Last summer, Casey Wickline arrived on campus at Furman University for a bobsled combine, effectively a tryout, under a pretty unlikely set of circumstances. He’d never been an athlete, at least not in any sort of noteworthy capacity. He’d played basketball his senior year in high school, dabbled in soccer, but he certainly wasn’t a bobsledder. But there he was, in his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, trying out as a potential brakeman. Much to his surprise, he performed well. Really well, in fact. And then, suddenly, he had to up and leave under another set of pretty unlikely circumstances.
“I got a call about a truck that ran into a nursing home,” Wickline told TeamUSA.org. “They needed my help.”
Wickline is a bobsledder now.
All his chips are on the table for a shot at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
This week, with the rest of the USA Bobsled team — to which he was named in November — he begins his push for a world championships medal in Winterberg, Germany. Wickline, who races in both two-man and four-man competitions (most often with driver Nick Cunningham), just wrapped up the world cup circuit and will be looking to summon the performance that kick-started this unlikely career — a third-place world cup finish with Cunningham in Lake Placid, New York, last December in what was Wickline’s first official race as a member of the USA Bobsled team.
“Pretty awesome way to start off a career,” Wickline said. “I was on top of the world.”
This whole crazy ride got started when a fellow firefighter suggested that Wickline go to the bobsled combine that just happened to be taking place right there in Greenville. Turns out, this guy’s brother was going to the tryout, and though Wickline’s athletic résumé wasn’t all that decorated, he clearly was a good athlete. He was solid 6-1 and 240 pounds. He could dunk a basketball in the seventh grade.“I went to a small private (high) school,” Wickline said. “I was one of the best athletes in school, but all we had for sports was soccer and basketball. No football, no track. And we didn’t play other schools so competition was limited. After that, I assumed my athletic career was over.”
It was a fair assumption, as in most any other sport this would’ve almost certainly been the end of the line. You can’t, say, not play baseball your whole life and not really have any athletic background to speak of and then suddenly decide to try out for, and actually make, the Yankees. You’re trying to make up for years and years of experience that other athletes have on you. But bobsled? Almost nobody grows up doing that. Everyone, to some degree, is new to the sport. Sure, it helps to have a background in football or track, which a lot of guys do. But if you’re a big, fast, strong athlete, you can, at least in theory, learn the details later in life. The experience factor is substantially less imperative.
“When I got to the combine, I have to admit I was pretty intimidated,” Wickline said. “Everyone was doing their fancy track warm-ups and drills getting ready, and there I was doing a couple high knees and a stretch or two.”
No matter. Wickline, who says he never thought he actually had a shot at making the team, or even an impression, wound up posting the highest marks in both the standing broad jump and the shot put. He also tied for the third in the 60-meter dash. Then the truck crashed into the nursing home.
“Coach (Mike) Dionne walked me to my truck and told me that I performed well and that I’d be getting a call about going to Lake Placid for the push championships,” Wickline recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I might really have a shot at this.’”
In all, there had been 11 of these tryouts all over the country, and from those tryouts just 19 athletes were invited to Lake Placid. Wickline was one of them, but the competition was about to get fierce. At this point, Wickline was pretty much the only guy without a college football or track background. He was dealing with serious athletes. His dad, quoted in a GreenvilleOnline story, wasn’t optimistic. Casey wasn’t either.
“It was after team trials in Park City, Utah, when they announced the national team in a meeting,” Wickline said. “It was unbelievable hearing my name called as an official member of Team USA bobsled.”
Things haven’t been quite as easy as Wickline made them look in the early going on his career. Since that third-place showing in his first two-man world cup and a fifth-place in four-person that same weekend, he hasn’t finished in the top 10. He’s hoping that changes in Germany. He’s got his eyes on a strong performance at world championships, and even bigger, a spot on the Olympic team.
“Never in a million years did I think I would be pushing a bobsled for Team USA,” Wickline said. “Sometimes I still have to pinch myself. And the possibility of going to the Olympic Games and representing my country would be a tremendous honor. One I don’t take lightly. My only goal is to help Team USA win a gold medal in 2018.”