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Elana Meyers Taylor: The Honest Truth Behind Being An Olympic Athlete

By Elana Meyers Taylor, Two-Time Olympic Bobsled Medalist | Jan. 21, 2015, 1:02 p.m. (ET)

Cherrelle and I before the race - the calm before the storm

As an athlete, it’s always difficult to write a blog. We never want to come off as weak; we want to show the world that we are the super heroes you believe we are, that we are indestructible. We also don’t want to show our competition that we have weaknesses, flaws or doubts, or that we ever struggle. But in all this, there an importance in knowing the truth, knowing what really goes on behind the scenes, knowing that we struggle with ups and downs, fears and doubts, and no — we’re not super heroes (even though in our own heads we believe we are as well). So in that spirit, I’ll retell the events of last week, being as honest as I can, so hopefully you can really see what’s it’s like to be an elite-level bobsledder — the good, the bad and the ugly.

As I pulled up to the finish ramp all I could see was Coach Mike Kohn, holding a thumbs up. I saw the leaderboard read that I was sixth, I saw bright lights all around me, and the noise — oh the noise! I did a quick check in my head: Where was I? Koenigssee, Germany. What was I doing? I was in my sled pulling up to the finish. What happened? I came out of Kreisel (another one much the same as last week) and had gotten onto the curve after that and didn’t steer at the correct moment. We hit the wall and were on our heads, another crash. We popped back up in two curves and had crossed on the finish line on all four runners and were apparently — I looked up again — sixth place. Oh the noise! At this moment I realized that quite a few moments had elapsed and I was still sitting in my sled. Time to get up. I got up, went into the finish house, and tried to get my bearings. I sit down and try to take a second to myself, but before I had a chance, people kept rushing up to me. I could feel my head was swollen and my ankle was in shambles, but I was…

“Are you ok? Are you ok? Do you need a doctor? I know you’re disappointed, but it’s ok. Get up and go show the crowd you’re ok! Get out there and put up a good show. We still finished sixth. Does your sled have to go to inspection? Follow my finger. Do you have a headache?”

A thousand questions and statements came at me all at once. Everything was happening so fast and I just needed a second, but I didn’t get it. Before I knew it I was pulled up and people were checking me and ushering me out the door. ‘I’m OK, I’m OK, I’m OK,’ I kept telling myself and the German doctor. “Look into my light, does your head hurt?” asked the German doctor. After saying I’m fine, I was ushered out the door and onto the finish dock, where bright lights and an overexcited crowd announcer was celebrating the German victory. “I’m OK, I’m OK, I’m OK,” I reminded myself as I continued to go through an onslaught of questioning from my competitors who had just beat me and anyone else who was standing around. “Are you OK? Are you OK? Will you do four-man this week? Good job, tough luck.”

Beautiful Koenigssee, Germany

I was handed an ice bag to put on my swollen eye, cameras flashing, pictures being taken — and oh the noise — so much noise! ‘I’m OK, I’m OK, I’m OK,’ I reminded myself — I know where I am, I know exactly what happened, I know the day, the time, the month, I have my balance, I’m OK, I just need one second to…and then more pictures and more questions and more interviews and more lights and so much noise! I walked over to Coach Mike Kohn and said three words, “I’m not OK.”

We were done with Altenberg and the rest of the season was supposed to be smooth sailing. I had driven all these tracks before and had done well on all of them — and Koenigssee was one of my favorites. The track is known for its S curves — a very fun curve combination that can be very tricky to get through with speed. When executed correctly, it’s the closest thing to a roller coaster that you experience in a bobsled. The track also has a Kreisel like Altenberg, but I had never had problems in it, so it wasn’t as daunting as the Altenberg Kreisel. I had won a silver medal on the track last year and was excited as I knew I could drive this track and drive it well. I assured the brakemen that it’d be a good week.

Boy was I wrong. The first day of training my feeling was off. I went through the S curves smoothly, but when I went into Kreisel everything was wrong. The coaches had warned the team that this might happen coming from Altenberg, but it was like my brain was telling my hands what to do, but my hands were on strike. As we went through the Kreisel I was almost nauseous with the waves I was creating (unlike Altenberg’s Kreisel, you do not want big waves in this one and I’m exaggerating about the nausea — but the waves were big!) and before I knew it we were out of the curve and on our heads. As quickly as we had crashed, we were back on our runners — more of a half crash then a full crash — and completed the run. What had just happened??? ‘I never have a problem in this Kreisel,’ I said to myself. I got out of my sled, checked on Cherrelle to make sure she was OK, then sauntered back up the track to meet with my coaches to see what had went wrong.

