Josh Williamson was tired of getting hurt playing lacrosse, his sport since fifth grade.
He’d had shoulder surgery twice and his freshman year at Mercer University he injured both his hip and his ankle in fall practice and missed the season.
So Williamson quit lacrosse and transferred to Florida State University. But he soon realized that he wasn’t finished being an athlete. He looked for a sport that was a good fit, yet wouldn’t tear up his body.
That’s how Williamson became a bobsledder. And yes, it’s proven much less dangerous to his health.
The 21-year old was one of the 2017 winners of “Scouting Camp: The Next Olympic Hopeful,” a talent transfer program designed to put more athletes in the Team USA pipeline in select Olympic sports.
Faster than a speeding bobsled, Williamson became one of the most promising young athletes in the program. He’s on the fast track for the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
Within months of his first ride down an icy track, Williamson won five international medals, including two golds, pushed on tracks around the world from Park City, Utah, to St. Moritz, Switzerland, and even trained at the Olympic venue in PyeongChang, South Korea.
And now he’s pushing people to sign up for the 2018 edition of “Next Olympic Hopeful.”
“Just go put yourself out there,” Williamson said. “I wondered if I should even do it, but I realized that the only way I’m going to know if I’m going to be a good fit for this sport or not is if I go and try. The worst that can happen is ‘No,’ and the best that can happen is what’s happened to me. I would have never gotten that opportunity if I never put myself out there and risked failing.”
In partnership with the United States Olympic Committee, 24 Hour Fitness will host tryouts at clubs across the country on Saturday morning. Male and female athletes will perform tests for strength, mobility and endurance to try to advance to the next round.
Ultimately, one male and one female winner will be invited to join national team camps in the eight sports of bobsled, skeleton, boxing, canoe/kayak, cycling, rowing, rugby and weightlifting. The competition will be televised on NBC and NBCSN in November.
Just Do It
Williamson said athletes shouldn’t overthink the tryout.
“Just treat it like every other day,” he said. “You’re out there just to run, jump and lift, and you do it the best you can on that day. Have fun with it and if you do well enough, it could really change your life.”
It certainly sent the native of Lake Mary, Florida, in an entirely new direction.
While Williamson is still a junior majoring in marketing at FSU, he will probably return to campus only for one semester a year. He is currently taking an online class while working out at the U.S. Olympic Training Site at East Tennessee State University until Aug. 24. Then he’ll go on to Lake Placid, New York, to gear up for the push championship and try to make the national team.
“This is something I could have only dreamed of,” Williamson said, “training for a living and my job being professional sports. This is something I got to start way earlier than I would have expected and it’s something that I’d really like to do as long as I can.”
Bobsled is a sport that has recruited athletes coast-to-coast for years, organizing combines that award points for strength and speed.
Williamson had already identified bobsled as a potential fit through his research – “it was fun to kind of shop for a sport I knew I’d be good at” – and he booked a plane ticket to Utah for a combine in August 2017. Then he saw a USA Bobsled & Skeleton Instagram post about “Next Olympic Hopeful.”
However, at Williamson’s 24 Hour Fitness tryout, he was pegged as a candidate for skeleton.
That didn’t last long.
Once Williamson reached the final stage at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, his speed and size – 6-foot-2, 215 pounds – attracted the attention of bobsled coach Brian Shimer.
“Seeing that his shoulders were probably a little bit wider than a skeleton sled, I thought that may not be a good fit for skeleton,” said Shimer, a five-time Olympian and 2002 Olympic bronze medalist in four-man, “so I’d try to pull him over to the bobsled side.”
Williamson was happy to comply. “They came up to me and said, ‘You have bobsled written all over you,’” he said.
Jumping Right Into It
Mike Kohn, who was recently named head coach of the U.S. bobsled program, said Shimer told him they had a prospect in Williamson, who went on to be named the men’s Next Olympic Hopeful in the sport.
Kohn soon got to see for himself. Williamson was on his way home from Colorado Springs when he got a call inviting him to Calgary, Alberta, the following week for the National Push Championships. He placed 19th out of 26.
Kohn was immediately impressed with his dedication and excited about his youth.
