Alex Mustard poses for a photo after winning "Milk Life presents, The Next Olympic Hopeful" on July 29, 2019 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
At this time last year, Alex Mustard was a senior at the University of Montana looking for ways to extend his athletic career after graduation.
A sprinter, he knew he wasn’t quite good enough to stay with track and field at an elite level, but he also wasn’t ready to be done with competing.
“So I started brainstorming what might be out there that I could continue to do,” he said. “My body felt good, I was healthy and I had a desire to train hard and compete.
“And that was the catalyst, essentially, of how I got to where I am now.”
In the literal sense, “where” Mustard is these days is usually either Lake Placid, New York, or Park City, Utah. Mustard was chosen as the bobsled winner in Season 3 of “Milk Life presents, The Next Olympic Hopeful” – the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s talent-identification program – and has spent the past six months with the national team learning to push, learning to drive, competing in a sled with an Olympian and even medaling in international competitions. This week he leaves to train and race with members of the U.S. team in Austria, Switzerland, and Germany.
“It does (feel a bit surreal), for sure,” Mustard said. “I don’t know when it’s going to hit me that this is what I’m actually doing. I can’t believe I’ve been spending my days in Park City, doing a 90-minute session taking runs in the morning, going back and weightlifting and eating lunch then going back up in the afternoon to take more runs. It doesn’t feel like that’s really the way I’ve been spending my days, like this is what I get to do every day.”
Mustard, 24, grew up in Missoula, Montana, and was always into sports. He played football, basketball and ran track all through high school, and, taking advantage of his home state, was also into the outdoorsy offerings such as skiing and rock climbing.
Through his research into what might be out there for him post-college, he knew that a number of bobsled athletes came from track and field backgrounds and that sprinters seemed to make successful transitions into the winter sport.
He went so far as to call USA Bobsled & Skeleton and ask how he might get involved. He was told that if he was really interested, he might want to check out Next Olympic Hopeful in which winners get to train with a national team in a selected sport. In Season 3, one of the contestants was going to be selected for bobsled, officials told him, and it couldn’t hurt to try out.
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When Mustard heard his name called after three days of grueling testing against 49 other finalists from across the country, it was unbelievable, he said.
That was at the end of July. Mustard flew back home to Montana and just over two weeks later he was on a plane again heading to Lake Placid for a rookie camp.
“Since then it’s been a whirlwind,” he said.
His second trip to Lake Placid was for the national push championships, competing along with the members of the national team and seasoned Olympians, and his third trip was to Park City, where he started learning everything from how to push and get into a bobsled to how to maintain a bobsled.
There’s nothing that can really compare to the first time driving a bobsled, Mustard said.
“Once you’re in the sled going down, the sled’s going to the bottom of the track one way or another,” he said. “Either it’s on its runners or it’s on its side, so you’re almost in this fight-or-flight experience because you have to drive, there’s no going back. Your only option is to navigate this huge piece of carbon fiber and metal down the track.”
As a pilot, he said, you walk the track a lot before you go down in a sled counting in your head the number of turns and formulating a plan of what to do on every corner.
“Then you get in the sled and the first four corners happen so quickly that you lose track of where you are and you have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “By the time your brain tells you what movement to do it’s two turns later. But the more you do it, it starts to slow down and you get a better understanding of where you are.”
Mustard and three fellow rookies had a treat in their first-ever North American Cup race in Park City when three-time Olympian Nick Cunningham, who now coaches, stepped in when the pilot they were supposed to race with couldn’t make it to the track. They ended up winning three silver medals.
“He’s an incredible pilot,” Mustard said of Cunningham. “He hadn’t been in a bobsled in two years. His last time was at the Olympics in 2018, and his first trip back was with us. To be able to learn from someone who has that much experience was incredible.”
Mustard admits it’s been challenging being away from home so much and also being 24 years old and starting at the bottom in a brand new sport having to prove himself. He’s also set up a campaign to help with the travel expenses, which are the responsibility of the athlete and quickly add up over the course of a season.
“But it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” he said. “There are a lot of sacrifices but I think it’s going to be well worth it, regardless of what exactly happens.”
Applications are now being accepted for Season 4 of “Milk Life presents, The Next Olympic Hopeful,” and anyone interested can apply at TeamUSA.org/NextOlympicHopeful.
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.