Kelly Curtis poses for a USA Bobsled and Skeleton photo shoot.
BEIJING — As a kid, Kelly Curtis never imagined herself as a Winter Olympian. She grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, and her sports were track and field and in the winter, basketball.
“I never really watched the Winter Olympics growing up, I never thought that that was something that I would do,” said Curtis by phone from the Yanqing Olympic Village.
She didn’t even like the cold. Still doesn’t.
Moreover, she “didn't really see too many people that look like me or had a similar background,” Curtis added. “So it just never seemed like a door that would be open.”
Now in Beijing, Curtis, 33, is the first Black athlete to represent Team USA in the sport of skeleton. And she hopes her story will show other Black athletes that competing in the Winter Olympic Games is possible.
And how much fun skeleton is.
First, Track and Field
Curtis was born in New Jersey the youngest of four in a family of athletes. Her dad, John, played in the NFL, then spent most of his career as the athletic director at Princeton High School. By the time she was at Princeton High, Curtis was excelling in track and field and basketball.
For college, she first went to Tulane University, then transferred to her dad’s alma mater, Springfield College. Her sport? Heptathlon.
“I just really liked the overall challenge of it,” she said. “Just completing it is a feat.”
One of her proudest moments: winning the heptathlon at the 2011 Penn Relays.
When Curtis graduated from Springfield with a degree in sport management in 2012, she figured her days as a competitive athlete were behind her. That fall, she moved to upstate New York to pursue a master’s degree in educational leadership at St. Lawrence University.
But her Springfield track coach had planted a seed. Curtis had transferred to Springfield the same year that Erin Pac drove a bobsled to an Olympic bronze medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games. Pac also competed in heptathlon at Springfield, and the coach saw similarities between Pac’s and Curtis’s athleticism. He suggested to Curtis that she too try bobsled.
“I thought it was a joke,” admitted Curtis.
Then Bobsled …
But when Curtis found herself in a true winter climate north of Adirondack State Park, she thought, “If I'm going to be up here in the cold, I might as well try something fun.”
The summer of 2013, she decided to try bobsled’s combine to see what it involved. She did so well that she was invited to a bobsled driving school program in Lake Placid that December. She was 24 at the time.
At the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sliding Center in Lake Placid, she witnessed a skeleton sled careening down the track for the first time.
“I saw how much more fun they were having on a skeleton sled,” she said. “On the last day, I was like, ‘I want to try that.’”
Curtis loved it. Her immediate response: “How do I go faster?”
That winter, she remembers watching NBC’s broadcast of the 2014 Olympic skeleton competition. She was struck by the emotion of it, especially for Team USA athletes Noelle Pikus-Pace and Matt Antoine, who won silver and bronze medals, respectively, and the heartbreak of Katie Uhlaender, who was sitting in bronze-medal position after two (of four) runs but fell to fourth overall, just 0.04 of a second from an Olympic medal.
“It was interesting for me to see that full spectrum [of emotion],” Curtis said. “But after seeing that, I was like yeah, I’ll give it a go.”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Beijing 2022? Visit TeamUSA.org/Beijing-2022-Olympic-Games to view the competition schedule, medal table and results.