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Midvale Journal

Former top Hillcrest High athlete finding skeleton racing ‘invigorating’

Mar 01, 2024 12:50PM ● By Julie Slama

Hillcrest High alumna Gracie Otto is training in hopes of qualifying to compete in next year’s North American Cup. (Photo courtesy of Cece Otto)

Few people have goals set for the year. 

According to U.S. News and World Report, about 80% of the people lose their resolve and motivation in February after setting new year’s resolutions.

Fewer people have goals for five years out or even have a 10-year plan. 

But a 24-year-old Hillcrest High alumna does, and she wants to be on the world’s stage.

Gracie Otto is a skeleton racer.

She will jump onto her sledge, her face just inches away from the track as she looks ahead at the icy path. Her shoulders and legs control the direction of the sled, making the best line on each of the curves.

Otto has a plan for each day, each season, each year. Ultimately, she’d like to race in the Winter Olympic Games in 2030 or 2034.

“I would love to make that happen, and especially on our home track, that would be amazing,” she said.

Otto knows she has work ahead of her. 

“USA bobsled and skeleton has a push standard for athletes to qualify for each race circuit. I’m working on trying to meet the standard,” she said. “Next year, I want to start competing in the North American Cup. Then I’ll make my way up to the European Cup and the World Cup.”

This March, the 5-foot-3-inch racer will submit her analytics, including her 40-yard dash time, her vertical jump, her long jump and other statistics, in hopes of an invitation to the national rookie camp in New York. 

Otto knows her goals are ambitious; she’s willing to work for them. 

“I have my eye on trying to make it to Lake Placid next season,” she said. “My coaches are telling me I should totally strive for that. They’re supportive and remind me that I’ll get there; it just takes time. I’m training hard and hope Team USA will recognize and move me forward.”

Otto didn’t grow up racing skeleton, just going down a steep hill in the Daybreak community.

“As a little kid I’d go down face first on my sled all the time. Sometimes, I’d go backward. Sometimes, I’d build little jumps, just to make each run unique and more exciting. I grew up skiing, but when I hit middle school, my friend got me into snowboarding because it was cooler,” she said. “I’ve always been a warm weather gal, an ocean person. I get cold easily, so I never saw myself as an avid winter sports athlete.”

It was in December 2022, she had returned to her parents’ home in South Jordan for the holidays, when she had her first run at the Olympic Park as part of a Discover Skeleton day.

“I wasn’t nervous. I was excited and thought, ‘This is so cool to try out.’ I convinced CeCe (her older sister) to do it because it was literally just me in a room of teenage boys that day,” she said. “We started at curve 11. The coaches said we’d likely hit the wall going down the track, but to just continue and it would be fine.”

Otto had “a completely clean run” while her older sister, “the poor thing, she hit the walls a lot. She did it, but she was ‘a one-and-done girl.’ She’s always erring on the side of caution. I’m definitely more of a wild child.”

The coaches liked what they saw in the adventurous Otto.

“They said that my run was amazing and to think about joining for the upcoming season. I went home and talked to my family about it. I was applying to grad school, but they said I can always go back to school, and I could only be an athlete for a limited time in my life,” she said, adding others echoed their support. “I decided that I’d take a year as a trial run. If I hated it, then I’d go to school. But, I loved it from that moment forward. I never thought that this would blossom into something bigger that I pursue.”

The 2021 University of Hawaii marine biology graduate had moved to California where she had been a divemaster and taught scuba diving and marine education for kids on Catalina Island. She packed up her belongings and put her application to University of California Santa Barbara’s doctorate program in predator research on hold.

On Jan. 7, 2023, Otto began training under coaches Nick Vienneau and Matt Griff. She progressed from that initial time on the ice, where she hit 40 miles per hour, working her way to the top of the hill. The Park City 1,335-meter competitive course has an 8% average gradient over its 15 curves.

“The whole season, I just wanted to go down from the top of the track. I was super eager, and my coach kept saying you have to be patient and take time,” she said.

Otto did her homework as well.

“As athletes, we help each other be aware of how each pressure and each curve on the track will affect us and our sleds. We talk about navigating the track and navigating pressure. With coaches, we put crampons on over shoes and walk the track so we look at each curve and see what the ideal line would be. My mind never stops thinking about how to improve,” she said.

Otto remembers her first full run.

