“I thought this was supposed to get easier,” I said as I took out one of my earphone buds. “It never does,” responded Kaillie Humphries, two-time Olympic gold medalist. This was one of the conversations we had while we were warming up during training in Sochi, Russia. Kaillie is arguably the best driver in the world, man or woman. She was an alternate for the 2006 Olympic team as a brakeman and won gold as a pilot in 2010 and 2014. If things hadn’t gotten any easier for her in over eight years of driving a sled, then what chance did I stand?
“We don’t do things because they’re easy, that’s not how it works!” responded the voice in my head — which is actually Nic Taylor’s voice as he says this to me so often. Truth of the matter is, I wouldn’t want things to be easy. It’s the things you have to overcome that make winning that much more sweet.
And winning was the goal, right? I was at Sochi, the same track where I had missed out on winning a gold medal by a mere 0.10 seconds. The color of my medal didn’t matter as much as what I felt in my sled that day. My goal the entire year was to go into the Olympics and have four consistently good runs. I knew I could do that. I knew the track in Sochi better than anyone in the world. I was the first U.S. sled on the track in 2012. I knew this track like the back of my hand and I knew I could drive it well — I had done it several times, but for the four runs in the Games, I hadn’t. Returning to the track brought back that feeling of disappointment for not reaching my goal, not executing the runs I knew I was capable of at the Olympics.
Arriving back at the track for the first day brought back an onslaught of memories. We set off as a group to walk the track with the coaches, but I soon walked in front of the group. Normally we walk the track before the first day of sliding to review the lines with the coaches. I had no need for that today. I remembered each curve vividly and exactly where I wanted to be. My track walk was more about getting rid of my anxieties related to the mistakes I made at the Olympics, coming to peace with the track and getting my head on straight for the big week ahead. As I walked, I looked at each curve and remembered instantly what it felt like to drive those curves. Some of those feelings I’m confident will never go away. Some of the feelings were great, others not so much. I had made some costly mistakes, but thanks to some debriefing with Stu McMillan post-Olympics, I knew why I had made these mistakes. However, being at the track and forced to face these mistakes brought with it all different types of emotions.
The first day of training I was nervous: nervous that I would make the same mistakes I had made in the Olympics. I kept reminding myself that I was a better driver and that I had learned from my mistakes, but this did little to ease my anxiety. As always is the case in bobsled, the only way to erase your nerves is to send yourself down the hill at 85 mph. So that’s exactly what I did, and the runs went smoother than expected. My first run was pretty good, better than all four of my Olympic runs, which was somewhat satisfying but also frustrating. Where were those runs at the Olympics????? But the good news is I had reaffirmed that I could drive this track.
I was determined since the beginning of the season to do four-man at this track. I wanted the opportunity to see the track differently and to go faster than I ever had before. However, my problems after Koenigssee seriously put that in jeopardy. After a solid first day of two-man training, I told the coaches I wanted to race in four-man and got the go-ahead. I talked to Richard and Coach Dionne and we started working to prepare the four-man.
The next day my first run in a four-man felt like I had driven all season! It was smooth and everything just came natural. I was excited when I got to the bottom, as I expected the transition to be harder. However, the second run was a different story. I hit almost every wall on the way down and everything was mechanical. With it being my last run in four-man, I knew there were things to fix but I was out of time. I’d have to fix them in the race.
After one more day of training, the race was finally here. I was nervous as I started to warm up, as I could vividly recall what I felt as I warmed up for the Olympics. I told myself to calm down several times and to enjoy the moment. I was in Russia on a beautiful day, doing exactly what I loved. Now it was go time. We blasted off the start and posted the fastest run of the heat. I had a great run and had one of the best lines out of Curve 5, one of the most difficult curves to get correctly in bobsled. We headed back up to the top of the track for Run 2.
|Cherrelle and I with our world cup overall trophy and some Russian ladies
By the time I stepped to the line for Run 2 my anxiety was at a maximum. Here I was in the exact same situation as I was the year before at the Olympics. Kaillie Humphries was in the lead at the bottom of the track and I would be the last sled off the hill. It was déjà vu all over again. I needed to have a solid run to win this race. All the feelings from my final run at the Olympics came flooding back and my breath became short and quick. I did everything I could to calm myself down before the push, but nothing seemed to work. I pushed off anyway, but then when I got into my sled, I took a series of several deep breaths and I was back. Everything came back — the curves were coming at me slowly and my breathing was controlled. The lines were solid and when we got to the bottom, we again posted the fastest time of the heat and won the race.
Not only had we won the race, we clinched the world cup overall title. For each race during the world cup season you receive points. Based off those points, you are ranked. It was my goal at the beginning of the season to win world cup overall, as last year I had lost out by a point. This season was a completely different story as I took the title by over 170 points, a staggering margin. I was the first U.S. woman to win the world cup overall title in over a decade, so this was a huge accomplishment for me. As excited as I was, I still had the four-man race to prepare for.
|Racing four-man in Sochi|
The four-man race was icing on the cake. I was excited to slide and have fun. I knew it would be difficult to contend with the top sleds, but I was excited to have the opportunity again anyway. My runs were solid, but a few mistakes cost a good amount of time. Our pushes were consistent, and overall it was a good day. I was happier to be able to drive a four-man again, after missing most of the season.
I left Sochi with better memories than when I came in. Although no race win would take away the feeling I had after the Olympics in Sochi, I left the track confident that I was making the right steps to progress as a driver. I also left with the realization that it is a process; that as much as I want to win every race right now, the goal is to be a better driver in 2018. Even though I was reluctant to do it, I needed to return to Sochi to face all my emotions from the Olympics. Now I feel like I can move on and take the lessons I learned to become a better athlete. On to world championships…