Women’s skeleton slides into spotlight at 2022 Winter Olympics

Tina Hermann from Germany in action in skeleton in Beijing.
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Women’s skeleton celebrates the 20th anniversary since its debut in the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and this year marks the first time the same number of women as men – 25 – will compete in the event.

While Germany’s women have captured the last five skeleton world titles, they’re still searching for their first Olympic gold in the women’s competition and are in prime position to capitalize on the retirement of 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion Lizzy Yarnold (GBR). Germany boasts the medal favorite in four-time world champion Tina Hermann, who won the last three worlds (2019-21) to go along with her 2016 title.

MORE SKELETON COVERAGE: Can Narracott hold on to win Australia’s first ever sliding medal?

Before taking a closer look at the other medal contenders, as well as an introduction to the U.S. women, On Her Turf offers a head-first look (wink!) at women’s skeleton.

What’s the difference between skeleton and luge again?

Skeleton is considered the “slowest” of the three sliding sports, which include bobsled and luge, with speeds reaching more than 80 miles per hour as athletes lie prostrate on a small sled and slide head-first down an icy racecourse.

Like bobsled, skeleton athletes get a running start before diving onto their sleds, while luge is the only sliding discipline where athletes begin their runs already in the sled. To start a run, athletes are seated in the sled and use their hands to push against the ice and move forward to start their run. Luge athletes lay with their back against the sled and race feet first down the course with speeds reaching as high as 90 mph.

Skeleton and luge are similar in that all competitors get three runs before the field is cut to the top 20 for the fourth and final run. The racers with the lowest aggregate time over all four runs wins.

And why is skeleton called skeleton?

The name “skeleton” may be derived from the incorrect translation of the Norwegian word “kjelke,” or “sled,” while others believe it came from the appearance of a new metal sled said to resemble a skeleton.

How does the skeleton track compare to other venues?

Skeleton races (as well as bobsled and luge) take place at the Yanqing National Sliding Center on the Xiaohaituo Bobsled and Luge Track, known as “The Snow Dragon.” It’s one of just three tracks in all of Asia and the first of its kind China, built specifically for the 2022 Winter Olympics.

The track is considered long, measuring roughly a mile (1.6 km) and dropping 397 feet in elevation with the steepest section being a fierce 18-percent grade. It also features 16 curves highlighted by a 360-degree turn, known as a “Kreisel.”

In the women’s trials event held during the international training weeks, Germany’s Hermann took the win over teammate and Junior Worlds champion Hannah Neise, with Russian Olympic Committee’s Yelena Nikitina finishing third.

Meet the U.S. women competing in skeleton at the 2022 Winter Olympics:

The U.S. women are led by five-time Olympics veteran Katie Uhlaender, the 2012 world champion and two-time World Cup overall champion. Her best Olympic result was fourth in 2014, when the Colorado natvie just missed the podium after finishing four one-hundredths of a second behind Russia’s Nikitina, who was stripped of her bronze medal in 2017 for doping violations. Ultimately, Nikitina’s medal was reinstated in 2018, and Uhlaender, 37, has been a vocal advocate across the Olympic movement for “penalties for countries that skirt doping laws.” She finished fifth in the October test event.

She’s joined by 33-year-old Kelly Curtis, who is making her Olympics debut and finished 18th in the test event. The Princeton, N.J., native was an heptathlete in college and competed in bobsled in graduate school and didn’t make her debut in skeleton until 2016 at age 27. Curtis made her World Cup debut in January 2021, three days before her 32nd birthday, and has recorded three career top-10 World Cup finishes this season. Her best was a sixth in the final race of the season in St. Moritz, Switzerland, which clinched her Olympic spot. She will become the first Black athlete to represent the U.S. in the sport of skeleton.

“I didn’t really have too many people to look up to in the skeleton world, but I did in bobsled,” Curtis said. “I’m standing on the shoulders of giants and trying to inspire the next generation.”

The only Olympic skeleton medals for U.S. women came in 2002, when Tristan Gale won gold and Lea Ann Parsley won silver.

Who is favored to win gold in women’s skeleton?

Germany has won three Olympic medals in skeleton, but they’re aiming for a first-ever women’s gold behind Hermann, who has won two World Cup races this season. But so have her closest competitors, Netherlands’ Laura Deas and ROC’s Nikitina.

Kimberley Bos captured the 2022 World Cup title to become the first Dutch slider to do so, finishing on the podium in six of eight races. Great Britain’s Laura Deas, the 2018 bronze medalist, is looking to extend her country’s streak in skeleton: Team GB has won a skeleton medal at every Olympic Winter Games since the sport was reintroduced at Salt Lake City in 2002.

Will China have an advantage as host nation?

In men’s skeleton, there is a long history of host nation success: a South Korean athlete (Yun Sung-Bin) won at the 2018 PyeongChang Games, a Russian athlete (Aleksandr Tretiyakov) won at the 2014 Sochi Games, a Canadian athlete (Jon Montgomery) won at the 2010 Vancouver Games, and an American (Jim Shea) won at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

On the women’s side, however, the host nation has only won gold once: American Tristan Gale in 2002.

The 2022 Winter Olympics mark the first time that China is fielding a women’s Olympic team, but little is known about their medal potential. The pre-Olympic World Cup was cancelled due to travel restrictions caused by the pandemic, and no Chinese athletes took part in the races held there during the international training weeks last October.

In training runs earlier this week, 19-year-old Zhao Dan finished in the top-three in three of six training runs. Zhao, a Youth Olympian who was one of the flag bearers for Team China at the Opening Ceremony, made her World Cup debut this season, with a best finish of 15th. China’s other entrant, Li Yuxi, was much less consistent in this week’s training runs.

While Zhao and Li may not have much experience themselves, they’ve got a veteran in coach Andy Schmidt, who coached Great Britain to the last three consecutive Olympic women’s skeleton gold medals.

How to watch women’s skeleton at the 2022 Winter Olympics:

For viewers in the United States, you have some options:

  • Peacock will be the streaming home of the 2022 Winter Olympics. Live streaming coverage and full replays of every event will be available on Peacock’s premium tier. Click here to watch.
  • You can also stream events via NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app.
  • Games will also air on NBC, USA Network, and CNBC. Preliminary TV listings can be found here and the most up-to-date schedule with TV and streaming info can be found here.

You can also keep up-to-date on how to watch every women’s and mixed gender event using On Her Turf’s official guide to the Winter Games.

Women’s Skeleton Schedule at the 2022 Winter Olympics

Event  Date/Time (U.S. Eastern Time) Date/Time (Beijing, China)
Women’s Skeleton (Runs 1 & 2) 2/10/22 8:30 PM 2/11/22 9:30 AM
Women’s Skeleton (Runs 3 & 4) 2/12/22 7:20 PM 2/13/22 8:20 AM

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2022 Winter Olympics Schedule – How to watch every women’s event

On Her Turf editor Alex Azzi and the NBC Olympics Research team contributed to this report.