For former George Washington University shortstop Elana Meyers, the chance to make the 2004 Olympic softball team represented a dream she’d had since age 9. But she was so desperate and nervous, she turned in what she calls “the worst tryout anybody has ever had in the history of tryouts.”
Unwilling to surrender her Olympic dream even after three years had passed, Meyers contacted U.S. Bobsled officials, who were intrigued by the Georgia native’s explosive power and bull-headed determination.
Meyers went on to claim bronze at the 2010 Vancouver Games, supplying the all-important push as brakeman on her two-man sled. Today, at 29, she’s girding for next month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, where she’s expected to pilot the top U.S. women’s sled and get that critical push from former Illinois shot putter and sprinter Aja Evans, 25, a three-time Big Ten champion who took up bobsled just last year.
Bobsledding has emerged as the second-career-of-choice for a growing number of former college athletes whose initial path to the Games was denied, as well as Summer Olympians who simply can’t get enough of the Olympic experience. The trend is particularly evident in women’s bobsled, which didn’t become a full-fledged Olympic sport until 2002 and has no established feeder system in the United States.
The upshot, as Meyers and Evans attest, is a bobsledding welcome mat for female athletes of all disciplines — provided they’re powerful, hard-working, not averse to cold and can stomach the sheer terror of hurtling down a snaking, icy track at 90 mph.
“We’ve all played different sports,” Meyers said of her fellow U.S. bobsledders. “I played all kinds of sports growing up: Soccer, basketball, track. You name it, I’ve probably played it. Bobsled is a universal sport, and most people don’t know that. Anybody can slide down a hill.”
All three female brakemen named to the 2014 Olympic bobsled team Sunday are converted track stars. Three-time Olympian Lauryn Williams, who won gold in the 4x100-meter relay at the London Olympics in 2012 and silver in the 100 meters in Athens in 2004, and hurdler Lolo Jones, who fell short of the podium at the 2008 and 2012 Summer Games, will join Evans in the Sochi-bound lineup. The Sochi Olympics open Feb. 7.
In men’s bobsled, the NFL has been fertile terrain for push athletes, with Heisman Trophy winner and NFL running back Herschel Walker famously recruited for the 1992 Albertville Games. He and driver Brian Shimer finished seventh.
The push athlete, or brakeman, unleashes all available power in a furious five-second burst at the top of the course. From that running start, the brakeman leaps into the back of the sled, often digging metal spikes into the pilot’s back in the process. Meyers has the scars to prove it, and she takes tetanus shots as a precaution.
It’s a price she gladly pays.
“I was a shortstop in softball and a lot of times I had collisions with base runners coming in, so I definitely have scars,” Meyers said. “But as [bobsled] drivers, we get scars on our back. The brakemen jump in and spike us. I tell them, ‘Whatever you need to do to load aggressively, I’ll take it.’ We need them to load aggressively; it results in that much faster time. So if I’ve got to take a kick in the back, that’s fine.”
No one goes into bobsled for the glamour, notes two-time Olympian Darrin Steele, CEO of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. The sport is rooted in a blue-collar ethos, says Steele, who was a decathlete before being recruited for the 1998 Winter Games.
Even the world’s elite bobsled drivers have no minions to carry their gear, no equipment managers to load and unload the 375-pound sleds from transport trucks, no interns to remove the runners after each session and put them on the next time out.
“You spend your life as a bobsled athlete moving equipment,” Steele said. “It’s cold. You’re rooming with teammates in hotels. You have a helmet on, so people can’t see what you look like. In general our athletes are really down-to-earth and grounded.”
Still, it’s not the crossover sport for every Olympian. Steele recalled one prominent female athlete, whom he declined to name, who was invited to Lake Placid, N.Y., for a one-week orientation. “At the end of that week, she said, ‘This isn’t for me! It’s way too cold, way too much work, and you guys don’t get paid enough!’ ” he said with a laugh.
Jones, whose pursuit of a spot on the U.S. bobsled team after finishing fourth in the 100-meter hurdles in London bordered on a media obsession, was the opposite, earning the respect of established sliders by diving into the sport’s thankless work without airs or pretense, Meyers said. As for the TV air time and newspaper column inches Jones has attracted along the way, Meyers is overjoyed.