Run 2. I know what I did wrong, I understand the program, now to execute. I go through the S curves — not perfect but not bad. Start to enter Kreisel and start to steer, but again, my hands aren’t doing what my brain is telling them to. I miss the pressures, my timing is completely wrong, we drop out of the curve and then get picked back up at the exit, only to be slammed down on our heads, only this time the sled doesn’t come back up. This crash was a bad one and as we ride the rest of the way down, I can’t even turn to communicate with Cherrelle to see if she’s OK, but by the force of the crash, I’m guessing she’s not and unfortunately I’m right. The sled finally stops, she slides out and is disoriented. She says she’s OK but I can tell she’s hurting. The sled looks like a small shark had taken bites out of it — not good. I keep asking Cherrelle if she’s OK and she shakes her head yes, but something’s not quite right (her back and knee were banged up pretty bad, but she would pull through to be able to race by the weekend). I help her load the sled on a truck to get it back to the top, and then start walking up the track, absolutely flabbergasted. What was going on? I never have problems with this Kreisel! I love this track. What’s happening?

Later that afternoon the U.S. skeleton team has their training session at the track. After returning to the hotel after our session, I do a quick workout, grab some lunch and head back out to the track. First, I walk over to the site where we crashed, looking for the broken pieces of my sled to help repair it — no dice — I can’t find a single scrap of carbon fiber. I then walk over to Kreisel and stand inside for a good, solid hour. Skeleton sleds are great to watch in tracks sometimes. They don’t have the weight of a bobsled, so they have a harder time controlling the pressures in curves. If you watch a skeleton sled in the track, you can often figure out where the pressures are in curves, so I stood in Kreisel watching to make sure I understood this Kreisel again. I ran the lines over in my head, mimicking my steers to the skeleton sleds moving down the track. I also talked the lines over with Coach Tuffy Latour, who was filming the session. I left the track being reassured that I knew what to do; I just hadn’t done it…yet.

The next day I was completely nervous at a track I don’t recall being very nervous at. I had raced my first world championships as a driver at this track in 2011 and had placed ninth. I had won my first Europa Cup races on this track the following year and did it in back-to-back races. I was good here! I was the second sled off the hill and as much as I knew I understood the program and the curve, I knew the only way to get over this nervousness was to go down…and then…nothing. No problem. It’s like it was before. Everything came back. Great lines, fast times, and everything was smooth again. I was back at the track I loved. After two solid runs, we packed up the sled and went home. After those runs, I was confident that I’d be good to go for the race.

At this track I was planning on opening up my European half of the season for four-person. In order to compete in a race, you have to have two successful training runs down a track. If you don’t get the runs, despite your record or previous success, you don’t get to race. Because of my troubles on Day 1 in two-man, we couldn’t take the risk that I wouldn’t qualify for the race and I had to withdraw from the four-person competition. As disappointed as I was, I knew it was the correct decision. It was nothing the coaches had done, it was my fault and I took responsibility for it. I didn’t make it down the track so I didn’t deserve the race. Instead, Codie Bascue, the USA-3 men’s pilot in two-man, would take my spot. Four-person in Europe would have to wait and I would have to accept the fact that it was my fault that I wasn’t racing.

Pushing off the block at the race

There only remained one more day of training before the race and we woke up to a very cloudy day. I was the first sled off the hill, as on the last day of training the order goes by rank. I looked down the track and noticed the fog, but thought to myself, ‘They wouldn’t send me down the track if it wasn’t safe, the fog must be clear in the track.’ Unfortunately, I was wrong. I came out of the S curves and went into the long bendy straightaway before Kreisel. I could only see just in front of my sled the fog was so thick and my helmet visor was misting over. My nemesis earlier in the week, Kreisel, lay ahead and I couldn’t see the entrance. I went in trying to feel my way around the curve, had a very questionable line, but we had made it through and I was down. I got to the bottom and told one of the track workers I couldn’t see, realized he was German and couldn’t understand, then tried to think of the German words. Finally, I saw an FIBT official and told him and showed him my misted over helmet, but it was too late. My teammate Jamie Greubel Poser was in the track already. Moments after I was showing my helmet to the FIBT official, the announcement came that Jamie had crashed. I felt horrible. If only I had gotten to the FIBT official sooner, maybe she wouldn’t have crashed.

