10 Impressive Team USA Athletes Who Successfully Transferred Their Talent From One Sport To Another

By Karen Rosen | June 01, 2017, 12:43 p.m. (ET)
Lauryn Williams competed at the Olympic Games in track and field in 2004, 2008 and 2012, and at the Olympic Winter Games in bobsled in 2014.

 

If Jim Thorpe and Mildred “Babe” Didrikson were in their prime today, they would certainly be at the top of the list for recruitment into the United States Olympic Committee’s new talent transfer ID program, “Scouting Camp - The Next Olympic Hopeful.”

Thorpe won varsity letters in 11 different sports in college including football, baseball, track and field, swimming, lacrosse, basketball, wrestling, golf and tennis. Two months after picking up a javelin, he was the 1912 Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon (as well as winning the pentathlon while barely missing a medal in the high jump). Thorpe played professional football, baseball and basketball and even was the national intercollegiate ballroom champion – which would have made him a natural for “Dancing with the Stars.”

Didrikson single-handedly won a national team title in track and field and in 1932 would have won more than her three Olympic medals – two golds and one silver – if not for a rule restricting the number of events women could enter. She played professional basketball, baseball (including pitching against major leaguers in exhibitions) and pocket billiards and was also competitive in tennis, bowling, swimming and diving. After settling on golf as a career, Didrikson became the greatest female player of her time.

Who’s the next great all-around athlete?

Thanks to the program launching next month, athletes in non-Olympic sports or those looking to try their luck in a different sport and make Team USA have a new path to follow. They can sign up at TeamUSA.org/NextOlympicHopeful or try out in person at select 24 Hour Fitness clubs on June 24 to become the next Olympic hopeful in the sports of rugby, track cycling, bobsled and skeleton.

A select group of 50 male and 50 female athletes will travel to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to undergo the same tough physical and mental challenges that Olympians face. Their journeys will be chronicled in a television docudrama airing in August on NBCSN.

One male and one female athlete winner will be assigned to each sport and rewarded with the same financial, training and medical support all Olympic hopefuls receive as they prepare for the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.

“Team USA and the National Governing Bodies have a proud history of helping elite athletes progress to world-champion status in pursuit of their Olympic dreams,” said Alan Ashley, USOC chief of sport performance. “This program opens the door to athletes interested in pursuing Olympic sport, and determines if their physical attributes and abilities match the opportunities the USOC and National Governing Body high performance teams have identified as areas of need in our athlete pipeline.”

Here are 10 talented athletes who starred in one sport and then successfully transferred to another – or in some cases went back and forth.

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Eddie Eagan (1920 boxing; 1932 bobsled)

Eagan is still the only athlete from any country to win gold medals at both summer and winter Olympic Games, a feat that has stood for 85 years. After serving in World War I, Eagan made the U.S. Olympic team in 1920 as a boxer. He won the gold medal in Antwerp in the light heavyweight division. Eagan moved up to heavyweight for his second Games in Paris in 1924, but lost in the first round.

Eagan had never been inside a bobsled when he decided to switch sports. In a classic case of “It doesn’t matter what you know, but who you know,” Eagan’s friend Jay O’Brien, the head of the U.S. Olympic bobsled committee, told him that a team member had dropped out.

"Eddie came back from dinner with Jay and said, 'Guess what. I'm on the United States bobsled team.'" Eagan’s wife Peggy later recalled.

The four-man sled was piloted by Billy Fiske, who would later become the first U.S. pilot shot down in World War II, with O’Brien as a brakeman.

 

Willie Davenport (1964, ’68, ’72, ‘76 track and field; 1980 bobsled)

Davenport competed in five straight Olympics and is the only U.S. track and field athlete to compete at the Games in 1980. That’s because he went to Lake Placid as a bobsledder. His career as a hurdler was up and down. Davenport was one of the favorites in the 110-meter hurdles at the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964, but injured his thigh muscle and did not advance past the semifinals. In 1968, he was the Olympic champion. After placing a disappointing fourth in 1972, Davenport secured the bronze medal in 1976.

