RICHMOND, Va. – It’s probably not fair to call Dom Costanzo an adrenaline junkie, but he’s dabbled. From skydiving to snowboarding, the former VCU sprinter knows how to get his blood pumping. But speeding downhill at 80 miles per hour, on a sled slightly larger than a cafeteria tray? That’s new.
But that’s what lies ahead for the 22-year-old Costanzo, who recently won an invitation to USA Bobsled and Skeleton’s “Skeleton School” in November. Skeleton is an Olympic sliding sport similar to luge, but with competitors lying chest-down and face-first on their way down an icy track.
Costanzo, who graduated from VCU in 2013 with a degree in business management, earned his spot at Skeleton School through one of Team USA’s skeleton combines in Lake Placid, N.Y. Eleven of the combines, which are available to any person willing to try, were staged between May and September in seven North American cities.
Participants are graded on their abilities to perform eight different physical challenges that reflect the blend of speed and strength necessary for skeleton, including 15-, 30- and 45-meter dashes, the broad jump, squat and weigh toss. Each event is worth up to 100 points, which means the highest possible combined score is 800. Those with a score of 700 or better generally receive an invite to skeleton school, a feeder program to help the United States unearth and develop talent. Costanzo scored 749 points, which ranked fifth among the 34 combine attendees who took their shot this summer. Just 12 reached the 700-point threshold.
“I was initially going to do it next year. I was going to give myself a year and get some things going in Richmond, but I was coming off track season, so I was in good shape,” the Richmond native says.
Costanzo’s interest in skeleton arose from a family trip to upstate New York last year, which included a visit to the US Olympic Training
Center in Lake Placid. After touring the facilities, Costanzo went home and began researching skeleton and bobsled.
“I kind of fit the mold,” said the 5-foot-10, 165-pound Costanzo. “It kind of grew out of the whole thought of just continuing my athletic career. I didn’t want it to come to an end. I was looking for an opportunity.”
For the Rams, Costanzo was primarily a 400-meter competitor, clocking a personal best of 48.70 seconds in the event. At his size, Costanzo is small enough to fit on the skeleton sled, but fast and powerful enough to handle the sport’s inherent challenges. Sleds may not exceed 43 kilograms (about 95 pounds) and the maximum combined weight of the sled and athlete is 115 kilograms (about 253 pounds).
“Skeleton athletes need to be fast and powerful in order to get the sled moving from a stopped position to a max sprint at the start,” says former competitor Amanda Bird, now the marketing and communications manager at USA Bobsled and Skeleton.
Skeleton is an under-the-radar sport due in no small part to the scarcity of bobsled tracks in the country. It’s not like playing pickup basketball. You have to actually find a place built to send humans hurtling down a mountain like a Japanese bullet train.
Costanzo, like many of his skeleton school classmates, has never been on the sled and has never experience the rush of navigating an icy chute at Autobahn speeds with just a helmet for protection. There are also no brakes. At skeleton school, the athletes will begin farther down the track and begin working up towards higher starting points. The program isn’t meant to produce Olympians tomorrow, but rather to indoctrinate the athletes into the unique sport of skeleton, one which cannot be mastered overnight.
“An athlete has to be aggressive and explosive in those first 20 meters, but then they must melt into the sled and relax so they can navigate the sled down the course,” Bird says. “If you’re still aggressive on the sled, you’ll be stiff and fighting against the course. Learning how to make that transition sometimes takes athletes years.”
If he performs well in November, Costanzo could be invited to train on USA Skeleton’s development team, which requires a near year-round commitment.
“I’m kind of just taking it one step at a time,” he says. “I’m very committed. If that happened, I’d have to give it some thought. But being 22 years old and fresh out of college with no real life commitments right now means this is something I can kind of build around.”