The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Some crowdsource their Olympic dreams. U.S. bobsledders took off their clothes.

Members of the U.S. bobsled team posed for a calendar called the Bob-Spread as a way to raise money. (Jimmy Reed)
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BEIJING — Carlo Valdes was comfortable stripping down, but he didn’t want to go full Burt Reynolds.

A push athlete for the four-man U.S. bobsled team, Valdes shares a birthday with Reynolds and his handlebar mustache resembles one of the many sported by the late movie star. But Valdes didn’t undress for a magazine spread, he did it for a calendar meant to help offset the costs of his teammates’ Olympic journey.

“The original idea was to help with the funding,” he said. “Federations can’t take care of everything. We still gotta pay out of pocket for some things. We need help with that, and luckily, the calendar has provided a small buffer outside of what people have donated.”

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The calendar, called the Bob-Spread, is the 2019 brainchild of photographer and push athlete Jimmy Reed and other bobsledders, who thought of it as a way to promote themselves and the sport. The project — part Playgirl, part ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue — didn’t come to fruition until last summer.

In the calendar, a sculpted Blaine McConnell strides down the track in nothing but American flag bikini briefs, holding a bobsled helmet in his left hand. A nude Manteo Mitchell, illuminated by the glow of a blue-tinted camera flash, assumes the starting position, an ode to his previous life as an Olympic sprinter.

And of course Valdes, mimicking Reynolds’s iconic 1972 Cosmopolitan centerfold, lies hairy and mustachioed, with his left hand placed strategically between his legs. He ditched Reynolds’s ashtray for a bobsled helmet; swapped the bearskin rug for a race suit; but opted to cover his nether regions with star-spangled, thigh-high boxer briefs. Full nudity was a bit much for him.

“That would have been,” Valdes said before a brief pause, “it would have been a lot.”

Olympic bobsled often features skilled athletes who come from other sports, and the U.S. team is no exception.

Valdes was a wide receiver, decathlete, and javelin thrower at UCLA. Hakeem Abdul-Saboor was a competitive bodybuilder. And Charlie Volker was a Princeton running back and sprinter who earned NFL minicamp invites from the Giants, Jaguars, and Vikings.

“The track guys,” as Volker puts it, were in favor of a project that showcased the group’s athleticism, so Reed in August started shooting the calendar photos with a Nikon D850 at the Olympic Training Center and various bobsledding sites in Lake Placid, N.Y. A self-taught photographer, he organized the shoots while his teammates held the lights and constructed the makeshift sets for each other.

“We’re a very close team,” Reed said. “Shooting the calendar was a fun experience. It wasn’t awkward; it wasn’t anything that was a burden. We just came up with the idea for the person who we wanted to shoot and then took a couple photos.”

The calendar wasn’t entirely a recreational endeavor. Where some athletes have used online fundraisers, a coffee shop, or even a brothel to try to finance their Olympic dreams, the U.S. bobsled cohort first planned to use the calendar to help fund their ambitions.

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An elite sled costs up to $250,000, although the team rents one from USA Bobsled and Skeleton (USABS) for a few thousand dollars. It costs an estimated $25,000 to ship a sled one-way to Beijing, and the team paid another $25,000 to the USABS for the deposit to compete on the World Cup circuit this season.

That financial burden can be heavier for pilots, who, as the organizers of a team, often incur the sled rental costs on top of those for rental cars, hotels, and runners — the steel blades upon which the sled moves.

The USABS fronts the bill as teams compete throughout the World Cup season. Typically, USABS will absorb the expenses for the top two American teams to compete in the World Cup. An additional team may compete on the secondary North American Cup circuit, which is less costly, but requires teams to be self-funded.

The pool of American men’s bobsledders runs about 30 deep, with the top World Cup team comprising of a pilot (Hunter Church) and his three pushers. The secondary team also includes a pilot and his three pushers. If they perform well enough during the season, the U.S. can earn two sleds — eight spots, plus space for alternates — for the Olympics.

But Reed, Valdes, and their U.S. teammates wanted more.

The Olympic team would not be selected until January, and more spots available meant more members of the pool could be chosen.

But to try to earn more spots for Beijing, U.S. bobsledders would need to field two successful World Cup sleds plus a third in the North American Cup, and such ambitions came with a steep price tag after pandemic-related cuts sapped Team USA funding and sponsorship.

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In late summer, about two months before the season, USABS said the second sled would be on the hook for $70,000 if they wanted to compete on the World Cup circuit. USABS would foot the bill, but the second-sled athletes would have to reimburse the organization after the Olympics.

The American men’s bobsled pool, including Church and his fully-funded top team, plotted how they could raise the money in time. They opted to create a GoFundMe, planning to use the calendar as bait to attract donors. To everyone’s astonishment, they raised $90,000 in a week, largely powered by eight of their 250 donors, who contributed 90 percent of the total before the calendar was even offered as an incentive.

The Poole family, childhood family friends of push athlete Kyle Wilcox, gave $25,000. It was the group’s largest donation, so they named the second sled “Poole Runnings,” a reference to the 1993 Disney movie loosely based on the first Jamaican bobsled team.

The donations enabled the second sled to compete this season, and provided extra cushion for an estimated $15,000-20,000 in unforeseen expenses. That enabled them to repurpose the Bob-Spread, which sold around 400 copies for $4,700. Those funds now go toward future expenses and help offset personal costs for some athletes, many of whom balance bobsled with other jobs and professional pursuits.

“For me, I know it’s gonna go toward some self-funding, because not everything is paid for even though we’re at the Olympics,” said Valdes, who started an independent financial planning service after the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games.

Two four-man bobsled teams will represent the U.S. in Beijing. The third sled, which competed on the North American Cup circuit, did not qualify. Josh Williamson, Kris Horn, and Volker will push for Church’s sled. Valdes, Reed, and Abdul-Saboor will push for Frank Del Duca.

Volker said he doesn’t expect the Bob-Spread to become an annual release, although he could see a 2026 calendar ahead of the next Winter Games in Italy. In the meantime, Valdes sees other potential benefits for Volker and the few single bobsledders.

“I’m in a serious relationship right now, but [the Bob-Spread] doesn’t hurt; my girlfriend shows it off to her friends and people she knows,” Valdes said. “For the single guys, [Volker] and Horn, I think they need to capitalize on this.”

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