There is no secret formula to becoming an elite athlete. From when they started their sport to how they got into it, every athlete has a different story. Some Team USA athletes were already on their path by the time they were 2. Some didn’t start until they were in their 40s.
We asked 25 Team USA Olympic and Paralympic athletes —most of whom are headed to the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games — to share their first memories of their sport and when they fell in love with it.
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Amanda Pelkey, Ice Hockey
I started skating when I was 3, and I fell in love with it. I actually remember going into my brother’s closet — who is six years older than me — wearing only a diaper and getting his rollerblades that were actually way too big for me. I could barely walk, but I put them on and came down the hallway. My mom was like what are you doing? I vividly remember that.
Nina Roth, Curling
I pretty much immediately fell in love with curling. I remember being 10 years old and going into my fifth grade class and being like, Hi, I’m going to be an Olympian. Here I am 20 years later and that moment is coming.
Kirk Black, Wheelchair Curling
I started curling in 2012, but I actually tried it for the very first time in 2007. I was at a National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Milwaukee where a coach came and was showing the sport to individuals. I started playing and he said, ‘Hey, you’re really good at this. How long have you been doing it?’ I said about 30 minutes. And he goes ‘Oh, I’ve got to get you involved in this.’ This was the first time I had done any wheelchair sports. But when I came home, I never heard from him again.
It wasn’t until 2014 when I was skiing up in Aspen and they had another learn-to-curl event. I wasn’t going to go, but my wife was like you really enjoyed it when you did it before. So I went. When I was there, a different coach came up to me and said, ‘You’re really good at this. How long have you been doing it?’ I said the last time was seven years ago and it was for an hour. He said, ‘I have to get you involved in this.’ So I laughed at him. He asked why I was laughing and I told him. He said ‘No, I promise, it won’t happen that way.’ So he invited me out to Lake Placid in 2014. I did the camp and that was where the fire took off. It was then that I knew it was something that I wanted to do, and a sport that I enjoyed.
Sadie Bjornsen, Cross-Country Skiing
I actually got into alpine first. But I just got really tired of being freezing cold on the chair lift, so I was like, I’m going to start skiing up these hills instead. So then I got into Nordic. I was probably 6 years old when I started racing. I think the first moment that I was sure I wanted to be at an elite level was when I went to my very first world juniors overseas in Slovenia. I was out on the course and I felt like everyone was so fast they were skiing by me like I was standing still. I put my glasses down and let some tears go and I was like okay, you’re the worst person here — there’s only up to go. And I actually ended up doing reasonably well. It was then that I was like I love this. I am addicted.
Meghan Duggan, Ice Hockey
I started skating when I was 3. I honestly think I fell in love with it right away. I vividly remember as a kid skating across the ice pushing a milk crate. Now they have like whales that someone can sit on. Mine was literally a milk crate stacked on top with bungee cords.
I remember when I graduated from having to push the milk crate to being able to skate across the ice on my own. And I remember when I graduated from that to being allowed to have a stick in my hand. I remember each of these graduation points and I just knew I was going to love it forever.
Gus Kenworthy, Freestyle Skiing
I was 3 years old when I first started my sport. My mom was 40 at the time and she was learning with me, as she had never skied before. My two older brothers and my dad had skied a bit so we were all learning as a family, but my mom and I were on the same skill level. So I would always ski with my mom. I would fall asleep on the chairlift with my head on her lap and she would sing to me. At the top of the chairlift she’d wake me and we’d go for another run. So it was just a sport that I’ve been in love with since I started at a young age.
I think when I was 16 and I got a call for a sponsorship and once things started to fall into place, it was my sole focus.
Elana Meyers Taylor, Bobsled
I started my sport at 22 and fell in love with it the very first run. Going down the track and feeling the twists and turns and feeling what was going on. It just seemed like so much fun. So fast, so furious — and I didn’t know if I was going to be any good, but I knew I wanted to try and be as good as I could. Going down a bobsled track, there is nothing like it.
Jackie Wiles, Alpine Skiing
I started skiing when I was 2. I remember when I was 3 years old I was so envious of my brother that he could race, because you had to be 5. I would go up the rope tow crying on Mt. Hood in Oregon saying, ‘Let me race!’ I loved chasing him around the mountain. Since we had no idea what we were doing, my parents were eventually like, we need to get them on the race program. It was from that moment on that I thought to myself, I really want to do this.
