Happy New Year! My only hope is that yours started off a little less violently than mine! You see, on Jan. 2 I stood at the top of the bobsled track in Altenberg, Germany, questioning what I was about to do. I tried to convince myself that everything would be OK. “Really? It’s just a bobsled track — how hard could it be?” but the truth of the matter is, I was scared. Fortunately for me, that scared feeling is one of the coolest moments in bobsled — when you stand at the line shaking, not knowing what to expect or what will happen, but you decide to do it anyway.
|The women's team flexing in Altenberg|
I had good reason to be scared though: Altenberg was the first track I raced at for world championships as a brakeman and in 2008 I watched Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming, Olympic silver medalists, get rushed to the hospital after a bad crash. I had seen a great deal of bad crashes on this track and I didn’t want to be one of them. I had no idea what the week would hold, but on Jan. 2, all I could focus on was making it down.
My first trip was violent. I felt like I lost complete control of my sled; I was hitting the walls everywhere, then skidding, then hitting some more. In my helmet I was going full survival mode, not caring about speed just trying to make it down the track. We came around Curve 9, one of the notorious crash corners on this track, and I was way out of position. We barely made it out of the curve, we were on only two runners exiting and it was such a violent half crash that I smacked my head against the cauling (the part of the sled nearest the driver) and felt a horrible pain — and I still had the rest of the track to go! We made it down the first run, but I think I left the track questioning myself even more and rubbing a very sore jaw. This was going to be a long week.
The next day was much the same, me fighting my way down the track. As good as I should have felt about making it down the first day, I was still confused about how to drive this track. I made it down the first run and made some improvements, and went back up for the second run trying to focus on what was the most important to focus on, when everything needed fixing. We pushed off the line, loaded and were off. I had some trouble in Curve 4, hit very hard, and had some difficulty recovering. In each of the next few curves I just kept trying to fix my mistakes and it seemed as though everything I did made things worse. Finally, we came around Curve 9 and missed the entire entrance of the curve. We got into the curve late, I tried to get it back on the correct line, but the sled quickly when down too soon in the curve, shot back up and before I could do anything, we were on our heads.
Crashing is never fun, but some crashes are more tolerable than others. Some crashes you just barely tilt over and you slide the rest of the way down at a slower speed — sure it’s not fun, but not so bad. This was not one of those crashes. As fast as we went up, we came down faster and the 360-degree turn, the Kreisel, was up next. As we slid on our heads toward the Kreisel, I knew this was going to be bad. As we entered the curved, we (me and Cherrelle Garrett) were tossed up by the pressure in the curve and slammed back down, me right on my head, which I couldn’t get into the sled to protect. We were now completely flipped over and still going through Kreisel. After Kreisel, the track was no less busy, but somehow Cherrelle was lifted up slightly, which allowed me to get my head underneath her and the sled. I saw her above me, reached up and pulled her into the sled and started talking to her — apologizing for the crash and telling her what was going to happen. “We’re through the finish, but we’re rolling backwards, and we’re going forward again, are you OK? Stay in the sled!” Finally the sled stopped and the bobsled track workers got us and the sled out of the track. As a person who gets air sick and severe motion sickness (yes, I know it sounds weird as a bobsled pilot), I was about to throw up from all the crazy movement, but felt aware and alert, assuring myself that my nausea was more a result of being tossed in every direction, and thankfully not a concussion, which is always the biggest concern after a crash. As I got up, however, I knew that my adrenaline was still through the roof, preventing me from feeling much. I knew this was going to hurt later.
We got back to the hotel and I checked the damage of the sled. The brakeman handle had broken off and I had cracked the side of my sled (again). As Richard Laubenstein (our mechanic) and coach Mike Dionne went to work, I just sat there and stared. The brakemen could tell that this crash had affected me differently, as I just sat and stared without saying a word. Normally I’m one to crack jokes at this kind of moment, laugh at myself to keep from crying sort of thing, but I sat there not wanting to move because I knew as soon as I moved I would be in pain. I sat there as long as I could, just watching them piece my sled back together (this unfortunately has become more of a common occurrence than I would like; they completely rebuilt my sled a day before the 2014 Olympics). I finally could wait no longer and went to shower for dinner. As soon as I made it to the room, everything started hurting. I got both ankles caught in an awkward position in the sled, causing them to swell and hurt to walk on; both my quads were bruised and cut; pains shot up my back; and my jaw was pounding and made me feel like I never wanted to eat again, let alone open my mouth. I was in bad shape, but I needed to get down the track and I need to figure it out. The race was coming up soon.
The sled was repaired and the medical staff pieced me back together as I received treatments every day, and the sliding remained frustrating. Each and every day as soon I figured something out in the track, something else went horribly wrong. The track kept me on my toes, and my energy was fading and so was my confidence. The last few runs down the track left me feeling pretty emotionally and physically drained, but I was out of runs and it was time to race. Our coach Sepp Plozza was literally doing everything he could to talk to me and help my confidence, and having a long history with me, I had faith that if he believed I could do it, I would. It was time to go…
Into the race we went. I was nervous just to make it down the track, let alone win the race. I want to win every race I enter but after the week I had had, I had no idea what would happen. I said my normal pre-race prayer and headed out to the starting line. I took a few deep breaths, but then it was time to push off. When we got to the bottom I was ecstatic and overjoyed. Not only were we in first, but I had a very clean and smooth run — a run that I could’ve never predicted would’ve happened after the week I had. None of my training runs were anything close to the run. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. The best way I could describe what I felt was…well…shock!
When I went back to the top of the track to prepare for the second run, I couldn’t help but look at the coaches and laugh. Coach Brian Shimer and Sepp had worked with me every day to ensure me that it’d be OK, to help build my confidence back up after each and every rough run. I know they weren’t quite sure what to say to me, but all I could think about was how amazing that felt. But I still had to do it again. I tried to calm myself down and prepare for the next run.
|Cherrelle and I after the victory — so elated and surprised!
I was just as nervous for the second run as I was for the first. No matter how many runs you take down the Altenberg track, you’re still nervous to make it to the bottom every time. I had asked Steve Holcomb at the beginning of the week if this feeling of nervousness ever goes away. He replied “Nope.” I accepted the nervousness and walked to the line. Go time. The second run started much like the first run, but then we got into trouble. I had a poor line out of the Kreisel corner, which put us into Curve 11 poorly, causing us to get into Curve 12 poorly, almost crash, then struggle into Curve 13. My heart was pounding crazy hard as I tried to control this sled. I knew we were killing our speed, but we were on our runners. I fought through the rest of the track and crossed the timing eye. As we pulled up the slow outrun I was so happy we made it down, not yet considering the time or the result. When we finally pulled up to the finish where we could see our time, I saw a #1 next to the time and started pounding my sled. I was overjoyed and elated, and I couldn’t believe it. We had won on the most difficult track in the world. Despite all the ups and downs, despite the struggles, we had won. The coaches, the medical staff, my brakeman, my teammates, Nic, and even my sports psych back in the States had helped me through it all. This was truly the most rewarding victory of my career, but it wasn’t just a victory for me. This was a victory that demonstrated what a great team it takes to win. It wasn’t me who won this race, it was the team behind me.