Davenport was serving on an Olympic committee when he met former U.S. bobsledder Al Hachigian, who told him his leg strength would serve him well as a push athlete. Davenport decided to give bobsled a try and told People magazine, “I guess this is all kind of crazy, especially since I had never seen a bobsled until two months ago.”

Davenport became one of the first two African Americans to compete at the Winter Games. The other was Jeff Gadley.

With Davenport in the third seat and Gadle the brakeman, their four-man team placed 12th.

“I tell Jeff that I’m the first black man (in the Winter Games),” Davenport told People magazine, “because I cross the finish line first.”

 

Herschel Walker (1982 Heisman Trophy winner and professional football player; 1992 bobsled)

Over the years, football players have been invited to try out as bobsled push athletes because of their speed and power, which coaches hope will translate into an explosive start. Walker, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1982 for the University of Georgia and became a two-time Pro Bowler, definitely fit the bill. “I was coerced into it by Willie Gault,” he jokingly told Sports Illustrated more than 20 years later. Walker said they were doing the “Superstars” made-for-TV competition when Gault told him, “Herschel, we ought to go to Lake Placid and try out for the bobsled team.” Said Walker, “I remember thinking ‘What the heck is a bobsled?’ Then it snowed and I hate cold weather.” Gault, a hurdler on the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team that did not compete in Moscow because of the boycott, took a ride down the bobsled run in Calgary in 1988 with the alternate American two-man team. Edwin Moses, the gold medalist in the 1976 and 1984 Olympic Games in the 400-meter hurdles, also dabbled in the sport, but it was Walker who made the team in 1992.

He and driver Brian Shimer, a former football player at Morehead State, placed seventh in the two-man sled, while Walker was bumped from the four-man sled. He returned to the Minnesota Vikings, hinting that he might return to the Olympic Games in his first love: taekwondo.

Other notable bobsled push athletes who came from other sports include Randy Jones, who played football and ran track at Duke University. He competed at the Olympic Winter Games in 1994, 1998 and 2002, winning a bronze medal with driver Todd Hays in the four-man sled in Salt Lake City. That broke a 46-year U.S. medal drought in men’s bobsled. And then there’s Chip Minton, a bodybuilder and prison guard who is also known for competing in world championship wrestling as Mr. World Class. Minton was a push athlete in 1994 and 1998.

 

Nate Ebner (2015 and 2017 Super Bowl champion with New England Patriots; 2016 rugby)

Ebner grew up playing rugby and was a late-comer to football, walking on at Ohio State University. He was drafted in 2012 by the Patriots and excelled on special teams.

When he learned rugby would return to the Olympic Games after a 92-year absence, he knew he wanted to be in Rio. First, Ebner had to get special dispensation from Patriots coach Bill Belichick to miss some training camp.

“When I set out to play for the USA Rugby team, that was a daunting enough task in itself just to make that team,” Ebner said. “Then to actually play in the Olympics, that was great.

“But to think I’d be able to do that, stay healthy and go back to football and our team be good enough to make it back to the Super Bowl again, it’s pretty awesome. I’m lucky. I’m blessed.”

In Rio, Ebner scored two tries as the Eagles finished ninth in the rugby sevens tournament.

He was the first active NFL player to appear in the Olympic Games. Returning to the gridiron, Ebner had his best year and was named to the Associated Press All-Pro Second team. He played in all 16 regular-season games, appearing on every specials teams unit, and tallied a career-best 19 special-teams tackles to lead the Patriots and tie for the league lead. Ebner was a safety/special teams player as the Patriots roared from a 28-3 deficit to defeat the Atlanta Falcons in the 2017 Super Bowl and is the only person to compete in an Olympic Games and a Super Bowl in the same season.

While Ebner was familiar with rugby as a kid, teammate Carlin Isles got his start in track and field. Two weeks before he would have left for the 2012 track and field Olympic trials, Isles instead went to Aspen, Colorado, where he’d found a club team that would take him in.

