This week I felt the truth! What does that mean? Well, it’s an expression that’s meant to explain that this week things got real. I realize I just explained an expression with another expression, but maybe just telling you how the week went will clear things up. For now, let’s just say I learned a lot about bobsled and a lot about myself as a bobsled pilot. This week, I experienced the difficulties of moving from two-man to four-man and back.
We got up to Calgary last Monday after traveling from Park City, Utah. My team and fellow pilot Brittany Reinbolt’s team rented a house and were all nice and settled to go for official training for the race, which would start Tuesday. Our house was plenty spacious and slept eight people; it was a nice change for all of us to be in one location and saved me a ton of logistical work. At any rate, we were all looking forward to a great week: three training runs a day, two two-man races on Friday and Saturday, and two four-man races on Sunday. As it was a lower-level circuit race, the North American Cup, we would not travel with all our coaches, and 2006 Olympic silver medalist Shauna Rohbock would be our coach. I would also not travel with my normal BMW two-man sled, BeMoW, which had to go back to Lake Placid with the rest of the national team. All the changes were going to be an adjustment for me, but no problem, I was up for the challenge. Little did I realize how big of an adjustment this week would be.
First, I had a two-man sled to set up and prepare for the first day of training. Luckily with the help of my team, we had mostly prepared the sled for sliding before we left Park City. The sled was a Bo-Dyn sled, the sleds we used to drive before the BMW sleds. I had never driven this particular sled, but as my four-man sled is also a Bo-Dyn, the coaches thought it would be good to drive a sled with similar steering and make on a track I had few runs on (I had only driven Calgary twice prior to this trip, which is only about 16 trips, not a lot of time). We prepped the sled and got it up to the top of the track for the first day of official training where I would take three runs with my brakeman Cherrelle Garrett. We blasted off the block, I loaded into the sled, and everything was strange. I developed as a driver driving a Bo-Dyn sled but now everything felt different. I was too cramped in the sled, for starters, my hips were getting bruised the entire trip down, and the steering was an adjustment. I got out of the sled after the first run and told myself to just get used to it, be an athlete and adapt, and I headed back up to the top of the track.
The trips got better as the day went, but it was time to put the two-man away and step into the four-man. This was only my second track in a four-man and I was nervous given my limited experience on the Calgary track. Coaches Sepp Plozza and Brian Shimer had gone over the lines for Calgary with me before we all left Park City, but I now felt their explanations were only making me more nervous. Lyndon Rush, Canadian pilot and 2010 Olympic bronze medalist, and Helen Upperton, Canadian pilot and 2010 Olympic silver medalist, both assured me that I’d find it easier than the two-man and I’d be good to go. With that assurance, Adrian, Carlo, Dustin and I blasted it off the top. The ride was much smoother than I’d anticipated, with one major crux — Kreisel! A Kreisel is a 360-degree turn, a complete circle, and many tracks in the world have them. In Calgary, it’s a crucial point for speed at the bottom of the track. In the two-man runs the previous day I had struggled a bit on the exit, and four-man was no different. If you don’t hit the exit quite right, it can result in a pretty nasty hit on the left side of the sled and send your brakemen reeling. My training runs were getting progressively better out of this corner and on the last day of training I didn’t even hit! Now it was time for the races.
My first two races would be two-man races. I didn’t need the races for points (our rank at the end of the season is based off of points earned at each race), but I needed more trips in Calgary to prepare for the world cup that would be there in a couple weeks so I decided to do the two-man races — one I would actually race and push hard, the other I would use more as training and wear our training suits. The first race, Cherrelle pushed awesomely, although I struggled with the drive. I was doing things in a two-man that I shouldn’t do, things I could only get away with in a four-man. I struggled the entire trip down. The transition from two-man to four-man, back to two-man, was proving difficult. We still finished second in the race to Kaillie Humphries and then won the second race, but I felt awful about the trips and completely uncomfortable in the two-man. I was definitely excited to get back into the four-man.
We had two races in the same day, both on Sunday. It was going to be long day of racing and I had never done this two-races-in-one-day format. I was looking forward to having good trips and a good race, but it ended up being the strangest day of racing I’d ever witnessed. First, it was a small field, only eight sleds, but good enough for a race. Seemingly as soon as the race had begun there was already a crash, which resulted in a 15-20 minute hold on the track, meaning no sleds were going down. This held up the race, but we all were adjusting to make sure we were warmed up and ready to go for our turn. The race started again and then was held up again for another crash. At this point, the thought crosses my mind, ‘What is going on? There are people crashing who shouldn’t crash here, who have plenty of experience in the four-man on this track. Why are they crashing? Should I be worried about crashing with less trips in a four-man and less trips on this track?’
I tried to push the thoughts back, but I couldn’t help but be a little extra nervous. Finally, it was our turn to go. Dustin, Carlo and Adrian blasted us off the block, had a great load (thanks to some help from Steve Mesler, a great friend and bobsled expert), and we were ready to go. What started off as a smooth enough drive soon became a bit of a struggle and I was making small errors that were costing us speed. Clearly I was having difficulty transitioning back to the four-man. Then came the major speed killer. We got into the Kreisel corner a little late, which was OK because I’ve done it many times. I reacted, but not enough to make a complete correction. As we came around the point to steer for the exit, I was lower than I wanted to be, so I waited. The waiting made things even worse and as we continued around the corner, we dropped out of the curve — and hard! Poor Adrian and my entire crew! We hit so hard the fiberglass on the sled cracked. I had never done that out of Kreisel, but with the magnitude of that hit, I knew I killed our speed. I was just hoping Adrian, Carlo and Dustin were OK, because they most definitely felt that gnarly hit — way worse than I had.
We got to the bottom and were still in contention despite the hit, which I assumed put us out of the running. Everyone was OK — they would probably be sore the next day — but OK none the less. We took the sled back up to get ready for the second heat. Again, more crashes and more holds, but we did our second heat and came down to wait for the results. Kaillie Humphries and crew had passed us, but fellow American Codie Bascue and crew moved behind us to leave us in a good position to medal. However, on the track was the Canada 2 sled, an Olympian. I expected him to pass us, but the strangest thing happened: another crash. We moved into medal position, finishing with a bronze behind Kaillie and crew and the Canada 1 driver Justin Kripps. Our first medal, yes, but there was greater concern for all those who had crashed and if they were all right. Some fared better than others, but the race would continue and the next race would soon start.
We finished second in the second race of the day, a great testament to how hard my guys have worked. Overall, the Calgary trip taught us all quite a bit, especially me. The Calgary experience was the first time I really struggled moving back and forth from the two-man to the four-man and it made me realize that this season will be more challenging than I expected. It also made me crazy thankful to have a team, coaches and staff who support me in this effort, and also awesome push athletes that are willing to ride with me even when I struggle. I’m back in Lake Placid now for a few days to prepare in my two-man for the world cup, before heading to La Plagne, France, for my final qualification race for four-man. It’s looking to be another hectic two weeks, but as long as we all keep learning and having fun, I think we’ll be fine.
I told Kaillie while we were on the podium after the second race, “one more,” meaning one more race until we’re qualified for four-man. We’ll both be headed across the pond to complete this qualification and then rush back to Lake Placid to start the world cup season. My husband, Nic, will be going with me to help (the World Athletics Center let him off work to help me), as well as two other athletes, Kris Enslen and Trevor Christianson. We’re all rookies to this situation, but I’m looking forward to this new adventure. So here we go — VIVA LA FRANCE!!!