“How was that?” Stu asked, his usual question when I got back up to the top of the track. “I was wayyyy too amped — normally I take a few breathes once I load, but I felt like I was trying to catch my breath the entire trip,” I replied.
I wasn’t sure if it was the nervousness I felt or the wrong mixture of pre-race drinks, but my heart was pounding furiously. We (Cherrelle Garrett and I) had just completed our first heat of world championships and had a lead over two German sleds. I then walked over to Sepp Plozza, my driving coach, to tell him about the run. As I started to tear the run apart, going over every little mistake I’d made, he gave me the same look that I’d seen seven previous times this season that said what he then said aloud: “Just do exactly what you just did.”
Exactly what I just did?? But this was world championships and I had made so many mistakes — a little late here, a little early there — I had plenty of time to pick up and the Germans were on my heels. I had to do something! This was world championships, after all — right?
We had finally made it to Winterberg, Germany, for the world championships of what had been a very long season. I love the track in Winterberg, it was the first track I drove in Europe as a pilot in 2010 and I had taken a silver medal the two previous seasons, by 0.10 seconds and 0.01 seconds respectively, so I had a great deal of confidence on this track. However, the Germans had quite a bit of runs and even kept their top slider home from Sochi (the last world cup stop) to ensure they would have the best chance of medalling, so I knew winning this race would require a fight from start to finish, but I was up for it. World championships are the biggest race of the season and helps determine our funding going into next season. Additionally, if you medal at world championships, you are granted a spot on next year’s team, always a bonus to avoid team trials and be able to focus on the season right away. Needless to say, there was plenty of pressure on me and the coaching staff to have a solid performance here.
My training runs during the week were sloppy and not very fast, but luckily my teammates were driving well. We watched video daily and I could see what they were doing that made them fast, learn from it, and try to make adjustments and changes. My runs continued to be sloppy but I was still confident that I could put it together on race day, and was conscious that trying to hard to fix everything would put me in a spot where I was overthinking, which made my drives slow and mechanical. After six training runs, the time had come to put it all together. Whatever happened was going to happen and once again I had assembled a dream team to help me win this world championships and now was the time to go for it.
Cherrelle and I with the young lady that helped us choose our start number for the race.
After the first race run, I tried desperately to calm myself down. I lied down in the start house, turned on some classical music and zoned out the rest of the world. It was working, as I was calming down tremendously and almost started to drift to sleep. The break was shorter than normal and it was time to warm back up for the second heat. I slowly stood up, grabbed some water and headed outside to warm up. I started jogging and everything felt sluggish. I definitely wasn’t amped anymore, but did I take myself down too much? Was I going to be able to start it back up for this heat? I turned on my warm-up mix (starting off with Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” which would wake anyone up), danced as I warmed up and let the rest of the world melt away as I felt the excitement and nervousness return to my body for another heat of racing.
I did my normal pre-race routine as we walked out to the starting line for the second heat. As pressure-filled as I was, I was calm and prepared. I knew I needed a good heat. I had seen the times of the sleds in front of me, and in order to extend my lead I needed another consistent run. There wasn’t much time to think, however, and I just focused on loading into my sled and taking a breath, something I hadn’t done in the first run. We blasted off the line; I loaded into my sled and breathed.
We made our way down the track and my driving felt natural again. I could feel every movement of my sled and felt in sync with the track. The drives were rhythmical and time seemed to slow down again in my head. When we got to the bottom of the track, it was another track record run, the second of the day and we increased our lead. Interviews shortly followed, but I was elsewhere. I had been in this situation before. In the Olympics last year I was leading after Day 1 and somehow it all fell away the second day. I was determined not to let that happen again. My mind immediately went to preparing for Day 2.
Normally Day 2 is the day after Day 1, but in an unusual format, the FIBT gave us a day off in between races. I don’t sleep very well during races, my mind constantly running over what I have to do, so I was not gung-ho about this extra day to think. Thankfully, my husband Nic Taylor was with me for world championships, which helped put everything into perspective. This was not last year; this was not Sochi; this was just like any other race this year, a season that was my best ever. I was a different athlete now. I had learned from my mistakes, and I could win this race. I slept soundly that night.
