There was a time when Katie Eberling thought she might not continue with bobsledding, but she also distinctly remembers the moment she knew she would.
One month after the disappointment of going to the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games as an alternate and not as a brakeman, for which she’d been training for three years, Eberling was at driving school learning to pilot the sled. She was progressing higher and higher up the track, and the first day she steered from a higher start to the bottom without crashing, she crossed the finish line and was overwhelmed with uncontrollable giddiness.
“It’s that moment where you find something you’re passionate about, and it stirs something inside you,” said Eberling, 27. “It’s a moment where you make the decision to pursue it, no matter how hard it gets. There was an actual moment of falling in love with driving, when I knew I was going to make the commitment.”
Now, with an eye turned to 2018, Eberling is rising through the ranks as a driver much the same way she did as a brakeman. She made her international debut as a pilot this season at the European Cup and has had top-10 finishes there as well as on the world cup circuit and at the world championships.
That she has continued with the sport and chosen to fight through the challenging transition from push athlete to driver does not surprise coach Mike Kohn.
“What Katie will always be able to say is, ‘I never quit,’” Kohn said. “And that’s the best quality in an athlete, I think, is that you’re never going to quit. You just can’t coach that.”
It wasn’t long ago that Eberling was a standout volleyball player at Western Michigan and knew bobsled only as the sport that came on television every four years. Then, one day in 2010, she got a Facebook message out of the blue from recent bobsled bronze medalist Elana Meyers. Meyers (now Meyers Taylor) knew only that Eberling was a college athlete who’d been named to the National Strength and Conditioning Association All-America team, but was curious if she’d be interested in trying bobsled.
After some consideration, Eberling decided that she didn’t want to pass up the opportunity and one day wonder what might have happened.
Despite initially lacking the speed and strength necessary of a push athlete and not knowing the technique, Eberling’s body understood what it took to apply force and hit the position to move the sled. She quickly made up ground and in 2011 won the U.S. national push championship as a rookie.
She collected medals as a brakeman for Meyers Taylor, Jazmine Fenlator and Jamie Greubel in the following seasons, but in the year leading up to the 2014 Winter Games the U.S. talent pool for brakemen expanded to include Aja Evans, who won the push championship as a rookie in 2012, as well as track and field Olympians and bobsled newcomers Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams. When the Olympic roster was announced, Eberling’s name was left off in a decision that was met with some controversy.
Despite her devastation, Eberling chose to travel with the team to Sochi as an alternate. She didn’t get to stay in the village, walk in the Opening Ceremony or participate as a full-fledged Olympic athlete. Rather, she helped with maintenance, carried sleds and worked behind the scenes to help her team.
“I definitely went through the stages of grief, for sure, but it went back to the person I am and who I wanted to be, I guess,” said Eberling, who emphasizes even today that all three push athletes were qualified, and she holds no ill will about the selection process. “I made a commitment to be a teammate, and I wanted that experience and to be there for my team. I didn’t want the disappointment to define me, and I chose not to let it.”
The possibility of going to driving school came up even before Sochi, she said, and it was something she discussed with her fellow alternate athletes during the Games. Not wanting to make a decision based on emotion, Eberling waited until after she returned home and discussed it with family and friends. Again she decided that she didn’t want to pass up the opportunity and one day wonder what might have happened.
So she began driving school that March.
Continuing as a push athlete was never on the table.
“It was either driving or moving on to other things,” she said.
Driving, she said, has completely changed the sport for her. Having to transition from the intensity and five-second burst of energy at the start to finding a calm mental place from which to drive under stress the remaining 50 seconds is something on which she said she’s still working.
Kohn said it isn’t easy to go from being an elite push athlete to having to start over at the back of the line in driving.
“When you start driving, and you start crashing, and you realize it’s not going to come easy, everyone entertains the thought of quitting,” he said. “It’s really difficult and not many people fight through that. There’s not a long line of people that want to get in the front seat for that very reason. It’s not for everybody.”
Eberling, Kohn said, is progressing at an above-average rate. She finished seventh in her international debut as a driver this season at the European Cup, eighth at a world cup race earlier this month and eighth at the world championships. Given that it takes most drivers three years to reach top elite status, Kohn said, Eberling is right on track to peak in 2018.
For now, Eberling said, she’s trying to not concentrate on the outcome but rather on continuing to learn and progress, one curve at a time.
“I think everyone in the sport wants to be an Olympian and it’s always an underlying motivation for me, but my focus also has to be on how that’s going to happen,” she said. “That’s the here and now, and being in the moment and really just day to day taking care of the mental and physical process required to compete at the highest level.
“As much as possible, focusing on what you can control is going to be most beneficial, and there’s a lot in bobsled you can’t control. To focus on what you can is the most important thing.”