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History Maker: Dawn Macomber Is America's First Female Para-Bobsledder

By Joanne C. Gerstner | Jan. 19, 2017, 4:22 p.m. (ET)

Dawn Macomber made history as the first American woman to compete in a Para-bobsled world cup.

Dawn Macomber knew her precious package was on its way, but staying patient was proving impossible.

And then, finally, the magic box arrived to her New Hampshire home.

“Just received my jacket in the mail. It's official :) representing #teamusa for USA Bobsled & Skeleton so happy and blessed to have this experience!” Macomber posted on Facebook, adding a photo of her proudly modeling her new Team USA jacket.

Macomber’s new jacket signifies she is now a member of the U.S. para-bobsled team, as the sport’s first American woman. She has gone from learning about bobsled and skeleton at an Adaptive Sports Foundation clinic last March to now competing internationally.

Macomber does not yet have regular access to a monobob, or a nearby track, making this January’s three-competition world cup trip to Europe precious learning time. Her new passion is taking her far from her family and chicken farm, possibly leading to the Paralympic Winter Games.

“I never just woke up and said, ‘I’m going to be a bobsledder,’” Macomber, 45, said with a laugh. “It’s many, many years that’s turning into this. I love challenges. I think of myself just as a survivor, trying to live in the way my heart wants to live, in the way my body was meant to live.

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“I’m taking this super seriously. I’ve always wanted to get up and do something more. I have been given this body, through injury and adaptations, so I am going to make the most of what I have been blessed with. I won’t quit until my body says time to quit.”

Para-bobsled is still relatively new on the international scene, and the sport has been provisionally added to the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games. The sport is co-ed right now, with women competing against men. Macomber knows of only one other woman, from Latvia, who is competing in para-bobsled.

Until the sport expands internationally for women, Macomber understands her runs in the immediate future will be against more experienced and possibly stronger male competitors. However, all bobsleds must meet a weight standard, leveling any disadvantages women could have against bigger male competitors.

So far, Macomber’s male competitors have been supportive. She has drawn praise for finishing with the fourth-fastest time in the second heat of her first world cup competition last December in Park City, Utah.

“I really want to encourage more women to go into para-bobsled and skeleton — give it a try and see how much fun it is,” Macomber said. “This is truly a sport where you can compete on an even playing field; it comes down to how you drive and keep calm. I love the analytic side of this, staying in the moment. I love the speed. It’s a rush out there.”

Being competitive and again representing the United States means a lot to her, as Macomber is a U.S. Army veteran who has experienced health issues and pain for decades. She was a varsity soccer player and track athlete in high school. But while in the Army, she herniated discs in her back.

She coped with the debilitating pain, undergoing several back surgeries. In 2010, two of the degenerating herniated discs shifted, putting paralyzing pressure on her spinal cord.

But in a fascinating twist, Macomber could still feel portions of her legs, termed “incomplete paraplegia,” and told doubters she would walk again. Through thousands of hours of therapy and determination, Macomber indeed walks, skis and runs — with the support of crutches — despite not being able to feel her feet or lower legs.

“I tell people it feels like walking on sand, everything is squishy because I have no connection to the ground,” Macomber said.

She steers the bobsled with hand controls, learning to follow lines and develop the deft touch required of pilots.

Macomber is also learning that competing on the world cup circuit is expensive. She launched a GoFundMe under her name in December, hoping to defray January’s $13,000 tab to compete in Norway, Germany and Switzerland. Her husband, Dave, said they will find a way to come up with the money, but right now she’s taking the trip by putting it on their credit cards.

David Kurtz, the para-bobsled team captain, has been impressed with Macomber’s determination to master driving. He is mentoring and coaching her during the European swing. Kurtz is also working on funding, hoping Macomber can get something through the Army’s para-athlete and veterans programs.

“She has simply gone full bore, she is wanting this so much,” Kurtz said, adding a laugh. “She’s intense, and you’re not going to tell her no. I see a lot of potential in her, and hopefully other women will see what she is doing and want to get involved.

“It’s a great sport, and I am happy to see it growing on the Paralympic side. Dawn’s making history every time she competes.”

Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.