WINTER SPORTS: Southington native fans Olympic skeleton hopes with torrid World Cup season

WINTER SPORTS: Southington native fans Olympic skeleton hopes with torrid World Cup season

SOUTHINGTON — These winter days, the kid who grew up in the shadow of Mount Southington arises in alpine meccas.

Winterberg, Germany one week. St. Moritz, Switzerland the next.

This week: Innsbruck, Austria.

For all the fun he’s having, consider it an extended business trip for Austin Florian. The 26-year-old Southington native is competing for the United States in skeleton on the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation’s World Cup tour.

In fact, he’s leading the way. Since the U.S rejoined the Cup earlier this month, Florian has been the top American finisher each time out.

That has the 2012 Southington High School graduate on course to wake up a year from now in Beijing at the 2022 Winter Olympics.

“Yeah, I’m doing pretty well this year. We’re dialing ourselves in for next season to make sure we’re at our best going into the Olympics,” Florian said Tuesday afternoon, Innsbruck time.

“I’m in a good spot right now. I’ve still got a lot of work to do to stay in that spot. Everyone behind me is doing just as well. I need to be improving with them and keep getting better, just as they’re getting better. We’re all improving as a team pretty well and we’re making some good strides and, hopefully, we’ll have a good showing next year.”

Florian’s assessment of where he stands seems to be a fair reflection of a guy who holds an engineering degree from Clarkson University and always liked bombing down mountains, be it upon skis or sled. He’s well-grounded, yet holds Olympic-sized dreams in a sport in which athletes whistle down tracks 70-80 miles an hour, face down, less than eight inches off the ice on a piece of equipment less than four feet long, steering with the slightest movements of shoulders, knees and toes.

“It’s kind of wild,” Florian said. “It’s something I always wanted when I was little.

“I never thought I’d be doing this, quite obviously,” he added with a chuckle. “I always thought this sport was cool when I was little, but I never thought I’d be actually doing it. But, yeah, it’s an amazing thing to think that I possibly could go. But, still, the realist in my head is like, ‘You’ve still a lot of work to do and you’ve still got to earn it.’”

Florian grew up skiing competitively with his sister Erika at Wildcat Mountain in New Hampshire. Their dad, Sean Florian, had also been a ski racer and, along with their mom Beth, established ProTek Ski Racing, a family business that makes and sells equipment for the sport.

The Florian kids both went on to ski in college — Austin at Clarkson in upstate New York, Erika at Montana State.

Austin wound up being a two-time All-American. And yet, on weekly training trips to nearby Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid, the skeleton track caught his eye.

With his coach’s permission, Florian gave skeleton a try. And another.

In the fall of 2014, heading into his junior year at Clarkson, Florian attended a skeleton combine. That winter, he went to a skeleton school.

Florian continued skiing for Clarkson in the meantime. He and the Golden Knights placed in the NCAA top four in 2015 and again in 2016.

Once that career was over, though, Florian made the switch to skeleton.

“I knew I wasn’t going to make it to the Olympics in skiing. I was good enough for college skiing, but not good enough for much past that,” he said. “I just made sure I had fun skiing in college and I had a great time there and I’m happy I went that route.

“I just happened into skeleton; it wasn’t really on purpose,” Florian continued. “I just wanted to try it. It looked like fun and I ended up being kind of good at it.”

Florian’s new sport is arguably as old as winter itself, or whenever some enterprising outdoorsman affixed runners to a flat board and hit the hills.

It took organized form in the 1880s in St. Moritz. English soldiers stationed there had a penchant for racing toboggans through the village streets, much to the peril of pedestrians and tourists.

Town burghers took a creative approach to the problem. St. Moritz Mayor William Bulpett, with the backing of local hotel owner Caspar Badrutt, who would earn a reputation as a winter sports pioneer, constructed “Cresta Run,” the first sledding track of its kind.

And, to this day, that track in St. Moritz remains one of a kind. It is the only sled track in the world that is “natural.” It does not rest on a concrete base nor is it refrigerated. It is built every year entirely out of snow, with some of the corners anchored by stone walls.

Coming out of Clarkson, Florian was a few years away from finding out about St. Moritz and the track that, compared to the deafening white noise of the others, rides almost silently.

In 2016, Florian was invited to the U.S. team trials and made the North American Cup, competing in that entry-level tour that winter and again in 2017-2018. He cleaned up in his second year, taking six medals and finishing second at the national championships.

That led to one of the five spots on the U.S. team for the 2018-19 World Cup season.

Now, in his third season on the top-level tour, Florian is setting the American pace. Here’s how he’s done against the world’s best since the U.S. rejoined the World Cup after missing the opening events in Sigulda, Latvia and Innsbruck due to COVID-19 concerns:

■Winterberg (Jan. 8): 15th place in his first outing since the 2020 World Championships last March. ■St. Moritz (Jan. 15): 10th, the third time in Florian’s World Cup career he placed in the top 10.■Königssee, Germany (Jan. 22): 14th place at the site of world’s first refrigerated track, which freed the sport from the vagaries of weather when built in 1969.

After this week’s stop in Innsbruck, Florian and his teammates will return to Koningsee for the Intercontinental Cup. That’s the circuit below the World Cup. The Americans want to get in for more sled time after their late start to the season.

There’s a lot to prep for. The World Championships roll Feb. 1-14 in Altenberg, Germany. Then the Americans come home for their Olympic team trials, first in Park City, Utah, then in Lake Placid, back to where Florian started this remarkable run.

“It’s my home track and it’s one of my favorites to slide in the world,” said Florian. “It does feel like home. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last 10 years up there.”

Prior to heading to upstate New York, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Florian played a variety of sports in Southington. He grew up playing lacrosse, but as that season started to conflict with skiing, he shifted to golf as a high school junior, then to track as a senior.

The track background helps with skeleton, given the sprint start.

Once on the sled and descending, the maneuvering comes in the corners. Gravitational force builds with speed. On the fastest track Florian has ever run — Whistler Sliding Center in British Columbia — speeds touch 90 miles an hour.

Even if you wanted to lift your head to see, you can’t, the G force is so strong.

“You’re kind of driving by feel, driving by memory, getting glimpses when you can between corners, but it’s mostly feel and using a lot of your peripheral,” Florian elaborated. “Yeah, it’s a pretty intense sensation with the speed and the forces you encounter throughout the track. It’s very unique and it’s super-cool.”

And there is no place for trepidation.

“For me, it’s not really a sense of fear as it is a sense of going faster,” Florian said. “I want to figure out the fastest way down the track. I don’t really have that sense where I’m trying to preserve myself. I’m trying to go fast.

“Sometimes, to figure out the fastest way, you’ve got to over-shoot a little bit and make mistakes. You make mistakes and end up on your back. That’s just the learning process. That’s how you go about learning how to get faster.”

Skeleton became an Olympic sport in 2022, when the games played in Salt Lake City. Prior to that, the sport got an Olympic look only when the games played at St. Moritz in 1928 and 1948 and the Cresta Run took center stage.

The gold medalist in ’48? Nino Bibbia, a fruit and vegetable merchant from St. Moritz.

In this sport, evidently, there is room for Olympic-sized dreams.

“I’m still pushing hard and trying to get as good as I can and doing everything I possibly can to get there,” Florian said of his. “And then to perform well when I get there.”

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