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One SLACer's Smooth Ride to the World Cup

Warren Focke.
(Photo by Olga Kuchment.)

"I'd love to have done better," Focke says, adding that he looks forward to having a "#1" on his helmet next year. Focke's total points from his best four races in 2009 earned him the International Gravity Sports Association's prize. He competed in France and Italy, in Los Angeles, and in Washington state. At the World Championship race in Bathurst, Australia, he made fourth place despite a broken wrist.

"I want to win, but I still have fun when I don't," he says. Sitting in the office on a rainy Friday afternoon, he laments having to miss his normal outdoor practice session. The back of his chair hosts a leather jacket, part of an old skating suit. His long hair is tied back in a ponytail. He is wearing one of his many skating-themed T-shirts; this one a souvenir from the race in Australia.

Focke bought his first set of skates about 15 years ago, as a physics graduate student at the University of Maryland looking for a fun way to exercise. After he finished graduate school in 1998, a postdoctoral position at SLAC brought Focke to the Bay Area. He joined a San Francisco skating group and quickly realized that the city's hills were a fun challenge. Several of his friends had the same epiphany.

The skating group began to hold extra sessions to practice the more advanced downhill form of the sport, and Focke bought a full set of safety gear. The sport's "personal protective equipment" includes gloves, a helmet, a full leather suit and rigorous training at braking sharply. One of the guys in the downhill skating group told Focke, "you should come out and race."

Focke took his friend's advice. He borrowed speed skates and completed his first competitive event in Barrett Junction, CA in 2001—the beginning of an acclaimed career.

To train, Focke skates and competes as much as he can. He puts in about 12 hours a week with the San Francisco group. The rides often start at the Ferry Building and move down Market Street and through the alleys to the Palace of Fine Arts. Someone usually brings along a sound system on wheels, which plays disco too often for Focke's taste.

He would like to improve his performance on the European race courses; last summer he spent a month in Europe, racing every weekend. The tracks in Europe are slower and have sharper turns than their United States counterparts, but are around the same length—one to two miles.

When Focke is not zipping downhill, he helps to make sure the Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope properly processes incoming data. He helped write the some of the software that distinguishes high-energy gamma rays that hit the telescope's sensors from other, less interesting photons.

How did he end up in astrophysics?

"Really, I mostly followed the path of least resistance," Focke says. Both in examining the skies and skating downhill, the approach has served him well.

—Olga Kuchment
SLAC Today, March 31, 2010