Briauna Jones smiles for a photo.
Briauna Jones is not just USA-1 in the new Olympic discipline of monobob. She is USA-1 and only.
Jones was the lone competitor for Team USA this season.
“I guess you could say I’m the guinea pig of the team,” said Jones, 26, who was eighth in her sole event, the Calgary North American Cup in January.
Many in the sport of bobsled had pushed for a four-woman event to join the Olympic program as the counterpart to the four-man sled. However, monobob – for female athletes only – unexpectedly got the nod last July. It will debut at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
Both men and women compete in monobob at the Youth Olympic Games, where the event debuted in 2016 in Lillehammer, Norway.
Bobsled is hard enough to explain to people who aren’t familiar with the sport, said Jones, who is in her third season on the ice. “Monobob is definitely something that no one’s ever seen or heard of.”
It is so new and untested that there are still questions about the format, including the number of competitors and allotment of training runs for pilots who are also in the two-woman event. Monobob will slowly being integrated onto the world cup circuit leading up to Beijing.
Jones said while it was disappointing the four-woman sled did not make it into the Games, thus increasing the number of female participants, “Monobob opens up the door for new drivers to come in.
“When you eliminate the factor of someone else being in the sled, it actually becomes more appealing to some people because you’re not responsible for anybody but yourself. That’s an aspect of the sport that has never existed.
“Whatever happens, you can’t blame it on anyone but yourself and you don’t have to beat up the other person in the sled (if you crash).”
Jones wanted to literally be in the driver’s seat after she was named the replacement athlete as a brakeman for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team last February.
At the Alpensia Sliding Center, Jones took just as many training runs – if not more – than the push athletes on the team because the two U.S. pilots shared her. Then she had to sit and watch.
“It’s definitely a bittersweet feeling to be at the Games and not to be the one competing,” Jones said. “You don’t get to go to Opening Ceremony, you don’t get all of the team gear. It definitely gave me more drive to never be in that position again.”
Elana Meyers Taylor and Lauren Gibbs won the Olympic silver medal and Jamie Greubel Poser and Aja Evan finished fifth.
During the season, brakemen also play musical chairs, never knowing which pilot they will join in the sled – or even if they will have a seat.
“As a brakeman you’re very replaceable,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter how much experience you have. Once you eventually get to a point where you’re a great pilot, your spot is more guaranteed. It takes a lot more time and it’s a lot more of a personal investment as well, but as long as you’re ranked highly internationally, you eliminate that factor of somebody just coming to take your spot from nowhere.”
Take Lake Kwaza, for example. In her first season on the world cup circuit, Kwaza has teamed up four times with Meyers Taylor – plus again at the world championships, a three-time Olympic medalist, earning four podiums. At the Lake Placid world cup in February, they took the gold.
Jones, who also won her first world cup gold medal with Meyers Taylor (in St. Moritz, Switzerland, two years ago), was paired with Nicole Vogt in Lake Placid, placing 11th.
Following this season, Jones hopes to spend more time in the front seat, though she will have company in the monobob start house. USA Bobsled & Skeleton recently bought three monobobs for training purposes.
“We expect it to be world cup next year, then you will see all of our current pilots doing that,” said Mike Dionne, coach and director of athlete development for USABS.
However, monobob has a weight restriction of 80 kilograms allocated for the pilot and her gear, which includes helmet, gloves, shoes and mouthguard, so not every pilot may qualify.
Jones weighs 75 kilos and her equipment adds another 3 kilos. Meyers Taylor is listed at just under 80 kilos.
“I’ve known people to do some pretty crazy things to make weight,” Jones said with a laugh, “plenty of women who have gone without a bra and underwear just to make weight by the ounce.”
Jones has about 60 monobob runs under her belt, which could help her remain USA-1.
“The sky’s the limit,” Dionne said of her potential as a pilot, “with Bri obviously being one of our top push athletes. We’re hoping she’ll develop into a powerhouse like Elana. That would be the future for her over the next two quads.”
If additional bobsled athletes aren’t allocated for the Olympic Games, Jones could potentially be a monobob pilot and a push athlete in the two-woman event in Beijing.
While both the two-person and monobob sleds weigh the same – 400 pounds – there are huge differences in the rules and dynamics.
For starters, athletes don’t have their own monobob. The sleds are provided by the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation and athletes draw for them before training and competition. A crew of Latvian technicians does the maintenance and helps the pilot carry the sled on and off the track.
