Hunter Church poses for a photo on Dec. 9, 2019 in Lake Placid, New York.
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Hunter Church first rode in a bobsled on the Mount Van Hoevenberg track when he was 7 years old.
Sixteen years later, the 23-year-old personable bobsled pilot came close to winning his first IBSF World Cup medal on the same track.
At the Lake Placid World Cup races this weekend, Church and brakeman Kris Horn — a top decathlete at the University of Massachusetts — were in medal position in both two-man races after their first runs. Then in both races, they fell to fifth.
Church gamely chalked it up to a learning experience. He is, after all, relatively new to the world cup. The Lake Placid World Cup races this weekend were his third and fourth two-man world cups on tour. And he was right in there with the likes of overall world cup champion and two-man Olympic gold medalist Francesco Friedrich from Germany and Justin Kripps from Canada, who tied Friedrich for two-man Olympic gold in 2018.
“Talented behind the D rings for sure,” driving coach Brian Shimer said of Church. “He’s still relatively young, just breaking into the world cup — stepping in off the JV and now on the varsity.”
It was the best results for the U.S. men’s bobsled in two years. In 2017, Codie Bascue earned his first world cup victory here at Lake Placid. But since then, the men’s program has struggled. The best finish for the U.S. men in two-man bobsled last season was ninth.
Now along comes Church, a third-generation bobsledder — a rarity in the U.S. His great-uncle competed in the U.S. Olympic trials for the 1948 Games (he was in second place after heat one but had a bad crash in the notorious Zag curve during the second heat). Church’s dad, Thomas, slid recreationally in the 1970s and 1980s.
Then it was Hunter’s turn to discover the sport. The Churches had been living in Anchorage, Alaska. But Thomas was looking for a job closer to the Adirondack Mountains, where he had grown up, and brought Hunter along to check out the area. For fun, they took a bobsled ride — the kind offered to the public.
“It was dark, and I was getting thrown around all over the place,” remembered Church of his 7-year-old self. “I don’t really remember a lot of it. But I knew I was hooked.”
The Churches settled in Cadyville, New York — about an hour north of Lake Placid — and Hunter begged his dad to bring him back to the track. When Hunter was 12, his dad finally relented and signed up him for the junior bobsled program. Every Sunday, Church took four or five bobsled runs with other young bobsledders.
“It was really low key and fun,” he said. “Not a lot of stress.”
When he was 15, Church was invited to his first international bobsled driver’s school in Park City, Utah. But back home, the 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. high school schedule impacted his sliding opportunities.
“Every day my dad would pick me up at 2:15, so I’d miss some of my last period of the day, I’d do my homework on the way up, slide, and finish my homework on the way back,” he told USA Bobsled & Skeleton in a Q&A. “Then at the same time, I was wrestling or doing indoor track or choir, so I think I may have tried to do a little too much.”
The American team piloted by Hunter Church slide during a training session ahead of 2019 IBSF World Cup Bobsled & Skeleton on Feb. 14, 2019 in Lake Placid, New York.
For his senior year, Church saved up money from a summer job working at the Lake Placid Lodge and paid for a semester at the Lake Placid-based National Sports Academy, becoming the academy’s first (and sadly last) bobsled athlete. The National Sports Academy closed in May of that year (2015).
“I got to train and focus on bobsledding,” he said, of his semester at the NSA. “That’s what really drew me in and had me decide after high school that this was going to be the path that I was going to pursue.
“I didn’t ever think this level was something I’d ever get to. But here I am today.”
To date, Church is best known for helping Team USA qualify three four-man sleds for the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. In the final North American Cup before the Games, he piloted his sled to the win, giving the U.S. enough points to remain in the top three as a nation.
“That final run is my proudest accomplishment, and it was just about trying to calm myself down,” Church told his local newspaper, the Press-Republican, in February 2018. “There was anxiety mounting. People had crashed. The track was a second faster than I had ever gone before. It was really just a reminder that I was doing what I love. I told myself to just go out and have fun and not be too overwhelmed.”
Then he was not chosen to drive that sled in South Korea. He was disappointed to miss the Olympic team, but it served as motivation.
Later that same winter, Church finished sixth in two-man at the 2018 U23 world championships.
Over the past two seasons, Church has become a consistent podium finisher on the North American Cup, collecting 21 top-three finishes — 14 in four-man, including five wins. And at the 2019 world championships, he helped his U.S. team finish fourth in the mixed relay — one of two U.S. teams competing in that team event.
Four-man bobsled is his bread-and-butter, said Church. He likes the team aspect of the discipline.
“It’s four guys loading into a bathtub, hauling down a hill at 90, 95 miles an hour and just the pure adrenalin and g-forces you experience in that sled, it’s like no other,” said Church. “For me, I jumped in a four-man, and I always kind of struggled with the two-man, even before, aside from the start. The four-man, feeling-wise, I just got right off the bat. It just feels like home as I jump in there.”
This season, Church came out charging in both two-man and four-man at the North American Cup races in November, finishing third in a two-man race, then second and third in the two four-man races.
Then in his first world cup races of the season, he was in medal contention after run one in both races.
It’s been gratifying, given that Church had a tough off-season. While training over the summer and trying to improve his strength (he is small for a bobsledder), he strained a calf muscle. But the injury allowed him to focus on the mental side of bobsledding. He credits the mental work with his success this season.
“He’s a great driver,” said Bascue about his teammate. “He’s finally coming into his own as an athlete too."
“This is just a start for him,” he added. “The next couple years, I think he’s going to surprise some people.”
Behind Church and Horn, Bascue and Josh Williamson, a former NCAA Division 1 lacrosse player who won Team USA’s “Milk Life presents, Scouting Camp: The Next Olympic Hopeful,” finished sixth in Saturday’s two-man race. On Sunday, Bascue slid with Ivy League football player Kyle Wilcox and finished ninth.
Geoffrey Gadbois — who grew up across Lake Champlain in Milton, Vermont, and started bobsledding while still in high school — finished 16th with brakeman Dakota Lynch, a captain in the Air Force, on Saturday, and 18th with brakeman Blaine McConnell on Sunday.
Next weekend, the IBSF World Cup continues with two four-man races in Lake Placid, giving Church another crack at earning his first world cup podium.
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.