By Gary R. Blockus | Aug. 28, 2017, 1:43 p.m. (ET)
Kyle Plante (L) and Josh Williamson (R) speak to the media after winning "The Next Olympic Hopeful" on July 16, 2017 in Colorado Springs, Colo.

 

Kyle Plante was “just” a waitress and bartender, a former track and field athlete whose collegiate career ended when she tore her ACL, MCL and meniscus doing drills at the University of Albany.

Josh Williamson was a former high school lacrosse player who gave it up when he transferred from Mercer University in Georgia to Florida State.

Neither athlete had any inkling that the door to a potential Olympic berth could be opening right in front of them.

Plante and Williamson were selected to attend a USA Bobsled national team camp following the conclusion of “Scouting Camp: The Next Olympic Hopeful,” a nationally-televised talent search to find everyday athletes who may possess the skills, talent and motivation to excel at a different sport given the proper coaching.

The athlete identification camp took place at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and at the end of Friday night’s broadcast on NBC Sports Network, a men’s and women’s winner was chosen for each of four sports: bobsled, skeleton, rugby and track cycling.

Plante, 23, a native of Albany, New York, came into the camp after running the 400-meter, 400-meter hurdles and competing as a heptathlete in track and field.

“A lot of track and field athletes seemed to transition into bobsled,” Plante said. “I think I’m a pretty powerful person, so I thought why not test my strength?”

Williamson, 20, from Lake Mary, Florida, started noticing bobsled at Florida State, where he hit the weight room to make up for not playing lacrosse. He started following other people on Instagram who lifted weights, and the strongest seemed to always be bobsledders like Lou Moreira and two-time Olympic medalist Steve Langton.

He started following their lifting programs and, like Plante, was actually training for a combine run by USA Bobsled & Skeleton when the possibility of making the 90-athlete cut for “The Next Olympic Hopeful” came up.

“The worst-case scenario was I didn’t get to go or didn’t do well, and I’d have the combine to fall back on,” Williamson said.

Both athletes were selected for the show, a week-long process where cameras were everywhere to capture their journey for a reality show based not on contrived criteria, but quantifiable testing and seasoned judgment from Olympic coaches.

There was a bit of a hitch, however. While Plante was selected to try out for bobsled, Williamson initially went into the skeleton group.

“I found that out at the airport,” he said. “I was kind of worried at first, kind of shell-shocked, but then I thought that whatever they want me to train for, if I have the possibility of making the team, I’m going to try.”

Aside from his incredible physical abilities, that piece of mental strength is one of the intangibles that separates one candidate from another.

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“Josh Williamson caught my eye,” said USA Bobsled coach Brian Shimer, a five-time Olympian. “He was in the skeleton group, and as he started going through the combine, it was obvious to me that we needed to pull him over to bobsled. It just got better after that.

“He’s only 20 years old. Very seldom do we get an athlete of that quality at that age. His speed, his strength, his power, the push, he’s everything we want to see in a bobsled athlete. Then his attitude and desire to be a bobsledder; he’s way beyond his years. I’m excited we were able to find someone like him through this process.”

Plante felt at home the moment she walked into the OTC.

“When I got there, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is where I want to live,’” she said. “Honestly, I really didn’t know what to expect, but when I met everyone, it was like being with a bunch of people I already knew. We got along really well. There was no animosity, no cockiness. Everyone was supportive, very encouraging. We cheered for each other.”

The other aspect to “The Next Olympic Hopeful” was having mentor athletes like Lauryn Williams, one of just five U.S. athletes to have earned Olympic medals in both summer and Winter Games.

“None of us knew what we were getting ourselves into, so having people there who do those sports and are familiar with everything to give us tips, that was awesome,” Plante said. “I’m really grateful for that.”

Plante and Williamson impressed the coaches in just about every category, but especially in the push test, where they had to push the nose cone of a sled on runners for time.

Both athletes were invited to and took part in rookie camp last week in Lake Placid, New York. Williamson also took part in the National Push Championships in Calgary the week after the show finished filming.

“I didn’t even have a passport, so I had to get a passport, get a flight from Miami to Calgary and go,” he said. “I was right there with strength and athletic ability, so the coaches thought I might as well get up there and try to compete. I had only three days of experience and was going against guys with years of experience. The fact I beat anybody there was a win.”

“This was an unbelievable experience and I’m looking forward to seeing how far all this takes me,” Plante said. “I’m really into it and enjoy learning how to bobsled. If it can take me to the Olympics, that’s what I’m looking for!”

Gary R. Blockus is a journalist from Allentown, Pennsylvania who has covered multiple Olympic Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.