LAKE PLACID, New York -- Matt Antoine started the 2014-15 IBSF World Cup season by winning a bronze medal behind five-time overall world cup champion Martins Dukurs and his brother Tomass Dukurs, a two-time overall world cup runner-up. It was as solid start to the season for most competitors. But Antoine was not satisfied.
He expected gold.
“It’s my home track,” Antoine said. “I expect a lot more out of myself here, especially coming off last season with an Olympic medal. Expectations are high for me. I was struggling a little bit all week with consistency. …
“Disappointed, I know I could do a lot better here.”
A lot has changed for the 29-year-old in the past year. Entering last season, Antoine had only ever won two bronze world cup medals in 28 world cup appearances. Expectations were low. Then he struck gold at the 2013 Lake Placid World Cup, and earned two more bronze medals on the circuit. He closed the season with a bronze medal at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games in his first Olympic appearance.
Now, Antoine is expected to be a regular on the world cup podium. Especially by himself.
“(The pressure) comes from me,” he said. “I think maybe other people expect it, but I’m not trying to live up to other people’s expectations of myself. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well and be the best that I can be, so my disappointment right now is definitely stemming from my expectations of myself.”
He uses the pressure as a motivator to help himself continue to grow and build on his accomplishments. One new accomplishment he has his eye on this season is a world championship medal — something he doesn’t yet own.
“That’s definitely a goal of mine at the end of the season,” Antoine said, “and it’s just continuing to get better and consistent in each track so leading into 2018 I can hopefully not have these small hiccups.”
Fellow 2014 Olympian Kyle Tress also had a strong showing at the season-opening world cup, finishing fifth, which ties his career-best world cup result. It was a marked improvement over his Olympic result — 21st place. Tress said his Olympic finish served as a wakeup call and was the driving force between several changes he made leading into this season.
“After I came home from Sochi, I was pretty disappointed,” Tress said. “I came up with a list of things about as long as that track: nutrition; my training program; my equipment, of course, which is a major thing; and probably the biggest thing is mental preparation. It’s easy to get in your own head for a sport like this, where you’re measured to the hundredth of a second, so I’ve tried to be more calm, more composed at the start, and I’ve already started to see some good results.”
Rounding out the Team USA men was Stephen Garbett, who earned an impressive 10th-place finish at his world cup debut. Garbett is only in his second season as a skeleton athlete and was elated to make it up to the world cup stage, for what he called “the big leagues.”
“It’s amazing,” Garbett said of competing on world cup. “It’s a whole different ballgame. This is the big leagues right here, so I’m excited to be here. I’m excited for Team USA.”
Also making a stunning world cup debut Friday was women’s competitor Savannah Graybill. After an already-satisfying first run that left her in 10th place, Graybill corrected a few mistakes in her second run and ended her first world cup race in fifth. Her second run was the second-fastest in the heat, behind reigning Olympic champion Elizabeth Yarnold.
“It kind of gets your hopes up because the more people who come down, you’re like, ‘Well I want to get ahead of that person too,’” Graybill said of standing in the leader’s box for so long. “But it was awesome. For my first race this experience has just been so fun and so eye-opening to get to train with all the best athletes in the world, so it really pushes you to perform at a higher level.”
Graybill discovered skeleton in 2010 after Olympic medalist bobsledder Elana Meyers contacted her college strength coach to recruit bobsled push athletes. At the time, Graybill was a field hockey player at American University. Upon realizing she wasn’t cut out to push a bobsled, Graybill made the switch to skeleton and hasn’t looked back.
She said the move up from European Cup and North American Cup to world cup has been made easier by teammates like Annie O’Shea. With veterans Noelle Pikus-Pace (retired) and Katie Uhlaender (recovering from injury) out of the picture this season, O’Shea is the new leader of the team, even though this marks her first full world cup season in three years.
The 10-year skeleton veteran received an alarming welcome back to the elite circuit. For the first time in her career, O’Shea forgot her race bib when she went to the start line.
“I sprinted as fast as I’ve ever gone back into the start house,” O’Shea said. “Pretty much it was really stressful. I didn’t really collect myself — I’ve never had that happen so it was really tough.”
O’Shea had knee surgery in August 2012 and then started sliding again for the 2012-13 season, which set her back more. Then, in 2013, she stepped in a hole in Igls, Austria, which caused both a sprained ankle and bruised foot. Despite a traumatic couple of years, she said the competitive nature — against herself and her rivals — of the sport is what keeps her coming back, as well as the camaraderie she has with teammates like Graybill.
“She has been a huge help,” Graybill said of O’Shea. “Coming up to world cup you don’t know what to expect. … Her and I have really been collaborating this season — talking about runs, talking about runners, talking about everything to really make sure we’re both getting down as quickly as possible. We both really want to take the world cup by storm this season and show them that while USA might be in a rebuilding year this year, we’re still as strong as we’ve ever been.”