During the day off, I did a lot of nothing. We prepared the runners and the sled for the race and made sure we were prepared ourselves. The men’s team was racing that day, and while some of the girls watched, I watched the time splits on the FIBT website, not wanting to get various driving lines stuck in my head. Other than that, I mostly hung out with Nic, spending some rare time together just enjoying each other’s company. As much as I thought I wanted back-to-back days of racing, it was kind of nice to be able to relax. They day off helped me relax and ensured that I was ready to go.
I woke up the next morning, race day, unusually calm. Normally I’m a ball of nerves, but this day I was calm. I was prepared to go out to the track and do the best I could. We left two hours before the race and went on a track walk with Sepp, normal pre-race procedure. During the walk, I checked out some of the curves, but didn’t ask to many questions, I was confident that I knew what to do. During these walks, it was just nice to walk, to have a moment to wrap my head around what’s about to happen — the calm before the storm.
However, the German fans were already out in full force, and during the walk I was stopped several times and asked to take photos. Normally, it would be quite the distraction, but today I didn’t mind. I stopped and enjoyed the moment, then continued walking. Walking up the track with Sepp creates some of my fondest memories of racing. His calm demeanor puts me at ease and the conversations we have help me feel relaxed and ready to go. When we got to the top of the track, we spoke about the end of the season and what a season it’s been. As we ended the walk, he turned to me and told me I’d win the race, but with an air of surety that gave me even more confidence. If I didn’t know it before, I knew it then and went into the changing room with confidence.
We were the first sled off the hill that morning and we put down another track-setting run. The sled behind us was a mere .06 behind for that run, but we still had a comfortable lead going into the final run. Going into the last run, I knew it was my race to lose, but I couldn’t think about that. It wasn’t about whose race it was to lose, it was about going out there and grabbing a gold — going out there and winning world championships.
As we walked to the line for our final run at these world championships, I was calm and confident. I knew I could put together the run that would win this race. As we approached the line, I saw the time flash up in front of us of the previous sled: it was a track record. My closest competitor had just put down a serious challenge. I looked at my sled and reminded myself that what she had done didn’t matter, that all I could do is focus on my run and do what I could. The green light went off for our run, I patted the side of the sled, smiled at Cherrelle and got ready to take off.
Sitting with the team at the post-race press conference celebrating
The drive down the track was smooth, but with little mistakes here and there. It wasn’t a perfect run, but I knew it was enough. As we crossed the finish line, all I remember seeing was my coaches and teammates celebrating. We had done it — we are world champions! What an amazing feeling after such a difficult year. We had accomplished what we set out to do, and done it on a German track against some stiff competition. I was excited and out of words, not sure of what to say or what to do. I could tell Cherrelle felt the same way, as we kept hugging each other and smiling for the cameras. We soon were told that we were the first U.S. women’s sled to ever win a world championship, which put me at an even greater loss for words. I had come from a very successful line of women’s bobsledders in the U.S. program, and to be the first to win a world championship was a huge honor.
The best way to describe what I felt after winning the world championship is gratefulness. This season had been extremely difficult and a type of difficulty that I never imagined. I was extremely grateful for my coaches for believing in me and working with me to get me through this entire season, my teammates for always keeping me in smiles, our sports med staff, the USABS staff — just everyone who had had a piece in this world championships. We had all won this together, and it was truly an amazing feeling.
I returned stateside as a world champion, with little to no fanfare. I didn’t expect any, as we compete in an obscure sport in obscure places. There was mention in a few newspapers, but other than that things returned back to normal. As things returned to normal, my focus began to return. Yes, I had just accomplished this amazing thing and won a world championship, but there was still plenty to do. This was year one of a four-year quad, and my goal is to be on top of the podium in 2018. So yes, we will celebrate this achievement, but keep focus on what lies ahead. The rest of the world will continue to get faster and we must as well. Farewell 2014-15 season; although you were great, there’s bigger things ahead. Training for the 2015-16 season starts now, time to go to work!