“The point of the event is that it levels the playing field for smaller nations,” Jones said. “They get the same equipment as everyone else, but there’s obviously some discrepancies. Once a sled has been crashed a number of times and you draw that sled, you may be a little wary of whether that is still a fast sled or not.”
The four runners on each sled are also assigned by draw, and the monobob pilot has no one to help her sand them. Jones spent more than an hour on the task in Calgary.
“It’s just something about taking care of your sled with your teammates,” she said, “and all of that is completely thrown out when you’re in monobob.”
Jones had expected to compete in three monobob races this season, but those scheduled for Lake Placid and Park City, Utah, were cancelled because the sleds were stuck in customs overseas and didn’t show up in time.
In Calgary, she had the unlucky draw of a sled that crashed twice in training while assigned to other pilots.
“I definitely had some better training times in a different sled than the one I drew for the race,” Jones said.
Trying new push techniques every day, Jones had the second-fastest push times of the competition with starts of 6.05 and 6.04 seconds. She finished her first heat in 1:03.68 and her second in 1:05.33, the seventh and eighth best times. Her total time of 2:09.01 ranked eighth as Canada swept the medals.
Jones was slowed on her second run when her visor, which was held down by tape instead of a pinlock, popped up.
“I just felt like I had a parachute on my head,” she said. “I felt so much wind resistance going into every curve.”
Jones also could barely see, trying to keep her eyes open as the cold air and winds up to 40 mph hit her face.
“I honestly impressed myself, because I had to get down the track based on feel and not on sight,” she said. “I guess I’m becoming good at this if I could do that.”
Jones said the pilot has more control in a two-person sled than a monobob because of the extra weight of the second person.
“When you’re on the curve, it actually has less chance of skidding or sliding,” she said, adding that in a monobob, “You’ll think you have control on the front end, and then your back end will slide all over the place. You feel like you’re just going to topple over.”
While Jones has had close calls, she’s only had one crash as a pilot, and that was in a two-person sled in Lake Placid.
“Other than that, I’ve been very fortunate to be on all four runners for almost all of my runs,” she said.
Jones was at a crossroads when bobsled entered her life. As a track and field athlete at UNC Charlotte, she specialized in sprints and jumps. After graduation, her coach, Bob Olesen, a former U.S. Olympic bobsledder, urged her to attend a combine for the sport in June 2016 in Columbia, South Carolina.
“I honestly didn’t know where it was going to take me,” Jones said, “but I was at a point in my athletic career where this is going to be my ‘make or break.’ If I’m good at it, then I’m going to take off and see where it takes me, or I’m just going to go work a regular 9-to-5 and get on with my life.”
She did so well at the combine that she was invited to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid for more testing. Jones won a rookie competition and advanced to the national push championship, where she said, “It became clear to me that even though I’d only been doing it for a few months, it may have been my athletic calling.”
Of course, monobob wasn’t on Jones' radar, or anyone else’s, at that time. She competed on the national team in 2016-17 and worked to keep up with the Joneses: Lolo Jones and Kehri Jones were also push athletes with impressive resumes.
After that first season, coaches suggested she try driving, but Jones knew her best chance to make it to PyeongChang was as a brakeman because the pilot learning curve is so steep.
After the Games, she was one of a handful of athletes who attended a driving school in Lake Placid and enjoyed the experience of being in control.
“If we’re going to hit a wall, I know we’re going to hit this wall and I’m actually ready because I can see it coming,” Jones said. “But the brakeman doesn’t know it’s coming. That’s the worst part of being a brakeman – the uncontrolled factor of not being able to see anything until you’re on top of your head.”
Piloting was a completely different perspective. “I loved it," she said, "and I was like, ‘I want to go into this next Games knowing that I gave it all I had and tried something out of my comfort zone.’”
In the offseason, Jones has paid her bills by working as a fit model for the Cato clothing company, simply trying on clothes. “The junior size nine mannequin was based off my body,” she said.
Jones has also sold clothing for DICK’S Sporting Goods and worked as a security guard at upscale apartment buildings and construction sites “just making sure people weren’t stealing piles of wood or a bulldozer here or there,” she said. “It sounds funny, but you’d be surprised what people do at night, especially when they think no one’s there.”
Jones also volunteers as a coach at UNC Charlotte and hopes her story can inspire some of the current athletes.
“I painted my own picture,” Jones said. “I wanted something for myself and I went out and got it.”
And when she’s in the monobob, it's all up to her.