Bree Schaaf and Tianna Madison
Me and Olympic track champion Tianna Madison

You only go to your first Olympics once.  You also only go to your second Olympics once.  And in the same vein, you only have your 11th first day of sliding of the season… once.  But today was unlike any other first day of the season, as I had the honor and pleasure of taking Tianna Madison, Olympic champion and world record holder in the 4x100 meters at the London Olympics, for her first bobsled ride.  I’ve given passenger rides before, and it’s always fun to see people’s reaction to a sport I hold so dearly.  But Tianna wasn’t here for a ride, she was here to bobsled tonight and she meant it. 

The 2012 season kicked off last Thursday with our annual push championships, a race on a dry land push track here in Lake Placid, N.Y. that serves to rank brakeman going into the season.  The push champs were a star-studded event, with athletic talent and credentials unlike this sport has ever seen.  Should I name drop?  Heck yeah! These women are real life super-heroes! In addition to Tianna who is also the 2005 world champion in long jump, 2-time Olympian and 2008 heptathlon silver medalist  Hyleas Fountain joined us, as well as Lolo Jones, 2-time Olympic hurdler.  Since then it has been an anxious training week as these genetic phenoms await their first trip on ice.

Physical talent aside, you don’t get to where these girls are at in track and field without a certain level of attention to detail, tenacity, and composure. Tianna may have been as cool as the perfect 36 degree sliding air, but do not mistake that coolness for disconnect. Tianna attacked her first trip ever with the controlled fire that carries great athletes to the top of their game.  I always look into a brakeman’s eyes before we go, and there is an inherent wide-eyed fear that goes with a first ride.  Not Tianna.  She was as fired up and as ready as my Olympic brakeman Emily Azevedo that I took the first run, despite having watched the live video of a younger driver crashing three sleds prior.  When asked how she was so calm, her reply was simply understated. “I’ve been in pressure situations before.”

You can’t help but wonder why someone would venture away from a lucrative (and notably WARMER) sport such as track and field, even if just to try bobsled for fun.  Perhaps it’s somewhat akin to when Wham-O upped the game on the Slip ‘n Slide by adding a splashdown pool at the end.  Maybe these ladies were looking for a little more excitement at the end of a sprint? I know first-hand that when you train so singularly for one Olympic moment that it can take a long time to find the inspiration to go another 4 years.  Bobsled may be the perfect shakeup to refocus their talent.  Shakeup being the operative word, as Lolo tweeted “I felt like someone put me in a garbage can and threw me off of Mt. Everest.” According to Lolo, her thought process on the 60 second ride went from praying, to repeatedly asking herself “What did track and field ever do to you?!” 

Regardless of their goals, Tianna, Hyleas, and Lolo have already made this season a memorable one whether they show up at the track tomorrow or decide to go back to warmer temperatures.  Meanwhile, I got to warm up next to some of the fastest humans on the planet and try not to let Tianna catch me ogling her B-skips that look a world apart from my own. I don’t necessarily get star-struck, but I am undoubtedly awestruck at the fluidity and poetry of movement that I have gotten to train alongside these last few weeks.  Even more satisfying is the respect I believe they now have for a sport that isn’t done before the age of 18 because no parent in their right mind will sign the waiver.