Bobsled’s Big Push(ers)
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Last year, coach Todd Hays set a lofty goal for the U.S. women’s bobsled program. At the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, they want to sweep the podium, 1-2-3.
In the two-man (two-woman) world of women’s bobsled, this is a big leap. U.S. women have won medals at every Winter Olympics since 2002, when women’s bobsled debuted. But only one medal per Games. Only one is gold.
To make the leap, USA Bobsled needed to deepen the pool of world-caliber athletes on the team.
“It’s not a stretch to say the United States has some of the best female athletes on the planet,” said Hays, after the first World Cup of the season. “That’s an easy conclusion to come to. It’s just a matter of going out and recruiting them, getting them interested in our sport.”
Elana Meyers, who was a brake woman in Erin Pac’s bronze-medal-winning sled at the 2010 Olympics and since moving to the driver’s seat has earned a World Championship bronze medal, set about helping to recruit.
“I knew we needed strong athletes to power us in order to walk away with some medals,” said Meyers. “I went out, did some recruiting, did some leg work, really got the ball rolling.”
In 2010, she reached out to Katie Eberling, a top volleyball player from Western Michigan University. Eberling won the push championships last fall.
But for the 2012/2013 season, Hays and Meyers, among others on the U.S. bobsled team, recruited a banner class. Joining Eberling and veteran brake woman Emily Azevedo, a 2010 Olympian, are two top college track athletes, Cherrelle Garrett and Aja Evans, as well as the well-publicized addition of summer Olympians Lolo Jones and Tianna Bartoletta (who competed under the name Madison at the 2012 Olympics).
While Hays reached out to a few specific Olympic track athletes, like Jones, Bartoletta’s husband, John, contacted U.S. bobsled last March.
“[Tianna] is built absolutely perfect [for bobsled] because of her power,” said John.
The Bartolettas came to Lake Placid after the London Olympics so Tianna could give the sport a try. Though a run on the push track ended in “disaster,” she was hooked.
“I was dragged by that sled the first time,” Tianna said. “But when I got up, [I thought] that’s so cool. We made the commitment to do what it takes to make this team.”
Jones arrived in Lake Placid in early October. After finishing seventh in the push championships, Jones took a rookie run down the track, and her future career in bobsledding did not seem promising. She tweeted, ““I felt like someone put me in a garbage can and threw me off of Mt. Everest.”
But she liked the challenge of a new sport. In late October, teamed with driver Jazmine Fenlator, they finished second in the team selection races.
“I just thought I could come out here and train with the bobsledders,” said Jones, who plans to return to track next summer. “They’re pushing a 400-pound sled. I could get strong. Little did I know coming out here, it would open up the floodgates to something completely new for me. I’m thrilled to be out here.”
But beating both summer Olympians in all the bobsled team selection tests was a 24-year-old former shot putter and sometime-sprinter from the University of Illinois. And Aja Evans (pronounced “Asia”) found the U.S. bobsled team on her own — or rather, because her college track coach at the University of Illinois planted the idea of bobsled in her mind during the 2010 Olympics. The coach noticed that testing to make the bobsled team was similar to the testing they did for track.
“He was like, ‘If you ever thought about [bobsled], you’d kill it,’” said Evans.
At the combine test in July in Lake Placid, she did just that, scoring 794 of a possible 800 points in the sprint, broad jump, shot toss, squats, and clean. Hays says she can out-jump most of the men on the team and is one of the most gifted athletes he has ever seen.
“When we first laid eyes on Aja, we knew she was very special,” he said.
Recruiting these athletes was far more than a publicity stunt though.
“Publicity unfortunately doesn’t win medals,” said Hays. “We’re trying to win medals. Everything else will take care of itself. We’re going after the best athletes in the world, and we definitely have a few of them.
“These girls are absolute killers in everything they do. It’s a very refreshing thing to see what they do to the team. They want to be great at everything. It’s contagious. The coaches want to be better when they see that kind of stuff.”
The veterans on the team concur.
“Competition breeds excellence,” said Azevedo, who finished fifth at the 2010 Olympics in Bree Schaaf’s sled. “It’s good for us to have competitive girls because that pushes us to stay on our toes and work just as hard as we possibly can, and that makes everybody better.”
“It’s an extremely competitive environment,” added Eberling, who took the bronze at 2012 Worlds in Meyers’ sled. “But it’s also inspiring. It’s so great to work alongside [the summer Olympians]. We just watched them in London!”
Neither veteran was named to a sled in the first World Cup in Lake Placid. But in what looks like a game of musical chairs — with six brake women competing for three spots — Hays said each athlete has different strengths, and the coaches will choose them depending on the characteristics of each track’s unique start.
“What they try to do is see who are best combinations and best pairs,” explained Azevedo. “We have so much depth now on our team that any time any of the brakemen can be pushing pretty well. We don’t know who is racing when. But the idea is to see who the best combinations are moving forward to Sochi.”
Meanwhile, the hot new recruits have made an impact on Team USA — with two medals at the first World Cup.
“I feel like we’re raising those standards and showing the world that USA can really come out here and do some big things,” said Evans.
“They’re tremendous for this team,” said Meyers of her new teammates. “Just their spirit of competitiveness and their willingness to fight for everything brings the whole level of the team up. It’s been pretty awesome having them here.”
“I’m glad they came out,” she added. “I’m glad I was able to talk them into it.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.