“I approached it as a situation where I could relax. I knew the track and had done a lot of studying on it. I knew to get a feel of how I was on the sled, and I could go from there,” she said. “When I got to the end of the track, I was ready to go again. It was freakin’ fantastic. It was so invigorating. Skeleton definitely fuels my fire.”

The next day, Otto competed in her first race, the Western Regionals held at Park City.

“It literally was my second run down from the top of the track,” she said.

Otto placed fourth finish in the women’s division, clocking her first run at 55.43, and reaching a top speed of 75.7 miles per hour. Run two, she improved to 54.95, racing at 76 mph.

She continued her workouts throughout the summer and fall on the simulation metal push track, “which is one of the fundamental parts of the sport. Now I’m back on the ice.”

In December 2023, she was “pumped” to slide down the track as a forerunner for the North American Cup race held at Park City.

Otto continues to train at the Olympic Park five days a week in two-hour sessions. Her speed has increased to about 78 miles per hour, approaching typical Olympic speeds of about 80 mph, she said. Her fastest run is 52.40; “I definitely have a lot of room for improvement.”

Skeleton is challenging in many aspects. 

“You only have a certain amount of time on the ice in a training session. On a good day, you’ll take three runs down. On average, two, so it’s literally less than two minutes on the ice. The season is fairly short and can be weather dependent on ice conditions and snow. It’s also a mental game with so many different facets to it. You need to know the track that you’re on because each track is unique. They all have different curves, different pressures. You really have to do your homework. You have to be aware of where you are at all times and know how to drive your sled,” she said.

Otto, who grew up tumbling, graduated as Hillcrest High’s 2017 top athlete. She was a state competitor in swimming and cross country and set the state pole vault record in track. Since then, she has participated in U.S. Masters Swimming and competed in triathlons “as a hobby.” Otto takes her competitive spirit and her flexibility from her athletic background and combines it with her calm mindset from scuba as she approaches her new sport. 

“After that physical sprint at the beginning, it’s all about learning the track, knowing the pressures and making a game time decision on each curve. Besides training on the ice, I’m working on my speed and doing weightlifting,” she said.

Three early mornings per week, Otto is doing interval training, circuit work and foot speed with her former high school swim coach, Ryan Thierbach. She’s also working on her own, focusing on her pushing dynamics.

“I have a deconstructed roller skate (from when her sister performed in Hillcrest’s production of “Starlight Express”) and I set a weight on top of it. I push that so I can work on sprinting in that hunched-over position and know my hand placement. Everybody at the gym looks at me like I’m crazy,” she said.

This spring, Otto will train with skeleton Olympic silver medalist and Utah Sports Hall of Famer Noelle Pikus-Pace at the Olympic Oval.

“My former pole vault coach (Kody Pierce) is friends with her and connected me. I’m really excited about training with her because she knows the sport and the intricacies of it. I’ve been able to watch Olympian Katie Uhlaender at the Olympic Park as she’s making a play for the 2026 Olympics. Seeing how she navigates the track and how her pushes has been so cool,” she said.

To support her training, Otto works three part-time, flexible jobs—assistant coaching the Alta High swim team, tutoring students in STEM subjects and helping with an adventure after-school program.

“I’m using an Olympic Park slide which I’m grateful for because those cost $5,000 to $10,000,” she said.

Otto is customizing the 29.8-kilogram sled designed and produced by Bromley Technologies, founded by Great Britain’s former skeleton racer Kristan Bromley and his brother, Richard. Otto, who weighs in at 130 pounds, plans to add more weight to the sledge, saying the maximum combined sled and athlete weight allowed is 102 kilograms or about 225 pounds.

“Ideally, I will have more speed, but it will change the balance points, how I feel on the ice and the pressures of the curve. The G-forces on your head and neck are quite a bit so we’re wearing Q-collars around our necks to stabilize our heads,” she said.

Each run, Otto is learning something new and making improvements.

“It’s never going to be boring even though I’m taking run after run after run on the same track. There’s always something to figure out, work on or adjust,” she said.

While Otto has yet to name her sled, she may become known as America’s glitter gal. 

“I love glitter so my motto is ‘sparkles for speed.’ I always have either glitter on my face, or a little glitter star sticker on my sled,” said the local who doesn’t just want to watch races of the World Cup or Olympics online. “I’m one of the youngest people in my training group. A lot of the people who are competing and World Cup and European Cup are 27, up to 35 years old. I’m happy I switched up; it’s been really fun. Skeleton has won my heart.” λ