Clapp-Taylor, Santagato win titles

Gracie Clapp-Taylor was a pole vault star in high school, good enough to compete in college at Florida International in Miami, where she's still enrolled as a student.

Until the Vancouver Olympics, she had never heard of skeleton. And now she's got a national title on her resume.

Clapp-Taylor, a 21-year-old from Jacksonville, Fla., won the women's competition Saturday at the U.S. skeleton push championships. She's admittedly a long shot to make the team headed to the Sochi Olympics in February -- the Pyeongchang Games in 2018 are her more realistic goal -- but if nothing else, the win on the start track in Lake Placid, N.Y., is a huge shot of momentum going into this season.

"I have made big leaps this year, but I think that just sets me up better for the next (four years)," Clapp-Taylor said. "There are girls that have been around and really have worked and earned their elite world status. I hope to be there one day and earn that. I know it's not now, but I'm looking forward to Pyeongchang."

At this rate, few around the U.S. team would doubt her.

Clapp-Taylor was watching the Vancouver Games in 2010 -- figure skating, not sliding -- when she first was exposed to skeleton, the sport where racers go headfirst down an icy chute on a thin sled that can achieve speeds of greater than 80 mph. She started to learn more about the sport, and then her track coach just happened to get an email from U.S. bobsled pilot Elana Meyers, who was promoting a tryout event for potential sliders in Orlando, Fla.

Clapp-Taylor checked that out, eventually found her way to Lake Placid, and sliding has been her passion since.

"The first time I came up here and I slid, before I actually got down the mountain, I wanted to cry because it was just so cold -- especially with me coming from Miami," Clapp-Taylor said. "I got to the bottom and I had never been more excited in my life. The cold is a small, small sacrifice, but at first it was miserable to get used to, miserable."

Clapp-Taylor's two-run time of 7.3 seconds narrowly beat defending champion Veronica Day (7.32) for the women's crown. In the men's competition, Tom Santagato (6.58 seconds) edged four-time national push-start champion and returning Olympian John Daly (6.59) for top honors.

"Today's race was incredibly close," Santagato said. "After seeing that Daly and myself were tied after the first heat, I knew it was going to take a big effort if I wanted to come out on top. I've trained with tremendous athletes all summer long and I can honestly say that just being around someone as accomplished as Daly is incredibly motivational. He forces me to push myself to the limit, and today was no different."

The push championships are part of the tuneup for the actual on-ice season, which is expected to begin at the Mt. Van Hoevenberg track in Lake Placid with official team training on Oct. 1.

And when they finally open that track, Clapp-Taylor -- who has long dreamed of being an Olympian -- will be taking off with tons of newfound confidence.

"I realized the opportunity I had in front of me, so I went headfirst -- no pun -- for it," Clapp-Taylor said. "I talked it over with my parents, they were very supportive and said I could come up here and train as long as I stayed in school, so I did and here I am."

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