REDMOND, Wash. —Feb. 11, 2010 — Though it wasn’t his first time beneath the Olympic flame, Ben Hindle had a lot on his mind as he trotted the torch towards its flame in Vancouver in late January.
Microsoft employee Ben Hindle (second from the front) and his team training in a four-man bobsled.
Don’t trip. Hold the torch up. Smile at the cameras. Wave at the kids.
The Microsoft employee, a technical animator for Project Natal, also was thinking of the time a decade earlier when he and his twin brother marched into the opening ceremonies as part of the Canadian Olympic bobsled team.
“Walking into the opening ceremonies was very similar – almost surreal,” Hindle said. “You look forward to it happening all your life. You think how inspiring it will be. Then you can’t believe it’s happening.”
Hindle had dreamed of being an Olympian since he was a little boy in Lethbridge, Alberta, about two hours from Calgary. But there are no little league bobsled teams.
Growing up, Hindle and his twin brother, Matt, excelled at track and field. The brothers were both sprinters, and competed at high-level track meets. When a bobsled recruiter approached the track stars, the brothers had a decision to make.
“I’m probably not going to be an Olympic champion in the 100 or 200 meters, so it’s good to look at another way to meet my goals,” Hindle remembered thinking. “Perhaps we’d be more talented at bobsledding than other events.”
They went for a tryout, where coaches confirmed that their bigger frames and explosive speed made them well-suited for bobsledding.
At 18, the brothers moved to Calgary and got a small apartment, working odd jobs to support a rigorous training schedule as they prepared to make the Canadian bobsled team.
Hindle lifted weights daily, going from 180 pounds to 220 pounds. He needed to be able to sprint, but also do it while pushing a nearly 500-pound sled, accelerating it to 25 miles per hour in about 165 feet.
“We had to work a lot just to make ends meet, but training was first,” Hindle said. “It didn’t matter what other things we had going. The only thing that mattered was training.”
Making the team
The brothers made the team at age 20, and in their first year came in second in the bobsled world cup on their home track in Calgary. Then the team went on a European circuit, competing in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. At the end of their first season, the points tallied from their wins made the team overall world cup champions.
“That overall win was a representation of being consistently good,” Hindle said. “That was all in my first year. My head was spinning.”
During his time in Calgary, a film crew came to town to make a movie about the Jamaican bobsled team’s Olympic debut nearly a decade earlier in 1988. The movie “Cool Runnings” was a hit, and Hindle was an extra – he played a member of the Russian bobsled team.
Four years after they started bobsledding, the brothers finally had the Olympics within reach and their sights on the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.
Former Olympian and current Microsoft employee Ben Hindle carrying the torch for the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
“They always make the joke that you don’t really know you’re going to the Olympics until you’re sitting in your seats on the plane,” Hindle said. “You just don’t want to jinx it before that. You’re definitely going if you’ve got your uniform and you’re on your way. Only then can you say it with certainty.”
The twins made the Canadian Olympic team. Finally, the brothers who had always competed against each other in track and field events were on the same team. Their family loved cheering for both of them at once, and the press loved the bobsledding twins.
When the team arrived in Japan, things took a strange and dangerous turn. Ben’s twin, Matt, was standing between the Canadian and U.S. team housing when someone six stories above kicked out a window. The pane of glass fell on Matt and shattered. Miraculously he was OK, save the need for some stitches in his shoulder.
“It blows my mind, when I saw how much glass was down there, that he survived at all. I was so happy he was alive,” Hindle said.
The accident, competing with stitches in Matt Hindle’s shoulder, and the resulting mental and emotional discombobulation – not to mention the media attention – took its toll on the brothers and their team. Though they were favorites for a medal, they placed 11th. In contrast, the next year they placed third in the world championships.
“It was sort of just a bad race all around,” Hindle said. “We were mentally all over the place. For him to have survived that was incredible, but we were also angry because it may have ruined our chances. It was definitely a distraction.”
Tinkering with video games
The twins were glad for the post-Olympic reset; the opportunity to start fresh in “another four-year cycle.” Though they were both still training and competing, it was around this time that Ben Hindle bought his first computer and “started to tinker.”
He bought the computer so he could work on sponsorship packages for bobsledding, but before long Hindle found he loved playing Quake. He was also fascinated by the technology – how the game was made, and how it worked. He found online communities of players who would download tools to edit and modify the game and started creating his own levels and content.
“I found I was sitting at the computer quite a bit,” Hindle said. “I was really, really interested. Slowly but surely it moved from being a passing fancy to more and more serious, and a year or two later it was 100 percent of what I wanted to do for my career.”
As his love of video game creation increased, the immense training schedule started to catch up to him.
“I started getting into my later 20s, and at times I was battling injuries more than competitions,” Hindle said. “At certain times I had the goal to just not get hurt. That really took a toll on the enjoyment, and my performance.”
The brothers continued to perform well even up until the 2002 Winter Olympic team was being chosen, but the twins narrowly missed making the Canadian bobsled team for the Salt Lake City games.
“We were together when we made it, and together when we didn’t,” Hindle said.
After pursuing a degree in technical animation, Hindle went to work at BioWare. There, he worked on the game Jade Empire and was the lead technical animator for Mass Effect, a smash hit game that garnered a lot of attention and praise, especially for its cinematic animation, and for the “digital acting” and facial expressions of its characters.
“We didn’t know it was going to be as big as it was, and my team didn’t realize that our feature would become a highlight of the game,” Hindle said. “It’s nice to come out of a big project with the work you did being really, really appreciated.”
Hindle Joins Project Natal team
Hindle and his family got tired of the cold weather in Edmonton and were ready for a change. He started talking to Microsoft, who wanted to hire him to work on a top secret project that job interviewers promised him would be revolutionary, but that they could only describe as “very exciting.”
Though being an Olympian is not something he brings up in conversation regularly, Hindle did put it on his resume. “It’s definitely a way to illustrate being able to deal with pressure, and to work very hard over a long period of time for a specific result,” he said. “It also demonstrates that you enjoy doing things at a high level.”
Hindle decided to “take a leap of faith and just go with it.” The top secret project turned out to be Project Natal, and Hindle’s first day of work for the company was at the 2009 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles – the day Microsoft unveiled Project Natal.
“It was incredible,” said Hindle, who watched the E3 Project Natal demo excited to see what he’d be working on. “It kind of seemed like magic initially until I understood how it works.” Natal is an Xbox add-on that allows players to use their body to play games rather than needing a controller.
Hindle is the lead technical animator on an in-house game development team working on what he hopes will be one of Project Natal’s launch titles.
He said he’s looking forward to sharing Project Natal with his family when it’s released this holiday season. He’s also looking forward to watching the Winter Olympics in Vancouver with his family, sharing his experiences and memories with his wife and three young children.
“I’ll say, ‘Hey, this is what daddy used to do. See that guy there? I competed with him. I trained with him. I’m friends with him,’” Hindle said. “I really want to impart on them just how valuable, as difficult as it is, and how exciting it is to be involved in elite level athletics, and the feeling you get when something you do is really successful.”
Watch complete coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver on NBCOlympics.com, which uses Silverlight technology.