Move over, guys. The U.S. bobsled team discovered that the best candidate to drive one of its four-man sleds just might be a woman.
And she was right under their noses.
Elana Meyers Taylor, a two-time Olympic medalist in a two-woman sled, has qualified to drive USA-3 on the world cup circuit in the four-man — now called four-person — event.
The international federation made the event mixed gender in September and Meyers Taylor now competes with three men behind her. The ultimate goal is a four-woman event, but this will do for now for Meyers Taylor, the 2014 Olympic silver medalist, and Canadian Kaillie Humphries, a two-time gold medalist who will also pilot a four-person sled.
Both qualified for the world cup by competing in five races on three different tracks in North American Cup and European Cup racing.
“Honestly, she did surprise me a little bit that she was competitive right away in four-man,” said U.S. head coach Brian Shimer.
The total weight limit is the same regardless of who’s in the sled, men or women, so “she’s now on the same playing field driving as the men, “ Shimer said. “I think we saw an improvement already in terms of her being confident in driving the four-man.”
Meyers Taylor, who married push athlete Nic Taylor in April, is one of five U.S. pilots from the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games who are back on the world cup circuit, which begins this weekend in Lake Placid, New York.
However, Meyers Taylor will compete only in the two-woman event. Because of the tight turnaround from the La Plagne, France, event where they qualified, Meyers Taylor and Humphries, her offseason training partner, will both make their world cup four-person debuts next week in Calgary, Alberta.
Steven Holcomb, who won the gold in four-man in Vancouver in 2010 and two bronze medals in Sochi; Nick Cunningham; Olympic bronze medalist Jamie Greubel Poser (who married German brakeman Christian Poser last summer) and Jazmine Fenlator are also back in the driver’s seat. Codie Bascue is the lone non-Olympian at the reins.
Most of the push athletes are new to the world cup. Two-time Olympian and gold medalist Justin Olsen, who picked up the sport in 2007 and made the world cup team his first season, and Lauryn Williams, who won an Olympic silver medal after only six months on the ice, are surrounded by rookies and bobsledders without much experience under their belts.
“It’s going to be some growing pains this year,” said Shimer, an Olympic medalist as a driver before becoming a coach. “I’ve just never have taken this far of a step back, especially with our No. 1 men’s team (Holcomb’s sled), so we’re scrambling a little bit. It’s going to be a huge challenge this season. It’s usually at most one rookie who has a couple of veteran athletes really pulling him along, but now when you have two rookies or even three, you have twice or three times the problems that you had if you only had one.”
Williams, who earned a bye onto the team, will miss the first portion of the season because she needed time to study for an exam in certified financial planning. Bronze medalist Aja Evans is not expected to compete while recovering from knee surgery.
Lolo Jones, who attracted the lion’s share of publicity on the bobsled circuit, has returned to her original sport, track and field. The 100-meter hurdler dropped about 20 pounds and placed third at the U.S. national championships last summer.
Meyers Taylor, Greubel Poser and Fenlator finished 2-3-4 in last season's Lake Placid World Cup. They ranked in the top 10 last season and are all beginning their second four-year cycles as drivers.
Veteran Cherrelle Garrett, who returned to the national team this season, will be on the brakes for Meyers Taylor at the first world cup stop.
Greubel Poser, who won five world cup medals last season, has first-year athlete Lauren Gibbs pushing her while Fenlator is teaming up with newcomer Natalie DeRatt.
Lauren Gibbs, Ajla Glavasevic and Michelle Howe are also in the women’s pool.
Holcomb swept last season's Lake Placid event, winning both the two- and four-man competitions. Olsen, a member of Holcomb's winning Olympic four-man crew in 2010 who pushed for Cunningham last season, returns to Holcomb’s sled in both the two-man and four-man races. First-year competitors Alex Harrison and Aaron “Surf” Victorian will join Holcomb’s four-man crew.
Cunningham won his second-career world cup medal in Lake Placid's two-man race last season. His brakeman Sam Michener has raced on the North American Cup series, but is new to the world cup, while newcomers Casey Wickline and James Reed fill out the four-man sled.
Bascue’s four-man teammates are Carlo Valdes, David Cremin and Adrian Adams, while Holcomb's sledmate Harrison will push him in the two-man race.
Former national team member Adam Clark returns to the roster this season, while first-year competitor Dustin Greenwood completes the men’s pool.
Lucky Lake Placid
U.S. teams have traditionally done well in Lake Placid, which is one of the most technically difficult tracks on the tour.
Shimer said it will help the U.S. team to start the world cup season at such a successful venue.
