USA TODAY - For the athletes competing at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, the path to the ice and snow required years of arduous training and sacrifice. For amateur athletes watching on television, the Olympic experience is much easier to obtain - it's just a flight or even drive away. There is no need to apply for a Russian visa, as many of the sports, from whizzing down the bobsled track to leaning half-pipe aerials to speed skating can be tried much closer to home.
Cool Running: The Jamaican Bobsled team carved out a niche in history and pop culture and even inspired a Disney film, all by sending a group of athletes from a country with no winter sports to the world stage. That begs the question: Why not you? At the Utah Olympic Park near Salt Lake City, home of the 2002 Winter Games, a professional bobsled pilot takes three guests through the 15 turns of the nearly mile long course, with speeds up to 80 mph and forces of 5Gs. If you really want to go solo, try the least well-known Olympic sliding sport, the skeleton, in which you drive yourself - face first - through four turns at up to 50 mph (helmet included!). In Lake Placid, site of the 1932 and 1980 Olympic Games, your bobsled run starts from the track's fourth turn, running about half a mile and reaching around 50 mph, and they even offer bobsled rides in summer, with rails converted to wheels. Likewise, Lake Placid's skeleton rides start at the track's fifth turn, but for novice riders - just about everyone not at Sochi - that's still plenty.
Copper Mountain, CO: US Ski Team racers trained for alpine "speed events," (downhill and Super-G) at the Speed Center on Colorado's Copper Mountain, which drops nearly 2,300 feet in two miles. You can ski lots of trails that once held courses for races, but this is the nation's only public venue where you can experience an actual Downhill or Super-G race course. But Copper is not just for skiers: Members of the snowboard team practice their tricks in the resort's year round 20,000-square foot indoor Woodward training center. Several foam pits let you learn a flip or spin and perfect it before taking it to the snow. Instruction is offered by the hour, day, or in special camps, and 1 ¾ hours sessions begin at just $35. Once you've nailed your trick in the foam pit, Woodward offers an on-snow quarter pipe, half-pipe, 13-foor beginners' pipe and full sized 22-foot Superpipe.
Curling in Wisconsin: Every four years the odd sport of curling, with its brooms and polished stones, sparks interest and intrigue amongst the many Olympic viewers who have never seen it in person. Wisconsin is a hotbed of curling with several facilities, including the Pardeeville Curling Club, which offers open league nights and is available for rent for parties and events; the Madison Curling Club, which hosts several "Learn 2 Curl" beginners' open houses each fall, and is also available for rental takeovers; and the Green Bay Curling Club, which has Learn 2 Curl sessions in spring and fall.
The Downhill: The premier event in alpine skiing is also the fastest, there are several places in the US where you can ski trails that have hosted Olympic and World Cup Downhill races. Squaw Valley, CA; not only has maintained the men's and women's downhill trails from the 1960 Games, but offers a private 3-hour private tour of the slopes that hosted alpine races in all disciplines. Snowbasin, outside Ogden, was the downhill host for the Utah Games in 2002 and while the men's trail is fiercely named Grizzly and the women's a gentler Wildflower, both are very challenging. Lake Placid twice held its races at Whiteface Mountain, most recently on the Cloudspin and Skyward trails. While Colorado's Beaver Creek has never held the Winter Games, it is the best venue in the country for experiencing the speed and length of the downhill, as it hosts the only annual Men's World Cup race in the country, the Birds of Prey downhill on the double black Golden Eagle trail. Beaver Creek just added a dedicated women's downhill course, the Raptor, on its double black Kestrel trail. Both will be used for the biggest US event since the 2002 Games, the 2015 FIS Alpine World Championships, featuring the return of Lindsey Vonn from injury.
Shoot, Ski, Shoot: Combining the flat-out adrenaline pumping of cross-county racing with the steady and calm sport of target shooting, biathlon is consistently ranked amongst the most challenging of all Winter Olympic pursuits - and one of the hardest for the average person to try. Head for two-time Olympic venue Lake Placid, which added a third bit of Olympic cache when it imported the targets from the 1998 Nagano Games for its public access course. Rent a .22 rifle and skis and take a supervised lesson in this demanding, multi-disciplined event, or if Nordic skiing isn't you thing, you can do the target shooting only. Whistler Blackcomb, BC also offers biathlon with .22 rifles on the Olympic track from the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Home of the Olympians: For a less energetic Olympic experience, head to the main Olympic Training Center and US Olympic Committee headquarters in Colorado Springs, CO to see what it takes to build Olympic athletes, summer and winter, in one of the highest tech sports training facilities on earth. The 35-acre complex offers up to 15 tours daily, every hour in winter and every 45 minutes in summer, and the Visitor's Center features a 12-minute film followed by 45-minute walking tour that visits the Coaching & Sports Science Center, Aquatics Center, Sports Medicine facility and Shooting Center, the largest in the Western hemisphere. The Visitor's Center is also home to the US Olympic Hall of Fame and the nation's largest official Olympic logo shop.
Ski or Snowboard With an Olympian: Wyoming's Jackson Hole Mountain Resort was top rated by the readers of Ski Magazine, but it is even better if you spend a day exploring its slopes with the last American man to win a Gold Medal in the Olympic Downhill, Tommy Moe. The resort's ambassador is available for full and half day private lessons for up to 5 guests ($1000 or $750) complete with autographs and lunch. In Canada, Whistler Blackcomb, site of the on-slope events for the 2010 Vancouver Games, offers several opportunities to ski or snowboard with Olympic athletes including downhiller Rob Boyd, freestyler Tami Bradley and snowboarders Darren Chalmers or Tara Teigen. Full-day privates including personalized instruction are $899 Canadian.
Learn From an Olympian: Colorado's Steamboat Ski Resort never hosted an Olympics, but it has produced more Olympians than any other town in the nation, and is home to legend Billy Kidd, who along with a teammate became the first American men ever to medal in Alpine skiing at Innsbruck in 1964. Kidd hosts several 3 full-day immersion ski camps here each season, taught by himself and other former Olympians ($810). Also at Steamboat, 3-time Olympian Carol Lalive hosts Women's Ski Camps. Sibling Olympic medalists Phil and Steve Mahre run the Mahre Training Center at Utah's Deer Valley, offering 3 and 5-day camps ($882 and $1,355) for both recreational skiers and aspiring racers.
Nordic Tracks: The cross country trail system at the base of Canada's Whistler Blackcomb ski mountains was purpose built from scratch for the 2010 Vancouver Games, and is one of the best such facilities anyplace, with over 35 miles of trails for both classic and skate skiing, and rentals, instruction and even biathlon available. You can also try the trails at the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sports Complex in Lake Placid, site of two winter games.
Famous Ice: Through its two Winter Games, the biggest thing that ever happened in Lake Placid was the "Miracle on Ice," when a scrappy group of amateur US hockey players upset dominant USSR in 1980. The USSR no longer exists but the famous ice does, and you can skate on it. Also open to the public here is the 400-meter Olympic ice oval where Eric Heiden took home five gold medals in the 1980 Winter Games. Speed skates are available for rent (just $3!) and you can put the pedal to the metal and challenge the world record of over 33 mph. Or try an axel on the same ice where Sonja Henie put figure skating on the map with her Gold medal performance way back in 1932.
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