“I was scared,” Isles said. “I was like, ‘Man, Top 3?’ I had only been running at the professional level for a year. My best bet would have probably been 2016. I was like, ‘What if I don’t make it? Then what? I just felt like, ‘What if I can make it in rugby?’ And then all these goals and dreams and ideas popped into my mind and that’s how I ended up making that switch.”

 

Vonetta Flowers (track and field; 2002, ‘06 bobsled)

Flowers received a track and field scholarship to the University of Alabama at Birmingham to become the first member of her family to attend college. She qualified for the Olympic trials in 1996 in the 100-meter and long jump, but did not make Team USA.

Flowers underwent surgery before the 2000 Olympic trials. Although she had recuperated enough to compete, she was dismayed by her results and was ready to retire. Two days after the trials, her husband Johnny saw a flyer inviting track and field athletes to try out for the U.S. bobsled team. Flowers agreed to accompany him and, after he pulled a hamstring, she took his place in the testing.

A new career was born. In 2002, Flowers was the brakeman for driver Jill Bakken as they won the gold medal in the inaugural Olympic women’s bobsled event. Flowers was the first black athlete to win a gold medal at a Winter Games.

 

Chris Witty (1994, ’98, ’02, ’06 speedskating; 2000 cycling)

As an 18-year-old, Witty placed 23rd in the 1,000-meter at her first Olympic Winter Games in 1994. She then won the silver in the 1,000 and bronze in the 1,500 at the Olympic Winter Games Nagano 1998. Switching gears to cycling, she placed fifth in the 500-meter time trial at the Sydney Games. Witty was only the ninth American to compete in both the summer and winter Games.

“Actually, it’s no big deal,” Witty said. “The workouts for both sports are almost the same.”

She made a triumphant return to the ice. Witty added the Olympic gold medal in the 1,000 at the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002 in world-record time, which was even more remarkable since she was coming off a bout with mononucleosis.

Witty decided not to compete in cycling going into the 2004 Games in Athens after the sport’s governing body moved the world cup schedule during winter months.

At her final Games in 2006, Witty was elected by her teammates to carry the United States flag in the Opening Ceremony in Torino.

The speedskating/cycling pairing is a common one among two-sport athletes. Connie Paraskevin-Young competed for Team USA in four Olympic Games. In 1984, she was 13th in the women’s 500. Turning to cycling, she pedaled in 1988, 1992 and 1996 in women’s sprint, with her best finish a bronze medal in Seoul.

Connie Carpenter-Phinney was a 14-year-old speedskating phenon when she placed seventh at the Olympic Winter Games Sapporo 1972. When injuries kept her out of the 1976 Games, she focused on cycling. By winning the road race in Los Angeles in 1984, Carpenter-Phinney was the first female cyclist to win an Olympic gold medal.

Arnold Uhrlass was a speedskater in 1960 and cyclist in 1964 while Art Longsjo Jr. was the first person to compete in the summer and winter Games in the same year (1956).

Eric Heiden, who won an unprecedented five gold medals in 1980, became a professional cyclist following his speedskating career. He was a founding member of the 7-Eleven Cycling Team, took part in the 1986 Tour de France (though a concussion suffered on a crash forced him out of the race five days from the finish) and won the first U.S. Professional Cycling Championship.

 

Jimmy Shea (lacrosse/ice hockey/bobsled; 2002 skeleton)

Shea was a standout lacrosse and ice hockey player in high school. As the grandson of 1932 Olympic speedskating gold medalist Jack Shea and the son of 1964 Nordic skiing competitor Jim Shea Sr., he had the Olympics in his blood. Shea tried bobsled, but realized its cousin, skeleton, was much more exciting. "I like to scare myself," Shea once said. He became the first U.S. slider to win a world cup event. With the sport returning to the Games for the first time in 54 years, he was ready. Tragically, Jack Shea died from injuries in a car accident a month before his grandson competed. Jimmy Shea carried his funeral card tucked into his helmet as he raced to the gold medal.

