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Hastings grad looks likely to qualify for the 2014 Winter Olympics

HASTINGS - Brad Stewart's dream of competing at the 2014 Winter Olympics looks more and more like a real possibility. The 1998 Hastings High School graduate is now the No. 4 ranked skeleton slider in the United States, and his 2012-13 season is off to a great start.

Skeleton is that wild sport where racers lie on their stomachs, straddle a tiny sled and fly down an icy and banked track, hitting 80 mph. Athletes are just inches above the ice as they navigate the course. It may sound like a nightmare to many people, but to Stewart it is anything but.

"I've really taken to the feeling of the sliding -- it is just an amazing feeling," he said. "I've equated it to flying. When you have a really smooth run ... all you hear is the wind going by your helmet. It's all really smooth and graceful. It's a feeling you can't get anywhere else."

Stewart competed last year on one of two developmental tours for Team USA. He was essentially the seventh- or eighth-ranked slider in the United States.

This year, through a series of qualifying races, Stewart moved up. He is now on what is called the Intercontinental Cup and is the No. 4 racer on the team. All things remaining equal, he is just one spot away from going ot the Olympics. In all likelihood, Team USA will consist of three sliders.

"I'm happy with the results I've been getting," Stewart said. "I feel like I've been a little sloppy, so I feel good and optimistic that I can clean some things up. Hopefully I'll be able to do a little bit better, but I'm happy. To have some top-10s is certainly great for me. I'm sliding as well as I've ever slid before. It's all going in the right direction."

The 2014 Winter Olympics are in Sochi, Russia, and qualifying for the Olympics is something Stewart has dreamed about for the past 14 years.

"I've dreamed of being in the Olympics since I watched the closing ceremonies at Calgary in 1998," Stewart said. "I don't even know what it was. I was 7 years old and watched it. I couldn't tell you what it was. There was just something about the whole atmosphere. It struck me. It captivated me."

This season

The 2012-13 season got under way a few weeks ago. In the first race on the tour, Stewart placed 11th and ninth.

When the tour came to his home track in Park City, Utah, he fared much better, earning a bronze medal after placing third.

He is off until Dec. 29, when he travels to Europe for a month.

He will race in Germany and Austria, among other places, while he continues his effort to move up the ranks.

In addition, Stewart will race in his first World Cup race against the world's best competition. That race is set for Jan. 4 to Jan. 6 in Altenberg, Germany. That came about because one of the racers on the World Cup team will miss the event due to a rehab assignment.

Stewart is the 26th-ranked skeleton racer in the world.

All in the family

Stewart was married in 2012 to Kimber Gabryszak, who is one of the top three women sliders in the United States.

They were married in, of all places, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

Stewart said the couple initially planned a wedding at the skeleton track in Park City, but with her family from Alaska and his from Minnesota, the task of planning a wedding became daunting.

They each invited their parents, flew them to Cabo and got married on the beach.

"We wanted to sit someplace warm and thaw out for a bit," he said. "That was perfect."

Gabryszak is ranked No. 3 in the United States, and the women's team will consist of either two sliders or three. She is working hard to ensure that the U.S. qualifies to have a third racer on the team.

They won't be able to see each other much during January, but they will race together in Altenberg, Germany, during the month.

During the off-season, they do get to see each other plenty, especially in the gym. They each head out for the gym at around 5 a.m. They work out for about three hours or so, then get cleaned up and go to their fulltime jobs. Stewart works as a software developer for the Sundance Institute.

After work, they go to a push track, where they work on their starts. They slide for a few hours, return home around 8 p.m., have dinner and then do it all over again the next day.

It seems like an awful lot of work, but it is an adventure Stewart is enjoying along the way.

"Part of it is the challenge of just bettering yourself and working on something," he said.

Another aspect Stewart really enjoys is being exposed to people from across the world.

"We've got friends all over the world," he said. "On my Facebook feed, there are people talking in German, Swedish, Japanese, Korean ... When you are on tour, it's like you are this band of brothers. You are going from stop to stop. You hear all the politics about this country, and that country. But I know people from that country, and they're not anything like that. You realize that what brings us together is so much more than what makes us different. That has been really cool. It's great to be a part of it."

Stewart's mother, Sandy Blankenship, and his step-father, Allen, live in Hastings. They travel the world watching him and Gabryszak race.