Dani Cameranesi, Ice Hockey
My mom said the first time she put me on skates I was 2 years old. I started playing hockey when I was 5. I was also playing soccer and doing dance. My mom used to tell me all the time that when I was playing hockey, I had a smile on my face. But when I was up on the stage for dance, I had the grumpiest look. Hockey always put me in a good mood and made me happy. It was a place where I could go and nothing else mattered.
Jayson Terdiman, Luge
I was 10 years old when I heard about the Slider Search, and the first time I did it I knew it was something I wanted to keep doing. But my first memory of sliding was when I was 11 in Lake Placid. It was right after the new track was built. I remember only going about 25 mph, but it feels like 90 because you’re 11 years old trying something new and it’s all really exciting. I remember my parents went with me that trip. I remember the second day they were standing on the side deck and as I was coming through the straightaway I lifted up my hand and waved to my parents as I was going by; I got yelled at by the coaching staff for that. They were like, you never let go of your sled! I’ve never waved since.
Kikkan Randall, Cross-Country Skiing
Falling in love with cross-country skiing has been kind of a funny journey for me. My first birthday my dad was working in a rental shop in Deer Valley, Utah at the time and brought home the smallest boots and skis they had, and they made a little hill for me in the front yard. So officially, I was on skis the day after my first birthday.
And then we moved to Alaska when I was 3 and I started Nordic skiing around 5. I remember not loving it at first because it was hard work to go up the hills. But then I got to play games and go off jumps and have hot chocolate afterwards. So it was just one of many things I did growing up.
I was always driven to go to the Olympics, but I wanted to do it in soccer for a while and then alpine skiing. It wasn’t until high school when I was like, this is really going to be my sport and I’m going to focus on it and see what happens. And I was intrigued by the fact that no American woman had ever won a team medal, so this would be the chance to write history.
Kali Flanagan, Ice Hockey
I started figuring skating around 5. My sister and I were in the same competition and she got first place and I got third. I was really upset so I said I don’t want to do this anymore. My dad had all this hockey equipment and one day I just looked at it and said, ‘I want to do this.’ As soon as my dad put black skates on me, I loved it and never went back. I was 6.
Kevin Bickner, Ski Jumping
I was 9 years old the first time I went off the ski jump and I was hooked right away. It was so cool to do something so different from anything I’d done before. And when I found out there was Olympic potential that got me really excited because I’ve been an Olympic fan since I was a little kid.
Danelle Umstead, Para Alpine Skiing
Are you ready for this? I was 29 when I learned how to ski. Pretty much everyone told me I was not going to be able to make the Paralympic Games. I was starting too late. It was going to be really hard for me to catch up. But the determination of, ‘Oh yeah, you think I can’t do this?’ I think I was more proving it to myself. But heart and determination will get you anywhere you want to go.
The moment I knew I wanted to do it forever was the first time I put the skis on. My dad invited me to come to Northern New Mexico and go skiing with him. I was feeling really depressed at the time thinking blind people can’t do anything. The moment we got to the top of the mountain I smelled the fresh air and the pine trees. We headed down the mountain and he started telling me, ‘Right, hold, hold, left, hold, hold.’ With every turn I just felt more and more alive and a sense of freedom and a sense of joy and excitement and adrenaline that I hadn’t felt since my disability.
From that moment on I was like this is what I’m going to do the rest of my life and I don’t care how old I am; I am going to make it happen.
Simi Hamilton, Cross-Country Skiing
I was 2 years old when I first started skiing, but the most important cross-country memory I have is going with my dad when I was about 7 years old. It was a perfect Colorado day and I think we ended up skiing 30 kilometers that day. I was just so psyched about everything that I never got tired, never got cold, never complained, and it was super fun. After that day I was like okay, I can make a life out of this and have fun with it.
Nick Goepper, Freestyle Skiing
I started skiing when I was 5. By the time I was 15 I had really zeroed in on my passion for skiing. I was skiing in the summertime in my backyard on AstroTurf, and finding ways to jump into a pool and learn tricks on my skis. I was sort of measuring myself against other people in the sport, with the internet, watching videos. And that’s when it consumed me day and night. I quit soccer. I quit swim team. I was like, ‘Mom and Dad, I really want to do this professionally. I don’t care what it takes.’
