Leah Fair celebrates after being selected as a winner for Season 3 of the Next Olympic Hopeful in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Leah Fair has always been both fast and strong, and those two qualities may one day take her to the Olympic Games.
Just not in one of the sports she envisioned.
Fair, a longtime track and field athlete turned weightlifter, was the skeleton selection when Season 3 of “Milk Life Presents, the Next Olympic Hopeful” aired Sunday on NBC, and her new adventure has already taken her cruising down the icy track headfirst in pursuit of her goal.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is fun,’” said Fair, 24. “I was ready to go again as soon as I was finished.”
Fair’s Olympic dreams started on the track, but not the kind coated in ice. She never played a sport and never even knew that she was fast, she said, until after her family moved from New Jersey to Gaffney, South Carolina, and she was playing in a seventh-grade kickball game.
“Someone kicked the ball really far and it was still in the air and I ran and caught the ball,” she recalled. “One girl was on the track and field team and she said, ‘You’re kind of fast. You should come out for track.’ I did and started beating the boys and winning track meets.”
That speed would take her first to Coastal Carolina University and then to Colorado State, where she transferred after her coach told her she wasn’t fast enough to make the 4x100-meter team.
“I wanted someone who said we’re going to make you faster, not you’re not fast enough,” she said.
At CSU she did get faster and went on to enjoy a successful college career that included winning several Mountain West Conference indoor and outdoor championship titles. But when it came time to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in her junior year, she fell just two-tenths of a second shy of the time needed to try out in the 100-and 200-meter races.
She was crushed, but undeterred. Fair moved to Seattle after graduating to continue her running career and work toward making the 2020 Olympic team, but seriously injured her ankle while training. During her recovery she found she was pretty good at lifting lots of weight, too.
“I deadlifted 418 pounds and everyone in the gym was like, ‘What the heck?’” she said. “I weigh 120 pounds, and people were like, ‘Leah, that’s not normal.’ I had no idea.”
When Fair learned weightlifting was going to be one of the sports scouting for athletes in Season 3 of the Next Olympic Hopeful -- the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee's talent-identification program -- she thought that could be her new shot at representing her country at the highest level.
“I thought if I make it, I make it, and if I don’t, I don’t,” said Fair, who took part in the show after being selected from the in-person tryouts hosted by 24 Hour Fitness. “I was never going to quit track and field; I just thought maybe I could win.”
Winners go on to attend national team training camps, and Fair thought weightlifting was her best shot, but she also knew that a number of track and field athletes have successfully crossed over to bobsled and skeleton and felt those sports were a possibility, too. Still, when they announced who was chosen among the finalists for sport-specific testing and she wasn’t picked for weightlifting, she was both shocked disappointed.
“I went in the bathroom and started crying thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’” she said. “I was really set on weightlifting and all these negative thoughts came in my head like I’m a failure and I can’t do this. Then I calmed myself down and thought the competition isn’t over. You still got selected to cycling and bobsled and skeleton further testing. You have to wipe off the tears and go back out there. I went on to bobsled testing right after I came out of the bathroom.”
Not long after, Fair was crying again. This time, however, they were happy tears as she took the stage after her name was called as the choice for skeleton athlete. Five other athletes were selected for other sports as well. Fair knows it was a difficult decision for the coaches and believes that her attitude, passion and ability to bounce back after disappointment may have helped give her the edge.
Two weeks after the competition ended last summer, Fair was off to her first rookie camp where she learned how to push and jump on the sled on a simulated track. At her third rookie camp she experienced a taste of the real thing.
“We went to the track and did a helmet fitting and had our suits on and I had my gloves on, so it felt really official,” she said. “They don’t like to give you a lot of details because they don’t want you to overthink it. They just put us on the sled and said try to stay as relaxed as possible, here you go, good luck. We got on the sled and they pushed us off and I tried to stay as relaxed as possible. I went 50 miles per hour headfirst down the track — and I loved it.”
She’s since made it through additional testing and whittling down of rookies who don’t meet the required standards to stay and train. She’ll go back to camp on Jan. 12 and get on the track from the top for the first time, she said, and if all goes well she may compete for the first time at the end of the month in an Intercontinental Cup race.
With Season 4 applications now being accepted, Fair encourages anyone who has a thought of trying out for Next Olympic Hopeful to go for it.
“You never know how an opportunity is going to change your life,” she said. “There are several people from seasons one through three who are living completely different lives that they never thought they could live, like (bobsled athletes) Josh Williamson and Sylvia Hoffman who are racing internationally and getting medals and en route to competing in the 2022 Olympic Games. This is a real opportunity. There are really people who take this and emerge, so treat it as such.”