Whenever my husband and I leave each other or even travel together, we start each journey by asking each other the same question: “Are you ready for another adventure?” Well our trip to La Plagne, France, truly added to our already crazy life story together.
To recap, in order to compete in four-man at the highest level of bobsled competition, I needed to meet the FIBT’s (our international governing body) 5-3-2 rule, which states that in order to compete in world cup pilots have to compete 5 races on 3 different tracks within 2 years. As I am a pilot on world cup for the women’s two-man and would be traveling with that circuit, in order to compete in four-man this year I really needed to get this qualification in. Additionally, I had earned the USA-3 spot on the four-man team, which meant I had a right to compete in the four-man races in world cup if I could get qualified. My team and I had traveled to Park City, Utah, and Calgary, Alberta, and competed in two races, all that was missing was the fifth race on the third track. With the world cup season right around the corner, my crew from the first four races was not available, so I needed to take another set of guys. My first choice, of course, was my husband Nic. Nic raced U.S. team trials with me and helped me get on the team, but due to his responsibilities at the World Athletics Center as a coach, he would only be available sporadically throughout the season, but not for the entire season (hey — someone’s got to keep our home in Phoenix in order while I’m off during the season!). I asked Coach Brian Shimer who else I should take and he recommended two athletes — Kris Enslen and Trevor Christianson, both rookies but good, hard-working athletes. They agreed, travel plans were made, and we were off to France.
The trouble didn’t wait long to find us. As soon as we got off the plane in Geneva, Switzerland (the bobsled track is two-and-a-half hours from this airport and it’s the closest), we were about to head through customs check. I reached into my pocket for my passport and found nothing! I checked everywhere, combed through my bags, nothing, nothing, nothing. Finally, Nic tried to run back to the plane, but there was a security gate blocking the way. Luckily, he managed to speak to an agent and had them check the plane. Eventually, the passport was found on the plane and we entered Switzerland — crisis averted.
We picked up our rental car, crammed in our bags, and headed on our way. After about an hour of driving, we all started to get hungry. Being American, of course the only option was McDonald’s. Having trouble with the GPS, we tried to find it and got lost in the process, but we landed at a cute Christmas market in the town of Annecy, France. We spent some time there, had lunch, and got back on our way and shortly after passed the McDonald’s we were looking for.
Back on the road, I typed the hotel name into the GPS. We started following it up a mountain, but then I didn’t recognize anything as we traveled. I thought, ‘Maybe this is a different way up,’ but it wasn’t and we were on the wrong mountain. Our hotel had a sister hotel of the same name in towns with very similar names. Over an hour later, we finally got to our hotel — a two-and-a-half-hour drive turned into over a four-hour drive. We were exhausted, but we had arrived.As soon as we arrived, the next task was to figure out the sled situation and get a track walk in. Because of the close turnaround between this race and the world cup race in Lake Placid, New York, we traveled without most of our equipment. This meant we would be renting a sled and runners. Thanks to our coach Sepp Plozza, he arranged an agreement with France and Monaco and they allowed us to rent a sled and runners. I texted my contact upon our arrival to see what time I could go set up the sled. After about an hour to unwind from the travel, we all headed over to the track to find out what sled we would be in — a sled we would end up nicknaming the “Day Train.” The sled was very small for a four-man, had no foot pegs (the place where brakemen put their feet) or handles for the brakemen, and had a crooked driver’s seat. We had our work cut out for us. Right away we started contingency planning. Nic made foot pegs out of housing brackets, the guys decided to hold onto the frame of the sled, and Nic managed to straighten out my seat. It took some work, but we were grateful to have a sled.
|Nic and I before race day
We rushed to the team captain’s meeting to figure out the details of sliding, where we were late because I couldn’t find the locations, which resulted in us being put last during the sliding session each day. Not to worry, it actually worked out nicely for us, as sliding was early in the morning and this allowed us a little more time to sleep. At any rate, we had the details, next was for me to figure out the track. At 7:45 p.m. that night, after a long day, the French coach, Bruno, agreed to take me on a track walk — a huge advantage, as he knew the track better than anyone. In a track walk with a few French pilots with a mix of French and English being spoken, I now had my lines. Time to get sliding.
The next day we woke up and headed to the track early. I walked down the track with Kaillie Humphries and the Canadian coach to review the lines, thankful for a little extra help. Shortly after the session started, a cloud descended on the track; literally a cloud — not fog — a cloud! As if I wasn’t nervous already, this made things worse. Normally when you get to a track you take a two-man first to figure things out. I didn’t have that option as I’d only be doing four-man. The cloud got worse, limiting the vision of the pilots, so they delayed the session until 2 p.m. At 2 p.m., they started again, and shortly thereafter cancelled the session with only four sleds left to go, me included. My nerves would have to wait another day.
The next day, we got our runs before the cloud descended. We went annoyingly slow the first one, did things purposely to slow the sled down, but we made it and all was good. The second run we sped things up and went two seconds faster. The rest of the week continued in the same way: two runs every day, six runs total. I worked hard to improve my lines, but without coaches it was proving quite difficult. It gave me a great opportunity to learn and try new things though, something that you take for granted when you have coaches. Our runs got faster as the week went on, as did our pushes, and we were all feeling ready.
Using borrowed equipment is always difficult, even though it’s much appreciated. We borrowed the sled from the French and the runners from Monaco and the French. When I went to check them in, make sure they were legal for the race, we encountered a problem. The runners were not legal! We had come all this way and didn’t have legal runners; I went into a brief panic. Apparently, one of the French brakemen had accidentally switched out the back runners for another set, leaving us with illegal ones. I quickly searched for another set from another country. The first country I asked was the Netherlands, who was all too happy to rent us a set, and a fast set at that. I was extremely grateful and assured now that we were ready to go.
The day of the race I was nervous and excited. I knew the performance didn’t matter as much as just completing the race to get qualified, but I still wanted to perform well. As nervous as I was, I tried not to let it show to Kris and Trevor; Nic always knows about my nervousness and mostly acts as my sports psych during these times so he knew. We got to the race, warmed up, and prepared to take our runs. Normally, we have coaches to move our sled to the line so we can maximize our warm-up time and give us the greatest chance to stay warm. Just before our run, we headed outside to move our sled, to see coaches from Canada, Italy and Great Britain each with a hand on our sled ready to move it. It was a completely generous act and we were extremely grateful. Now we could just focus on performing.
And perform we did. After the first run we were 11th. When I got back to the top after the first run, it was like I had just won a gold medal. Congratulations all around, including from some FIBT officials, who were skeptical about women driving a four-man. I was happy with my run, but as a competitor I knew we could do better. We blasted off for the second run and came down with an even better time. We moved up to 10th place and stayed there, a top-10 finish on a European track on borrowed equipment. I’ll take it. When we got to the bottom, again I was greeted by an FIBT official who was in part confused and in part impressed. A woman had driven a four-man sled to a top-10 finish, minds were starting to change. Now I’m officially qualified for four-man competition on the world cup level. Even though the world cup season opens this weekend in Lake Placid, because of the jet lag, we’ve decided to wait until next week in Calgary to open up with four-man. I know this is quite a historic moment, but the competitor in me is worried less about history and more about competing. A top-10 finish on Europa Cup was great, but if we want to be competitive on world cup, we’ve got some work to do. And I can’t wait…here we go. Are you ready for another adventure?