J.R. Celski, Short Track Speedskating
When I was little my parents bought me these little Playskool plastic skates for my birthday. They stuck them on my tennis shoes and I was just walking around. I remember my parents filmed it. That’s how I started inline speedskating.
Amy Purdy, Para Snowboarding
I had skied before, but not well. Because I was horrible at skiing I tried snowboarding when I was 15. And I honestly fell in love with it right away. I think it’s because I got the hang of it pretty quickly. But I remember being with my friends the first time I tried snowboarding. I was living in Vegas and we went to southern Utah on a snowboarding trip. I had so much fun. We were in nature, we were in the trees, the snow was fresh. There were no rules. In snowboarding there are no rights or wrongs. You can create whatever trick you want. We were just outside playing and having fun. And I remember when I first felt that, I knew that snowboarding would be in my life forever.
Karen Chen, Figure Skating
As a shy kid growing up it was difficult for me to try new things and venture out of my comfort zone. But when I finally stepped on the ice when I was 4 I realized how fun it was — and I wasn’t shy at all when I was on the ice. Sure, I took a bunch of falls and some of them were pretty painful, but I got up and I continued skating. I just loved being on the ice and I just kept doing it and gradually I got better and better.
I think I was 6 or 7 when I discovered I loved skating. It was when I took my very first private lesson from my very first coach. My coach curved out a program with a little routine for me to practice. I skated to ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and I wore a light pink dress. I remember just loving that program and doing it over and over again. That’s when I discovered that I was meant to be on the ice and that’s what I was meant to do.
Hannah Brandt, Ice Hockey
My family has no hockey history at all. When I was 5 years old in preschool, another girl in my class had a similar name, Hanna Brodt. When our medications got mixed up our parents became friends through that situation. Hanna Brodt actually comes from a very big hockey family. Her aunt is Winny Brodt, who played in the U.S. program for a number of years. So Hanna got me into playing. From the minute I started playing, I’ve enjoyed it.
Oksana Masters, Para Nordic Skiing
In 2013 a coach heard that I wanted to try skiing and invited me to a camp in Breckinridge, Colorado. The minute I got on snow, by no means was it a success, at all. I broke so many ski poles and skis that I thought for sure they were going to hate me. I didn’t know how to stop. There are no brakes, so I would just fall. A lot of these things would turn people off from skiing, but I loved it. I loved how hard it was. I loved that you just can’t jump in and get it. It was a way for me to be a student again of another sport and it brought out a whole other side of competition in me.”
Aja Evans, Bobsled
I started bobsled around 25. I think I fell in love with the sport my first race of team trials because we won — and I set the start record. Once we started winning and there was a bit more competition, that adrenaline started going and I grew a love for the sport. And then when we started to travel and I got to see all these beautiful countries and beautiful places across the world, that gave me a new respect for the sport.
Laurenne Ross, Alpine Skiing
I have a very specific memory that has stuck with me forever. I was racing in Lake Louise, Alberta, and it was probably one of my first races. I’m not sure I was paying attention at all to the course. I don’t remember the gates. I don’t remember whether I won or whether I was last. I just remember going really fast and watching the snow fall around me and sort of feeling this sort of freedom and being at home and nothing else mattered. I was a careless kid at this point but there was this crazy clarity that came to me. I was 6. I definitely pay more attention to the course now!
Chris Mazdzer, Luge
The first time I did luge at 8 I was hooked because it’s ultimate sledding. As a kid I loved sledding. We grew up by some apple orchards in New York and we’d go sledding through the orchids. Luge is the largest sledding hill that you can possibly imagine. It’s endless. But when you do bobsled you’re only driving half the time and the turnover is slower and the lines are longer. So I’d only drive one or two runs a night. But if I ran from the bottom to the top I could get seven to eight runs by doing luge. So I started with bobsled but when I found luge, I never went back.
Megan Keller, Ice Hockey
I was 3 years old when I started skating. I wouldn’t take skating lessons unless I was in full hockey gear because that was a sport my older brother played. I wanted to play all the sports he played: hockey, baseball. I fell in love with it immediately. Just being able to watch my brother play something that he loved and succeeded at it — and to be able to do the same. It’s just such a fun game.