Most of the time, having a shot at joining an Olympic team comes from years and years of hard work and dedication starting from a very young age.
For Nigel Talton — better known after this summer as “The Freeze” from Atlanta Braves home games — it’s come from putting on an ice blue suit and chasing down baseball fans on the outfield warning track at SunTrust Park.
The former college track athlete and member of the Braves’ grounds crew, who was picked to star in the “Beat the Freeze” in-game promotion after his co-workers saw how quick he was changing out the bases, participated in a USA Bobsled & Skeleton rookie push camp last month in Lake Placid, New York, and will be invited back in November to test himself on ice.
“If I have the chance to make (an Olympic team) it will be great, but for right now I’m just getting my feet wet, getting a foot in the door and learning the sport,” said Talton, 26, of Fort Valley, Georgia.
Talton’s college running background includes a start at Iowa Wesleyan, where he went on a football scholarship but ended up walking on with the track team and broke the school’s 100-meter record with a time of 10.73 seconds as a freshman. He transferred to NAIA Shorter University as a sophomore, and in 2013 he made it to the U.S. indoor championships in the 60-meter.
Talton joined the grounds crew of the Atlanta Braves in 2012 and, although he’s continued to run, his training has had to take a backseat in the last year as he’s been working a second job in addition to the Braves and taking classes at Kennesaw State.
However, his speed caught the eye of some folks in a unique position to take his athletic career in a different direction.
Mike Dionne, who heads up recruiting for USA Bobsled & Skeleton, can’t remember exactly where he and members of the coaching staff were this summer when they saw a clip of Talton on a highlight reel from the promotion, in which a fan picked from the crowd gets a big head start and Talton tries to chase him down, often successfully.
Dionne remembers their reaction, however.
“It was that clip that’s all over now where the guy falls at the end and (Talton) just comes from so far behind to beat this guy,” Dionne said. “So of course all of our initial thoughts were that we have to get this guy to try out for the bobsledding and skeleton team.”
They left it at that, but Dionne made a mental note to look this person up, whomever he was. A few weeks later, after Dionne had thrown it out on social media that “The Freeze” should try out for the team, NBC broadcaster Lewis Johnson was at a track meet where Talton was competing. They started talking, Johnson mentioned the idea of a tryout and Talton was game.
Johnson facilitated the connection, and in August, “The Freeze” found himself in Lake Placid.
“He did really well on the testing, which was not a surprise because we knew he was fast, but with his weight and his size there were some issues with bobsled, because he’s a smaller guy,” Dionne said. “But it reaffirmed what we thought, that skeleton would be more suitable for Nigel, so we’re going to invite him back to camp in November and get him on a sled.”
That’s where the tough part begins, Dionne said.
It’s easy to find talented athletes, but just because someone’s fast or big or strong doesn’t mean he or she will be suited to bobsled or skeleton. Athletes have to be team players, which track and field athletes aren’t always accustomed to being, Dionne said. They have to have the mental resolve for the sport. They have to be willing to sacrifice a lot over a four-year cycle if they’re serious about making an Olympic team. They also must be willing to work their way up – driving as many tracks as they can all over the world, spending six months a year on the road and not making a lot of money.
“To find an athlete that can check all those boxes is really difficult,” Dionne said.
Talton said he’s always admired athletes such as Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams, who transitioned from track stars to bobsled, both at the Olympic level. He wouldn’t mind being a crossover athlete as well, and is right now hoping to find a good running coach, compete at the 2018 U.S. indoor championships and hopefully qualify for the 2018 indoor world championships.
“I’m just praying on it,” Talton said. “I want to inspire others not to give up on their dreams. You fail if you don’t try. I’m just trying to chase my dreams and not give up.”