Springfield and Red Deer, Nolin has been home a fair amount of times this year. She is in regular contact with her parents and can see her brother often because he goes to school in New York City.
Her thesis is on professional golfers with whom she has experience. Nolin caddies on the PGA Canada Tour, which allows for her to travel all over Canada and work for the top golfers in the country.
“It was really awesome,” Nolin said. “It was something I just kind of fell into. I was hoping to pick up golf as my next sport after sliding, but then this caddying thing happened and I didn’t get to work on my own game.”
Deb Alm, who is the director at the International Center in the Union, met Nolin when she first came to Springfield College.
The International Center is the hub for students who are coming to Springfield for academic work as undergraduates, graduates or as visiting scholars.
The program contains 112 students from 20 different countries, including four from Canada (including Nolin). In addition to the full-time students, Springfield College receives over 100 visitors at different times throughout the year to see the school and attend some classes.
During the orientation activities the Center held to acclimate the international students to one another, Alm remembers that Nolin was “very open and very friendly.” Alm also says that Nolin has a high level of initiative that she sees in students that “have risen to the high level of athletics,” as Nolin has.
After Nolin graduates from Springfield, she hopes to work with professional golfers or amateur athletes. She describes being around athletes as a fun experience.
“Of course I would love to work with amateur athletes like sliders or, at home, we have the Canadian Sports Center that’s based out of Calgary and they have resident sport psychologists. So part of me wants to work for that, as well.”
Nolin reaches the bottom of the hill; her hellish journey down the hill is complete. She pushes herself up from her sled and looks back up at the track she came down. Like life, the track threw things at her she may not have expected and the things came at her just as fast as the turns of the track did. But Nolin now stands at the bottom of the hill unscathed and unfazed by the challenge she just finished. She takes a step off the track, not finished with her day, not ready to step away from the thrill that is life. She starts to walk toward the lift, ready and willing to do it all over again.