Headfirst at 80 mph

A double-dog dare over bottles of Pinot at Cafe Pacific led oilman Robie Vaughn to Olympic glory in an almost-forgotten sport, skeleton.

On a cold February night in 1994, Robie Vaughn and his wife Fallon went to dinner at Cafe Pacific in Highland Park Village. The couple bumped into Robie’s old friend Taylor Boyd, who joined them at their table. All three got into the red wine pretty good, and talk turned to feats of derring-do, manful achievements in the two men’s lives.

Robie, 38 at the time and a third-generation oilman, was no piker in the athletic department. He’d run marathons, competed in the Hawaiian Iron Man triathlon, and scaled mountains on several continents. His newest hobby was heli-skiing.

Boyd, just past 40, wasn’t a Texan in fact, but he was in spirit. A former Navy fighter pilot who at one time held the record for the most night carrier landings in a single tour, Boyd had ridden into Dallas on a motorcycle in the late ’80s to make his fortune in real estate.

The two men had met at some party or another in the go-go days when Reagan was president and oil and real estate were king. Time passed and they became husbands and fathers, Robie with the woman he’ll be with for life and Boyd with, well, possibly others to come. Both had sons the same year, so instead of parties and nightclubs, it became soccer games and school functions.

The conversation at Cafe Pacific shifted from things they had done to things they wished they’d done—played college football, become astronauts, competed in the Olympics—and somehow a challenge arose. With the smile he wears that says the world is one big practical joke and he’s in on it, Boyd wondered whether they could, at their ages, still find a back door into the Olympics. Summer games were obviously out: too competitive and too many countries. Ah, but the winter games.

“Jamaica fielded a bobsled team, for God’s sake,” Boyd said. “Wanna try?”

“Sure, why not?” Robie said.

Robie didn’t think much of it afterward. Trouble was, Boyd did.

Almost immediately, he caught a flight to Lillehammer, Norway, and arrived the day before the 1994 Olympic Winter Games began.

“As with all laymen watching winter sliding sports,” he says, “I assumed that sports like luge and bobsled would be easy for a beginner to learn, and I didn’t see how age could be much of a barrier. I mean, you’re just riding a sled down an iced track.”

In Lillehammer, Boyd met up with American Olympic luger standout Duncan Kennedy, who explained that champion lugers usually begin their careers by age 8, or they don’t become champion lugers at all.

“No, Taylor, you won’t be luging,” Duncan told him. “But have you heard of skeleton?”

Skeleton was a truly obscure sport at the time. As with luge, you slide down the nearly mile-long, 19-turn bobsled track, but you do it face down and headfirst on a sled that’s a few inches off the ice. Speeds exceed 80 mph. No steering device. No brakes. Just you, spiked shoes, and a plastic, padded helmet. The sport hadn’t been in the Olympics since 1948, although there had been talk of bringing it back for the 2002 games. Skeleton was competitive in Europe, but in 1994 you could probably fit all the competitive North American skeleton sliders in a Chevy Suburban. Duncan put Boyd in touch with Dave Graham, a skeleton guru in Calgary, Alberta, an oil and cattle city that’s a lot like a northern sister to Dallas.

Weeks later, in Calgary, Boyd went through a three-day skeleton school hosted by the Alberta Skeleton Association, and, as luck would have it, the North American Skeleton Championships were held there the following week. The U.S. team was short a man, and so Boyd made his first competitive slide having been engaged in the sport a grand total of 10 days.

In January 1995, Boyd convinced Robie to cut short a heli-skiing trip in nearby Banff to participate in the Calgary skeleton school at Calgary Olympic Park. Robie and Boyd walked out to the finish line where a small skeleton class was just finishing. When the sled shot past the two men, Robie was awed by the pure and silent speed he witnessed. Although his nerves began to fray, he was already falling in love with the idea of sliding. And after his first run, infatuation became obsession.

THE COUPLE THAT SLIDES TOGETHER: Fallon (above) turned out to be as good as Robie—though after she knocked her head on one run and got two black eyes, everyone assumed she’d gotten a nose job.

Robie finished his school, and it turned out he wasn’t bad at sliding. But that obsession got cut short by the brevity of the skeleton season and the demands of work and family. It would be almost two years, December 1996, before Robie got to slide again, but by then he’d drawn Fallon and some other friends into the sport, going so far as to organize his own skeleton school in Park City, Utah. Fallon turned out to be as good as Robie, even though she took her bruises like every beginner to the sport. (Once, after Fallon banged her forehead on a slide that resulted in two black eyes, Robie took her out to dinner at the River Horse Cafe in Park City. He kept getting nasty stares from people. Robie didn’t understand it, but Fallon did. “They think you’ve been beating me,” she said. When they got back to Dallas, everyone assumed Fallon had gotten a nose job or her eyes done.)

Robie, Fallon, and Boyd kept sliding. And they got even better at it.

“It was mostly about the challenge of doing it and just the fun,” Robie says. “But all of a sudden, we got really good at it, and Boyd and I started thinking of ways a couple of old fogies like us could better our odds against the younger sliders who were getting interested in the sport. We figured technology was the ticket.”

