Rin Kinoshita is a 20-year-old who competes in what many consider the most intimidating Winter Olympic sport — skeleton.

Athletes in the sliding sport take a running start and launch themselves headfirst down an ice downhill track on what is little more than a torso-sized tray. Only two thin rail-like runners keep the sled heading in the right direction.

With their chins mere centimeters off the ground, competitors reach speeds over 130 kph while shooting meters high around steeply banked curves. Racers steer with only the slightest shifting of weight, using their shoulders and knees.

Make no bones about it, this is not a sport for the faint of heart, and skeleton requires more than the bravery and willingness to throw oneself at breakneck speeds down a hill.

“It gives you the sensation of a rollercoaster, and there’s the thrill of speed,” Kinoshita said in a recent interview.

Skeleton appeared in two Olympic Games, in 1924 and 1948 in Switzerland’s St. Moritz, before it returned permanently in 2002 in Salt Lake City. It is one of the three sliding disciplines, along with bobsleigh and luge.

Although accidents do happen in skeleton, they are rare. According to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, of the 376 injuries reported at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, and 391 injuries at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, no “severe” injuries were sustained by skeleton athletes.

Putting the danger aside, in 2022, Kinoshita is eager to see how far his newfound success will take him.

The Sendai University student took some time to get on track, with unexpected circumstances bringing him to the sport.

Kinoshita is from Ishinomaki, a fishing port city located in Miyagi Prefecture. When he was in third grade, his house was swept away by the massive tsunami that was triggered by the magnitude 9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011.

While living in a temporary shelter, his mother applied for a job identifying talent and recruiting people with potential to excel as elite sliders. In a sport where powerful former sprinters can do well, her son turned out to be a good fit.

He quickly grew to love the sport, and today, at 179 centimeters in height with a muscular 85-kilogram frame, Kinoshita says his “explosive power” at the push-start is his greatest asset.

His coach, Ryosuke Shindo, says Kinoshita’s ability makes him an outlier compared with past Japanese skeleton competitors who were considered fast, and believes he could be good enough to one day rank near the top of the sport.

In October, Kinoshita proved that at least some of the praise heaped on him was warranted. He recorded the fifth-best start time overall in his second run at the Olympic test event in China at the Yanqing National Sliding Centre.

The event was the first international competition at the newly constructed venue for bobsleigh, skeleton and luge at the upcoming Winter Games.

However, the push start is only part of the puzzle competitors need to solve. Kinoshita struggled to come to grips with the course, finished 26th overall and now has a lot of homework to do.

But he feels he has plenty of time to turn things around and achieve his goal of reaching an Olympic podium because Beijing is just a pit stop en route to his main destination — the 2026 Winter Games in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo.

“I want to get a feel for Olympic trials, compete in the Beijing Games and carry all that experience to Milan,” he said.

“It’s my first time to aim for the Olympics. I am going to fight as an underdog.”

A total of 50 quota spots, 25 per gender, are available for athletes to qualify to compete in skeleton at the Beijing Games, which are due to begin on Feb. 4. Only two gold medals are up for grabs in the discipline, one for men and one for women.

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