“I’ve been through this 29 years and I know what’s going to come at us in Europe,” he said, “so we will certainly try to keep that in the forefront and not think that we’re all of sudden with a pile of rookies right where we need to be. It may look like that in North America, but once we step on European soil that changes quite a bit, so we will hopefully have some early success so they know exactly what it feels like, make them hunger for it even more, and work even harder.
“I think we can do a pretty decent job on the first half of the tour, but the second half is really going to show us where we sit with most of the world.”
The Viessmann World Cup moves to Calgary before Christmas. In January, the circuit picks up on two tracks in Germany before heading to St. Moritz, Switzerland; La Plagne, France; Igls, Austria, and the Olympic track in Sochi. The season concludes in Winterberg, Germany, with the world championships Feb. 23-March 8.
Russian pilot Alexander Zubkov, who drove to gold medals in both the two-man and four-man events in Sochi, has retired.
Breaking Gender Barriers
Meyers Taylor began her bobsled career as a push athlete, winning a bronze medal in 2010 with driver Erin Pac. She quickly realized she wanted to be in front of the sled and won silver as a driver in Sochi four years later. It was no surprise that she was eager to take on the four-person sled when the international federation and the four-person event when she got the chance.
Her new husband, whom she met when he competing, has pushed her sled in qualifying races. However, he will not be able to go on the world cup circuit due to his job as a speed-power coach.
"Each race I'm learning so much and gaining so much experience,” Meyers Taylor said.
Shimer calls Meyers Taylor “a coach’s dream in terms of what you want to see in an athlete. She makes sure she takes care of herself, she does what she’s got to do to be the best and it’s very refreshing.”
He said the switch from two-woman to four-person sled was relatively easy for her because she’d been competing with women who are 50 kilograms (110 pounds) lighter than the men coming down the hill.
“The women have a little bit more difficult time on the ice than the men because of their weight,” he said. “When you’ve got steel on ice, and you don’t have a lot of bite, they really have their hands full on a bobsled track.”
However, if a four-person sled gets in trouble, it’s harder to get out of it. “You’re probably more apt to crash,” Shimer said, “whereas in a two-man you can react a little quicker.”
|Steven Holcomb, Curtis Tomasevicz, Steven Langton and Christopher Fogt compete in men's four-man bobsled at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Sliding Center Sanki on Feb. 23, 2014 in Rosa Khutor, Russia.
Holcomb is competing without his longtime brakeman Steve Langton, who has retired for the time being. They won the bronze in two-man while Holcomb, Langton, Curt Tomasevicz and Christopher Fogt won the four-man bronze.
“Langton stated that if he feels that he could come back and contribute to the team after seeing what the team will do for the next two years, he’ll consider that return,” Shimer said. “Chris Fogt is in that same boat as well. He’s back to his military duties, and they’ll reevaluate in the next year or so.”
Three-time Olympian Tomasevicz, who was part of Holcomb’s four-man sled since before the 2006 Games, has also retired.
Loading The Sled
While Meyers Taylor has had no trouble fitting into the men’s sled, the same can’t be said for some of the rookie push athletes.
“The biggest challenge right now is fitting into the sled and being aerodynamic,” Shimer said.
Holcomb’s four-man team in USA-1 has struggled loading in.
“A lot of athletes come in and their upper body flexibility isn’t there,” Shimer said. “They haven’t had to double up their upper body and scrunch it down doing whatever sport they were doing. Now bobsledding, we’re asking them to get three inches more curvature in their upper spine than they ever had in their life and it’s going to take time.”
“This is the first time Holcomb has actually had a rookie on his team probably in the last two quads,” Shimer said. “For an Olympic champion and a multiple Olympic medalist to come into most likely his last quad in his career, it’s kind of like starting from scratch.
“It’s a little bit of a reality check for Holcomb, in terms of coming in year after year and being able to start out with great teams with a lot of experience. It just didn’t happen. Since I’ve been the coach, this is certainly the biggest turnover of athletes I’ve ever seen, so my work is cut out for me to build him the best team.”
Holcomb said his new team may be young, but they’re motivated. “I think it’s going to be a great building year,” he said. “I look forward to seeing what these athletes can do.”
Holcomb is intent on keeping his Olympic medal streak intact. “The next four years are going to be grueling, “ he said, “and I know what it will take to keep this going, so I’m trying to take it slow this season and build up so that I don’t burn out.”
Cunningham is starting his second quadrennium as a pilot, but said Shimer, “Four years in is still kind of on the rookie side of things. He’s graduating into the next step and we’re looking for big things from Nick. In terms of the time that you actually get to spend bobsledding, a one-minute trip down the hill, you take about two a day though the season. At most, you would get about three hours in a year to practice bobsledding for a pilot.”
Shimer said that translates into only about 25-35 runs on European tracks in four years, so it takes a while to really start to dial it in.
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.