Curt Tomasevicz poses for a portrait ahead of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 3, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
Curt Tomasevicz remembers the days when future Pro Bowl defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch used to throw him to the ground at University of Nebraska football practices, the team captain discarding the scout team running back like a sack of old potatoes.
“If he was in a good mood he wouldn’t even kick me when I was on the ground,” Tomasevicz recalled.
These days, Tomasevicz’s preferred method of being thrown around is in the back of a 500-pound, four-man bobsled, sliding down a mile of icy, curvy track at 85 mph with up to five G-forces pushing down on him.
The new sport has served Tomasevicz well. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound walk-on-football-player-turned-bobsledder helped push pilot Steven Holcomb’s four-man sled to an Olympic gold medal in 2010, breaking a 62-year drought for Team USA, and he is the only push athlete still with Holcomb as they go for another gold medal on Sunday in Sochi.
Still, for a guy with Nebraska football player and Olympic gold medalist on his résumé, Tomasevicz had made a career out of doing it the hard way, especially when nobody was watching.
Starting at Nebraska in 1999, Tomasevicz arrived as an uninvited walk-on at a program two years removed from a national championship. By his redshirt senior season in 2003, he was a contributor on special teams as a backup linebacker for the 10-3 Huskers.
Then, in 2004, it was on to bobsled, a hardscrabble sport that he admits is lost on the public conscience outside of the Olympic Winter Games.
“People forget about us 3.5 years out of the quadrennium, but it’s something I liked,” he said. “And that’s something that I learned when I was growing up in Shelby: You keep working hard whether you get attention or not.”
Drive on County Road 131 through east central Nebraska and you’ll pass through a small town that doesn’t have a stoplight but that boasts signs facing both directions celebrating the local Olympic gold medalist.
That town is Shelby, Neb., the farming community of almost 700 people where Tomasevicz grew up.
Shelby is the town where Tomasevicz learned about hard work. After earning varsity letters all four years in three sports — football, basketball and track — he graduated from Shelby High School as the valedictorian of the class of ’99.
And as Tomasevicz continued his journey from the beloved Cornhuskers football team to the U.S. bobsled team, where he helped push Holcomb’s four-man sled to a sixth-place finish at the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games, the residents of Shelby were his biggest supporters.
Tomasevicz makes no effort to hide his least favorite part of being an elite bobsledder.
“Fundraising,” he said. “I hate doing that, and I hate that it’s part of the sport. But it’s necessary, unfortunately, and that’s how a lot of athletes have to get started.”
The Great Recession just before the 2010 Winter Games certainly didn’t make life any easier. Yet the people of Shelby continuously stepped up.
“They had a street dance, a golf tournament and a steak feed,” he said, immediately moving on to the clarification. “I usually have to describe what a street dance is to people: It’s where you block off main street in town with a flatbed semi trailer, the band gets up on the flatbed and people just dance in the middle of the street. It’s very common in small-town Nebraska.
“I think Shelby was looking for a reason to party.”
That support helped Tomasevicz get to the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the four-man bobsled dubbed Night Train made its historic gold-medal run (Tomasevicz and Holcomb also finished sixth in the two-man bobsled).
With the win came publicity, which for Tomasevicz meant more speaking appearances, sponsorships and financial independence — his big purchase after the 2010 Winter Games was a fourplex in his home base of Colorado Springs, Colo., where he lives in one unit and rents out the other three.
Yet still the people of Shelby continued to give. So Tomasevicz did the only thing that made sense: He created a scholarship fund to give the money back.
“They helped me out enough,” he said. “They got me on my feet and got me running, and now I don’t need that financial support.”
Now 33 and competing in what might be his final Winter Games, Tomasevicz admits that the bobsled journey has sometimes been hard.
There are times when Tomasevicz can’t help but think he might have found his wife by now had he not spent more than half of his time over the past decade holed up around bobsled tracks in towns like Igls, Austria, and Königssee, Germany.
There are days, too, when he looks at his bank account and wishes there were two extra digits on the bottom line. (Former teammate Vanden Bosch, for comparison, was a 2001 second-round NFL draft pick who played through 2012, when he was cut from the Detroit Lions reportedly for salary cap reasons relating to his $5 million salary.)
But then Tomasevicz thinks of the people in Shelby scrambling to change their cable packages so they could get bobsled races on their TVs, and he remembers the lessons he learned as an unknown walk-on at Nebraska who got knocked down but never stopped getting back up, and finally he takes a moment to recognize the experience he’s having right now in Sochi.
“Nothing takes away from that experience at the Opening Ceremony, at the Olympics,” he said.
Another gold medal might bring Tomasevicz another 15 minutes of fame, but at a quarter past the hour, you can bet he’ll be back at work doing something, whether we’re watching or not.