Bobsled and skeleton were a family affair for the Heaton brothers, Jennison and John. At the Olympic Winter Games St. Moritz 1928, Jennison won the gold medal in skeleton – defeating younger brother John by a second – and he also claimed the silver in five-man bobsled. John Heaton went on to compete at the 1932 Games in Lake Placid, taking bronze in two-man bobsled, then won another silver in skeleton in 1948.

While bobsled and skeleton have a lot in common, the only similarity between David Gilman’s two sports was they were both on water. But one was frozen water. Gilman grew up swimming and playing water polo, then took up kayaking. Making the 1976 Olympic team, he reached the semifinals in the 500-meter. He also made the 1980 team which boycotted the Moscow Games. In 1982, a member of the Olympic luge team invited him to try a sled.

“It's a little more dangerous than kayaking,” Gilman told the New York Times.

That rang true when he broke his left foot at the national championships. Still, Gilman made the 1984 Olympic team, placing 17th.

 

Lauryn Williams (2004, ’08, ‘12 track and field; 2014 bobsled)

Known as a sprinter, perhaps Williams’ fastest feat was reaching the Olympic medal podium a scant six months after taking up bobsled.

Williams won the silver medal in the 100-meter at the Olympic Games Athens 2004. She was fourth in the 100 in 2008, then won a gold medal in the 4x100-meter in London. Williams was considering retirement because of a recurring injury when Olympic teammate Lolo Jones persuaded her to try bobsled.

“The first time she pushed the sled,” coach Brian Shimer said, “although it looked not good at all – it looked terrible – she was fast from the get-go.

“Genetically, just the way she runs is very, very adaptive to pushing a sled. Her athleticism alone sets her apart from everybody else. She just had to dial in her technique, which took her those six months to get really efficient at it.”

Williams teamed with driver Elana Meyers to win the silver medal, barely missing a chance to equal Eddie Eagan with gold in both the summer and winter Games. But she did become the first U.S. woman to medal at both the summer and winter editions of the Games.

Alas, the athlete who got Williams into bobsled did not fare as well. Jones, who famously tripped over a hurdle at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 to finish seventh, followed by a fourth-place finish in 2012, was 11th in bobsled in Sochi.

 

Alev Kelter (ice hockey; 2016 rugby)

After Kelter missed making the 2014 U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team as a defenseman, she was approached by the Eagles. Rugby player Lorrie Clifford had suggested Kelter to the coaching staff during a crossover outreach period and Kelter, who was also a soccer midfielder, was a good fit.

Many of her teammates also came to rugby from other sports.

Jessica Javelet was an All-American field hockey player at the University of Louisville and played professional field hockey internationally. She also played American football, winning two Women’s Football Alliance Championships before starting her rugby career.

Lauren Doyle was a five-sport athlete in high school, while Victoria Folayan and Ryan Carlyle each participated in four sports. Carlyle played varsity softball and club soccer at the University of South Carolina in addition to being a bodybuilder before learning rugby.

 

Katie Uhlaender (2006, ’10, ’14 skeleton; weightlifting and cycling)

Uhlaender was already established in her sport when injury and curiosity spurred her to branch out. She placed sixth in skeleton in 2006, 11th in 2010 and fourth in 2014, missing a medal by 0.04 seconds. Uhlaender decided to pick up weightlifting in 2012 and quickly found success. She was third at the 2010 national championships and second at the 2011 American Open, which enabled her to compete at the 2012 Olympic trials in the 58 kg. division.

"Weightlifting is power and speed,” she once said. “In skeleton, coming off the block requires the same energy system. The training for both is a little different. If I was just doing skeleton, I'd probably only be lifting two or three times a week. With weightlifting I'm lifting double that and not running as much. For skeleton I'd be running four to six days a week. So they kind of flip-flop."

Unfortunately, her hip injury forced her to give up weightlifting. She returned to skeleton. Following her 10th surgery, Uhlaender began riding a stationary bike for rehab and discovered another sport. She trained for three months for women’s team sprint and competed at senior nationals in 2015.

“I loved track cycling,” Uhlaender said. “It’s right up my alley and I couldn’t run… so it was a perfect way to cross-train…I might try to go back to it, but right now I’m just focused on Korea (for the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018)."