“Athletes like Lolo put our sport on a different platform,” Meyers said. “They allow us to share our message and allow me to draw even more athletes in.”
Having made the switch from brakeman to pilot, Meyers hopes to compete in a third and possibly fourth Olympics. Steve Holcomb, who piloted the U.S. four-man sled to gold in Vancouver, is still at the top of his game at 33, entering his third Olympics. For her career to last, Meyers knows she’ll need a deep reservoir of top talent — women with the exceptional power that Evans has showed — to push U.S. sleds in the future.
“I don’t plan on slowing down, so I need to make sure our brakeman pool is fast and strong for the future,” she said. “Lolo and Lauryn Williams and Aja have really brought a whole new audience to bobsled, which is crazy exciting for us.”
While accorded NFL-like status in Germany and Switzerland, bobsled arose as a club sport in the United States. There were no youth bobsled programs, no Little League-style pipeline for developing Olympic-caliber sliders.
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that U.S. bobsled officials starting looking to NFL running backs as potential brakemen. Once women’s bobsled was added for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, the net was cast wider.
“When I first took this position back in 2007, I knew then and I believe now, we’ve got unbelievable potential bobsled athletes all over the country,” Steele said. “Initially I was thinking that I really wanted to crank up the recruiting program and bring in a ton of talent. But what I quickly realized was that we only have a limited number of spaces. Because of that, we’re very targeted in who we go after. We throw a wide net, but we’re looking for some really special individuals.”
To identify the potential talent to fill its eight Olympic bobsleds (the United States will field two four-man teams and three men’s and three women’s two-man sleds for Sochi), the sport’s national governing body typically holds five tryouts throughout the country each season. The current national team is composed of a roughly equal mix of athletes found through such tryouts and athletes who reach out to U.S. Bobsled, such as Meyers.
“Women’s bobsled is still relatively young,” Meyers said. “You can still come in and be successful rather quickly. Hopefully in the future we’ll have four-man teams so we’ll need more [female] athletes. We’ll start getting a deeper field, so it won’t be as easy to get into the sport.”
After taking part in the 2008 Olympic trials in shot put without landing a spot in Beijing, Evans took a job at a sports-performance company in Highland Park, Ill., but soon found she missed the rush of competition. Sports had been a huge part of her life. Her brother, Fred Evans, is an eight-year NFL defensive tackle, currently with the Minnesota Vikings.
So she spent an entire night on her computer researching bobsled, watching YouTube videos of bobsled runs and reading the athletes’ Facebook pages. The next day, she started training. Invited to a U.S. Bobsled combine, she wowed the coaches with her rare combination of shot putter’s power and sprinter’s speed.
“The coach said, ‘Okay, we get what you can do! Let’s see if you can push a sled,’ ” Evans recalled.
She started out on a push track, which simulates on dry land the action at the start of a race, and picked it up quickly. But her first trip down the icy track came as a shock.
“No matter what story you hear, no matter what people tell you to anticipate or look for — nothing matches what you experience that first time going down,” Evans said, her eyes widening. “It was just a very fast, noisy kind of violent, rough ride. I got the bottom, and I was like a deer in the headlights. Big eyes! I didn’t know exactly if I wanted to still do it or not. I went and called my mom and said, ‘I just had my first trip down the track. Are you sure this is worth it? Did we tell too many people I’m doing this?’ ”
Since then, she was won back-to-back U.S. push championships and last weekend, with Meyers behind the steering wheel at the World Cup race in Austria, clocked record-breaking start times of 5.39 and 5.38 seconds.
In Jones’s case, the challenge of transitioning from Olympic hurdles to bobsled in less than two years’ time was mainly bulking up without sacrificing power or speed. She threw herself into a 6,000-calorie-a-day regimen that included plenty of weight training and the daily ritual of loading and unloading the sled.
Regardless of athletic pedigree, Meyers argues that bobsled is a universal sport — one that anyone who doesn’t mind hard work, raw speed and a measure of fear can make their own.
Her brakeman agrees.
“Just because you may not be able to pursue the sport you played in college or in high school on a professional level, that doesn’t just end your dream of going to the Olympics or being a professional athlete,” Evans said. “There are sports like bobsled that allow you to be these powerhouse athletes, to travel the world, win medals and compete on that elite level. And nothing beats it. I’m living proof.”