4 a.m. … I rubbed my eyes and checked again but the alarm clock still read the same: 4 a.m. It was one of those feelings where I felt like I had overslept my alarm but I wasn’t even close, a mere three and a half hours too early. Race day in Calgary, Alberta, and I would open the morning at 11 a.m. with the two-woman competition, followed up by the four-person (formerly four-man) competition, which left me less than an hour between two-woman and four-person. The proximity of races would leave Canadian pilot Kaillie Humphries and me with an abnormally quick turnaround for racing, but we knew this coming into the week and we had no expectations making history would be easy.
None of this was on my mind at 4 a.m., however. I was wide awake and nervous for the races — not the history part — just the performance part. I wanted to drive well in both races — a challenge since taking four quality runs in a day is difficult, but I was up to the test. I usually sleep pretty nervously before races and I’m usually pretty nervous before races, period, which doesn’t bother me. I expect it and welcome the feeling. But this nervousness I hadn’t felt since — well, since I raced four-person for the first time in Park City, Utah, actually. The nervousness was my body’s way of telling me that it was ready to go, although I knew with two races sleep was more important. I stayed in bed tossing and turning, then finally decided I was up for the day.
Next thing you know I’m with the women’s team loading up the sleds. We drove over to Canada Olympic Park and walked up the track to review our lines, just like we do every race. As we walked, we talked about lines and other random things, but this time I stopped at Curve 4, which overlooked all of Calgary, and took everything in. It was a beautiful day and it would be a great one — I was excited for what lay ahead.
At the top of the track, I tried to focus on one race at a time, and women’s two-man was up first. I started my pre-race mix on my iPod and then took to warming up and dancing. I was having a blast, just enjoying where I was. I probably looked ridiculous, but I didn’t care — at that moment I was just feeling extremely blessed to be there. I also was conscious of what I needed to do for my warm-up. I would be warming up four times today, so I needed each warm-up to be efficient and not waste energy. As I danced and started to warm-up, my legs felt heavy. Mentally, I was great, but physically my body was feeling the effects of what would be 14 races in two months (a normal world cup season is eight races for the season!). My body was tired, but I needed to get two more races out of it. There was only one resolution for this problem: more dancing! I turned up my iPod and focused on having fun, just trying to block out the heavy feeling.
Apparently my efforts worked because Cherrelle Garrett and I pushed well. My driving was OK, not great, but good enough to put us in the lead after the first run. Leading up to this week, we had a day of training canceled because our sleds hadn’t arrived. This meant I had three runs in four-person and three runs in two-man to try and figure it all out. On top of everything else, I was in a completely new four-person, which had a different feel. Three runs a day is difficult on a pilot. Runs are mentally draining and it’s hard to get quality for all three, but that’s the hand we were dealt. I tried to make the most of it. Unfortunately I was at a deficit in two-man runs to the other female pilots who would have six, but I chose to do four-person so I had to live with the rules — no extra runs to even the playing field for me and Kaillie in the women’s competition. I had to make due with the runs I had in training, but despite my best efforts my training runs had left much to be improved. With these training days, I was pleased with my first run in the two-man race, as I was definitely sliding better than I had in training.
After a quick warm-up, it was on to the next run. We had the lead, but it was important to not let off the gas and give another great push and drive. We improved our start by 0.04 seconds, which is huge. My drive also improved and we came down in our second race together with another win. However, before I actually had time to celebrate and take it in, my mind was already elsewhere. I had less than an hour before the four-person race.
I rushed up to the top of the track, talked about driving improvements I needed to make with Coach Brian Shimer, and then made a plan of attack with my coach, Stuart McMillan (he’s mostly coaching at the World Athletics Center in Phoenix right now, but he comes and helps out with bobsled and skeleton at times, and I was sure glad to have him there). I grabbed a protein shake and tried to calm down for a second before re-warming up. Before I knew it, it was time to warm-up again and I was back to my dancing/warm-up routine. I attempted to calm the nerves, but there was no calming this; instead, I embraced the feeling and prepared for my first four-man run in a world cup event.
I was officially the first woman to drive in a four-person international world cup competition, as I started one spot before Kaillie Humphries. We blasted off the line, I loaded into my sled, and went to grab my D-rings (how we steer). Everything felt completely unfamiliar! I felt like I couldn’t get control of my sled. My two-man sled is made by BMW, while my four-person sled is made by Bo-Dyn and the sleds have two different driving systems and even feel completely different as they ride down the track. I struggled the first few curves to get comfortable, which put us in an early skid and cost us a great deal of time. A few more mistakes down the track and we were well in back of the field, but we were down and history was made. Normally, male pilots will race two-man one day, and four-man the next, giving them a bit of time to mentally make the switch from one discipline to the next. I had less than an hour and I didn’t adapt well. Now that I had a run under my belt, I knew the next run would be better, and it was, but we were too far from the pack to make up time. The race was done, and we were 16th, but we had competed and made history.
People ask me how I feel about making history. As early as this writing, I still don’t think it’s truly hit me. I hope that someday women will drive four-person sleds without it being newsworthy. I also hope one day that little girls will say they want to be like Elana Meyers Taylor and drive a four-person sled — with women or men if they choose. All of this started because we wanted an opportunity. For me, sometimes you have to be willing to look foolish in order to get what you want. I had no idea where this four-person journey would lead when I decided to do U.S. team trials in October.
I had no idea I’d make the national team as a four-person pilot and that I’d travel to France to qualify and race in a world cup so soon. All of this started because women just wanted another opportunity and personally for me because I wanted to push myself in my sport and go even faster. I’ve learned so much from this first half of the season, and with quite a few races under my belt, I’m ready for some time off.
So now it’s home for the holidays, as Altenberg, Germany (one of the most difficult tracks in the world and a track that five out of six of the U.S. pilots have never driven) awaits us in the New Year. Thank you to everyone who helped make this first half an experience to remember — you are all too countless to name! I am extremely blessed to be surrounded by such amazing people who help me to continuously dream bigger and have bigger dreams, but for now its time for some quality sleep. Happy Holidays, everyone!