After a delay, the fog cleared and training resumed. I took another run, improved some of my driving lines and prepared for the race tomorrow. The training week was done, and I was confident that I could win my fourth world cup race.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Cherrelle and I broke the track record and the start record the first run, both by large margins. We held a 0.65 lead going into the second run, which was staggering. However, when I got out of the sled at the bottom after the first run, searing pain shot through my ankle, sending me to the ground. I couldn’t put any weight on it. The pain was horrible. My teammates Jazmine Fenlator and Lauren Gibbs, who had just completed their runs, ran over to me to help. Jazmine gave me her shoes so I could take off my bobsled spikes and Lauren ran and got the doctor. Then the call came over the loudspeaker. It was Jamie with my Olympic brakeman Lauryn Williams. They had crashed in a race and things were not OK. This was going to be a long night.

With my ankle tapped up in what seemed like a walking cast, I did as much of a warm-up as I could tolerate to prepare for the second run. My ankle was throbbing, but I reassured myself that I could do it. Anyone can do anything for five seconds. Just five seconds of pushing and then I could rest. I walked to the line in pain for the second run, but we took off anyway.

Later back in the hotel, I would receive a constant stream of visitors. Every 10 minutes our trainer would come back to ask me questions and check my mental status and run me through a series of tests. I could remember everything; I just had a headache and wanted desperately to sleep. The concern of course was a concussion, and nowadays no one wants to take any chances with head injuries, and I didn’t either. A German doctor came in and ran me through another series of tests, to which he concluded that I didn’t have a concussion. Good news. Our medical staff continued to monitor me and run me through tests — still the same result, no sign of a concussion — more good news. Still, our medical staff wanted me to stay up a little longer, so thanks to Cherrelle forcing me downstairs, I went to the dining area to eat with the team. I have such wonderful teammates and they did everything they could to keep me awake and smiling. They’re such fun people — all of their different personalities — that at that moment I was truly thankful to know each and every one of them and to have them there with me. I stayed awake as long as I could, then finally got the go ahead to go to sleep. I went to sleep, knowing that everything would be better in the morning.

My father and my nephew Mason Alexander

And it was. I was sore and achy and my ankle was still throbbing, but my head felt much better. I felt myself again and called my parents immediately to check-in. You see, while all of this was going on, something bigger was occurring Stateside. My older sister was giving birth to my third nephew (I have two nephews and a niece through marriage) and my parent’s first grandchild, Mason Alexander Warren. I needed details. I needed to know how my sister was, how Mason was, and what was happening. After a full briefing, I lied back down in bed overjoyed with the news. On the day that had my worst bobsled race ever, I also had a new nephew. Having a second to process everything that happened, that’s when it hit me — my competitive side kicked into overdrive and I immediately texted my coach Stu McMillan.

I texted him to ask him how bad that crash really was. Hard to explain exactly what I was asking, but he knew what I meant and responded that it wasn’t bad at all “if you had made it down, and won by a second, there is little learning.” As much as I didn’t want to admit it — he was right, and that’s why he’s my coach. Stu’s a straight shooter. I can always count on him to tell it exactly like it is. He tells me when I’m horrible, but he’s also real with me on what I need to improve. At this moment, he gave me exactly what I needed — a way to make sense of it all.

As athletes, we all want to win. We want to win that gold medal, set records and raise our flag high for our country. Every four years you watch on TV, you see the athletes at the Olympics doing exactly that, but you miss everything it took to get there. For me, it’s these races that make those moments that much more special. It’s the things you learn by riding down a track on your head in Koenigssee, Germany, that make you ready for the big show four years from now. And although some things are more painful to learn than others, they must be learned. So as I sit now in St. Moritz, Switzerland, recovering from the race this past weekend, I feel good. I know that I am learning exactly the skills I will need for 2018 and that a few bumps in the road are necessary. I may have just missed out on winning four races straight, but I’m OK, I’m OK, I’m OK…

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Elana Meyers Taylor