The last time most people saw Aja Evans pushing a bobsled, she was completely naked.
Evans appeared in ESPN The Magazine’s annual Body Issue in 2014, about five months after winning the bronze medal in the Sochi Olympic Winter Games as the brakeman with driver Jamie Greubel Poser.
“People admire our bodies, but I don’t think they understand the physique and the art behind everything we do on the field and on the track,” Evans said.
As one of only 22 athletes selected, she said the photo shoot was one of the most comfortable she’d experienced.
“As weird as it sounds, I didn’t even feel like I was naked there,” Evans said. “It was a very liberating feeling; it made me feel better about myself. Everybody deals with their own little self-conscious issues, worried about this little thing or that little thing, or how you look in this picture. So to just embrace me, and to share with the world, ‘Hey this is me. Take it or leave it.’ That was really, really big for me.”
Now she’s back behind a bobsled – this time fully clothed, including gloves and ice spikes – for the 2016 USA Bobsled National Push Championships. Evans is one of 56 athletes competing Wednesday, Friday and Saturday in Calgary, Alberta's indoor Ice House for spots on the 2016-17 U.S. national team.
“I’m coming into it very determined, very willing to help all my teammates, because I know what that feeling’s like,” said Evans, who had only two years under her belt when she competed in Sochi. “I know (the rookies) only really learn through our help and through experience.
|Jamie Greubel and Aja Evans compete in women's bobsled at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Sliding Center Sanki on Feb. 19, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
“I haven’t pushed a sled in two years, so there’s stuff I’ve got to learn and remember myself, so it’s kind of everybody in the same boat.”
Since Sochi, Evans, 26, met the President of the United States, fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama, as well as fictional president Fitzgerald Grant from the TV show “Scandal.” Armed with advice from her uncle, former Major League Baseball Gary Matthews, she threw out the first pitch on opening day for the Chicago White Sox. “I got it over the plate and I threw from the mound, so I was pretty proud of that,” Evans said.
And she began training for the 2016 Olympic Games in the heptathlon, although major reconstructive knee surgery derailed those hopes. Evans, a sprinter and Big Ten shot put champion at the University of Illinois, tore her right ACL during hurdles training.
“I took a break and stopped trying to rush everything and feel like I had to go back,” she said.
She did a lot of rehabilitation, spent time with her family and worked at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park, Illinois.
That gave Evans the spark to return to bobsled.
“As my knee started feeling better, the more I began working with kids, and training them and helping them with their goals, the drive started burning inside me again,” she said.
Evans had lunch earlier this year with Greubel Poser, who was visiting Chicago, and realized that she missed being an athlete and competing with the best in the world.
“I was still training and working out, but working out for a purpose and trying to get back to a certain physical and athletic level was a little challenging at first,” Evans said, “just because I’m so used to my body being 1,000-percent healthy.”
But she regained her form – and then some. “Seeing the proof in the results,” Evans said, “seeing that my sprint is faster, or I’m lifting heavier than I was around the Olympic year, that kind of gave me the validity I needed to know I was OK and know that it was OK to really go back to bobsled.”
On Wednesday, athletes will compete as individuals – drivers vs. drivers and brakemen vs. brakemen – by pushing the skeleton of a bobsled about 30 meters to simulate the start of the race. On Friday and Saturday, brakemen and drivers will be paired up.
Lolo Jones, the two-time Olympic hurdler who was 11th in bobsled in Sochi, is back for another try, while rookies from track and field include sprinters Tyson Gay and Ryan Bailey.
Evans said it’s a “confidence booster” to be a veteran compared to 2012, when she came in cold, never having tried bobsled.
“I feel so much more mature in a sense,” said Evans, who scored a perfect 800/800 at the bobsled combine in 2012. “Going back this time around, I know exactly what I want, and I’m more confident in pursuing it and knowing what I need to do to pull it off.”
The U.S. bobsled team has sometimes looked like musical sleds, with brakemen moving from one driver to another.
“All I can do is make sure I’m at my best and do everything I can do to be a great teammate for the drivers and the other brakemen coming in,” Evans said. “This sport is like a light switch: One minute you’re competing against your teammates and it’s a battlefield and every man for themselves, and then literally the next second you’re helping your teammates move the sled. We’re really hands on in this sport, so we’ve got to be there for each other.”
After the push championships in Calgary, drivers will analyze results before selecting their team for national team trials, which begin in Lake Placid, New York, in October.
She’ll count on her family to keep her grounded if she again makes the national team, with the world cup circuit keeping athletes away from home for half of the year.
“Being able to turn to my family,” Evans said, “and FaceTime my niece or my nephew and know that they’ll continue to put a smile on my face and take me away from the whole competitive aspect really helps me to stay in the sport because it can tend to be overwhelming at times if you let it.”
Evans’ advice to the rookies is simple: “Keep that drive, keep that determination, don’t let anything discourage you, because that’s all you have right now and that’s all you know. You have to use what you know, especially going into this type of sport, because there’s no way for you to get it before you actually do it.”
She recalled that after her eye-opening first trip down the track, she called her mother and asked, “Did we tell too many people? Can I just leave?” Her mother, Sequocoria Mallory-Evans, told her, “You better go back to the top of that track and figure it out!”
“I don’t think anyone gets used to it, especially being in the back of the sled,” Evans said, “but the glitter and the light from the goal you have in mind kind of shines over the little trials and tribulations you go through. When you get discouraged, or when you get frustrated, remembering what you’re working for, that everything you do now will determine that goal coming to fruition later, helps me to stay motivated.”
And that goal is the gold medal in PyeongChang in 2018.
After the Sochi Games, Evans let people hold her bronze medal and try it on, posing with them for pictures.
“The best part was being able to share my medal with my family, with my community, my city, and to thank them and feel that love and support from people I didn’t even know,” she said.
“That really touched me because I’m still the same old person on the inside, but because of the success I had, my story resonates with people and they kind of look at me in a different way.”
They see an athlete who pushes herself, not just a bobsled, to be the best.