“He’s been a very quiet, humble guy that just does what he’s asked and I didn’t hear a lot of complaining or excuses from him,” Kohn said. “He put in the work. He appears to handle pressure well.”
And while Kohn called him “a dry sponge” because he’s so young, they also found Williamson had a natural pushing style.
“He looks like he’s been doing it for a long time,” Kohn said. “He’s technically very sound, which is not normally something you see from first-time bobsled athletes. They normally bring in bad habits from other sports.”
Williamson also had a knack for loading into the sled.
The moment of truth for this warm-weather-loving Floridian came when he got on the ice for the first time in Lake Placid.
“You can never really prepare for it, because it’s something so different than anything you’ve ever done,” Williamson said. “It’s very violent, and something you don’t expect, but I honestly really enjoyed it.”
As the brakeman in the two-man sled, Williamson had to rely on the driver to let him know when it was time to stop. Now he’s learning the twists and turns of tracks all over the world while negotiating the fine points of layering his clothing.
Williamson said he thought he would “just be here and watch and learn as much as I can and maybe take runs where I can,” but ended up with a seat in a sled and instant gratification.
In his first international race, Williamson won gold at Whistler, British Columbia, on Nov. 17 behind pilot Hunter Church in the four-man North American Cup. He also won a silver in Whistler, then a silver and gold in Calgary, Alberta.
New Experience On And Off The Track
Going in, Williamson had no clue that bobsledders are in charge of polishing the runners and moving their own sled, but he liked the “blue-collar aspect” of the sport.
“You have no doubt that you’re ready to go because you put it together,” he said, “and I’ve always liked hands-on work and working with tools. So that was unexpected, but it was something that really made me love the sport even more. The more I learned about it, the more I was like, ‘I really like this, and this is something that I really can see myself doing for a while.’”
He got his first taste of world cup action as a last-minute teammate behind three-time Olympic medalist Elana Meyers Taylor. The four-person sled finished 25th in Igls, Austria, then Williamson and Church placed sixth at the under-23 world championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
“We both have two more years,” Williamson said of Church, “and they have under-26 also, so we so plan to do that as much as we can until we can start competing with the big boys, too.”
That could be this season.
Kohn said he looks for athletes who are selfless and have a team-first attitude.
“Josh is one of those guys,” he said. “I think that’s why he’s fit in so well so early on, which is unprecedented. A lot of the veterans have taken him under their wing and given him some advice. They know he’s the future.”
But there’s a fork in the road. Kohn and Shimer, who is now the driving coach, believe Williamson has potential as a driver and they are trying to work with him to decide if they should switch him to the front seat.
That could delay his Olympic dreams. Williamson’s best chance to make the 2022 Olympic team is as a push athlete because it usually takes two Olympic cycles to develop as a driver.
To Drive Or Not To Drive
“Driving a bobsled is not on everybody’s bucket list,” Kohn said. “We kind of have to twist their arm into doing it.”
Williamson is game, but he has to work with the coaches and with Florida State – which has been very accommodating – about the best way to balance bobsled and college.
“Driving is a large responsibility of trying to learn and really get the hang of it,” said Williamson, who has put on 10 pounds since he started bobsledding. “It takes a long time and effort and money, but that’s something I’d like to eventually pursue. It depends on when and how much time I can give to it. With school, it might be a good option for me to push for a little bit and then get into driving after being in the sport for a while.”
But, he acknowledged, “If I end up loving driving, I definitely need the help of the coaches to figure out what I would like to do and what’s going to be my best option.”
Shimer believes they can work some driving into Williamson’s schedule.
“What’s great about Josh is he seems to adapt wherever we put him,” he said. “His experience is needed in the back of the sled as well.
“To be a better bobsledder, you have to bobsled. We just need to get him some more experience and see where he’s going to gravitate towards, but I’m very impressed with what I’ve seen so far. I’m just hoping we can find 10 more of those guys.”
Well, they could be among the contenders in the “Next Olympic Hopeful.”
Kohn encourages anyone to try out “if you’ve got strength speed, power, you’re strong, you want to represent your country – and I would add you need a little bit of an adrenaline-junkie type mentality.
“You can do anything you want to do if you want to do it badly enough. If you decide that bobsled’s what you want to do, we certainly have the coaching and the resources and the experience to get them to the Olympics Games.”