Each month, Team USA Awards presented by Dow celebrates outstanding achievements of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. The bobsled team piloted by Hunter Church won Team of the Month for January 2020 after earning a world cup bronze medal in Igls, Austria. In the team’s Diamond Club feature, presented by Dow, Church shares how quickly learning the nuances of the European tracks this season has helped him take the next step.
On the day before his breakthrough on a European track, U.S. bobsled pilot Hunter Church was a little disappointed.
Competing with push athlete Josh Williamson on Jan. 18, Church had driven the sled to a 10th-place finish in their first competition in Igls, Austria. With a four-man contest looming the next day, however, Williamson was feeling more optimistic.
“'We’re going to push well and you’re going to drive well,’” Church recalled his teammate saying.
To which Church responded: “We’re winning a medal tomorrow.”
That they did. With fellow push athletes Jimmy Reed and Kris Horn joining the crew, Church drove the sled to a third-place finish on Jan. 19, marking not only Church’s first career world cup medal but also the first by a U.S. men’s bobsled team since the late Steven Holcomb also won a bronze three years earlier on that same track.
For their efforts, the U.S. four-man team won Best of January honors as part of the Team USA Awards presented by Dow.
The accomplishment was notable for the whole team, but especially for Church, who had only a handful of world cup four-man races under his belt before this season. This has also marked his first season driving on the European tracks. Nonetheless, Church ended the season ranked No. 5 in four-man, No. 10 in two-man bobsled and No. 7 in the combined ranking.
Quickly learning how to navigate those tracks has been a key to his success, he said.
Hunter Church, Josh Williamson, Jimmy Reed and Kris Horn compete during the final four-man bobsled heat at the IBSF World Championships on March 1, 2020 in Altenberg, Germany.
Typically with world cup races, Church explained, you unload at the track and have three days to train, which typically means only six runs. The athletes also have to split those runs between the two-man and the four-man teams. The training days are followed by two days of racing, then the teams have to pack everything back up the next morning and head to the next destination.
That’s not a lot of time to learn the turns and the nuances of the tracks through physical practice, which is why other methods then come into play.
“As drivers we do a lot of mind runs because we can’t take as many actual trips, so doing a lot of visualization has been a huge part of my preparation each week,” said Church, who is from Cadyville, New York. “And I follow up that visualization with a lot of studying from previous world cup races on those tracks with point-of-view cameras people take down the track. Then I usually follow that up with comparing notes that I have and then talking with Kaillie about her program and trying to dial that in.”
Kaillie, of course, is Kaillie Humphries, the three-time Olympic medalist for Canada who now competes for the U.S. She has been instrumental this season in sharing her expertise with Church. She even posted a photo to her Instagram of her and Church doing a little off-track prep.
“Tonight we go over the next track on tour,” the caption read in part. “(Church) hasn’t been to any of these tracks in Europe, so giving my lines and advice is the easy part. His willingness to learn and grow is inspiring to me. It’s about helping the next generation and developing the future of champions. I was fortune to have @pierrelueders do this with me.
I’m excited to see this young man take flight and what’s to come. Watch out world! The force is strong with this one.”
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Tapping into Humphries’ knowledge, along with that of driving coach and five-time Olympian Brian Shimer, has been invaluable.
“It’s been an awesome 1-2 combination,” Church said. “For me, with my passion and love for the sport, I’m fortunate to absorb as much knowledge from both as I can.”
Church has even received some advice from a more unexpected source. After the team’s first run in Igls, sitting in third place, he was studying up before his next run with Shimer when Germany’s Francesco Friedrich came over and offered Church a tip. Friedrich was in first place at the time, and he ended up winning.
“One little correction on one corner, sure enough I tried it and managed to help secure that medal,” Church said. “I’m always learning and always getting better. Just because it’s a race doesn’t mean it’s not an opportunity to grow and learn.”
That’s one of the biggest things Church said he’s learned this season, which he believes is important for the world championships being held on his home track at Lake Placid, New York, less than a year from now.
“Now I know that practice isn’t to be perfect, it’s to try things, learn from your mistakes and figure out what’s going to work and what’s not going to work,” he said. “Now I can take that back home on home ice and have a little more confidence that I can try some things and see what’s going to work and what’s not.”
That, coupled with this year’s growing familiarity with the European tracks has Church already looking forward to next season.
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.