Enter Ryan Davenport. The Calgary native was rumored to be part Vulcan. He was a self-taught mechanical genius who had become the only skeleton slider to win back-to-back World Cup championships. After that, Davenport quit sliding competitively, having measured every aspect of his performance and calculated that he couldn’t improve his push or sliding times significantly. He had peaked. Therefore, he retired. It was in the math.

Robie and Boyd hired Davenport to design a better sled. Meanwhile, the two slid in every club competition they could find, just to get more experience. Even though the field of American skeleton sliders was small, Robie figured it was too competitive to make the U.S. team, even if skeleton were brought into the Olympics in 2002—which, by the way, was still up in the air.

That’s when Boyd started investigating the U.S. territories, each of which can field their own Olympic teams in the summer and winter games, independent of the U.S. teams. Through the fall of 1997 and spring of 1998, Robie and Boyd contacted all five territories. After being ignored by three and coming across as offensive to one, the two Texans found their way to American Samoa. In July 1998, they flew to Tutuila Island, in the South Pacific, and met with Peni “Ben” Solaita, president of the American Samoa National Olympic Committee, to talk about representing the territory in the 2002 winter games, should skeleton be admitted in 2002. To that end, just in case a problem might arise with residency requirements, Robie and Boyd set up local bank accounts and got local driver’s licenses. They were officially Samoan citizens. (Samoans are actually American citizens but are treated separately by the Olympic committee.)

But a funny thing happened that neither Robie nor Boyd expected. Robie got so good at sliding, he became internationally ranked. Based on the 1997-1998 World Cup Nations Ranking, the U.S. teams finished with a fifth place in men’s and a sixth place in women’s competitions, and those results allowed four men and two women to enter World Cup competitions for the 1998-1999 season. In the fall 1998 U.S. World Cup trials, Robie’s cumulative scores put him in fourth place. Fourth. Which made him the fourth man on the four-man U.S. World Cup skeleton team.

“I found myself in a strange spot and with an either/or decision,” he says. “On one hand, I could represent American Samoa in World Cup and World Championship competition over the next three seasons and most probably be in the Olympic Winter Games, assuming skeleton was admitted. And, in part, that’s why I got started in the sport. Just to compete in the Olympics. But on the other hand, here I had a chance to represent my country in international competition in a sport I’d grown to love, even if it was only for the 1998-1999 World Cup season. If I did one, I couldn’t do the other.

“I thought about that for a full two days, weighing it. In the end, I realized there was only one decision I could make: I gave up my back door to the Olympics. I chose to slide for the United States of America.”

Fallon made the U.S. team, too, making the Vaughns the first American husband-and-wife team to slide together in World Cup competition.

GRAVITY RULES! Robie congratulates Chris Soule after his final run at the 2002 Olympics in Park City, Utah.

A year on the U.S. team gave Robie an athlete’s view of everything that was needed to form a program at the time. U.S. skeleton was governed and supported by the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (USBSF), which answers to the U.S. Olympic Committee. The USBSF, which gained aegis over the nascent skeleton sport in the early 1980s, was entirely geared toward supporting the two-man and four-man bobsled teams, which until the 2002 games were the only Olympic sliding sports. (American luge has its own governing body.) The USBSF didn’t have the time, resources, or inclination to support skeleton at any level.

When the International Olympic Committee announced in November 1999 that they were adding women’s bobsled, men’s skeleton, and women’s skeleton to the 2002 games, the U.S. skeleton team had 28 months to get ready. The good old boys at the USBSF embraced skeleton like it was a country cousin in need of a bath—reluctantly and perfunctorily.

In late 1999, there were only 15 American sliders ranked internationally. The program had to follow guidelines written for bobsledders, the chief qualification for which is being able to bring extra weight to the bobsled. Few USBSF resources were available, and those few always came with strings that kept skeleton sliders under the federation’s thumb.

Robie had all he could stand. He volunteered to give up sliding and take over as skeleton program director, including helping fund expenses from his own pocket. The athletes he had slid with during the previous year unanimously supported him. First thing, Robie hired Ryan Davenport as the new U.S. skeleton coach, axing a USBSF legacy hire who didn’t know much if anything about skeleton. Robie instituted what any businessman would recognize as simple resource allocation, development, and management techniques, which were foreign to the world of amateur sports.

And the U.S. skeleton program picked up speed. By late 2001, there were more than 100 internationally ranked American skeleton sliders. The U.S. team had gone from fifth (men’s) and sixth (women’s) in the world to being ranked second and third, respectively. They were ready for the Olympics.

Eight years nearly to the day after what was, essentially, a bar dare made over bottles of Pinot, Robie Vaughn marched by torchlight to the orchestral theme “Light the Fires Within,” into Rice-Eccles Stadium, in Park City, Utah, for the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Olympic Games. He did so wearing the official uniform of the United States Olympians. Not as a slider or an athlete, but as an architect of the U.S. skeleton team.

His team took home two gold medals and one silver. The athletes say it would not have been possible without Robie.

Photos: Vaughns: Elizabeth Lavin; Other Photos Courtesy of Brown Books of Dallas

Robie Vaughn’s tale of those eight years to glory and the lessons he learned along the way are detailed in his new book, Headfirst: The Olympic Success Story of Skeleton, published by Brown Books of Dallas (www.brownbooks.com). Net profits from the book are being dedicated to an endowment benefiting the athletes of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, where Robie serves as interim executive director.

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