A dare turned reality: Kendall Wesenberg’s fast track to skeleton prominence

Nov. 25, 2015, 11:24 a.m. (ET)

A dare turned reality: Kendall Wesenberg’s fast track to skeleton prominence

by Kristen Gowdy

Kendall Wesenberg stood, not knowing what to expect, at the top of the Lillehammer, Norway, track before her first-ever skeleton race. She took a deep breath and began to sprint down the track as fast as she could.

Then, she let go.

When she reached the bottom of the track, her head was spinning. There was a tiny No. 1 next to her name on the electronic scoreboard, but she barely registered it. Wesenberg heard her fellow European Cup athletes congratulating her, but she was dazed from the adrenaline of the run.

“After I picked up my sled and put on my jacket they were announcing something, but I wasn't really paying attention,” she said. “All I caught was ‘congratulations Kendall,’ which I assumed was just for sitting in first place.”

It wasn’t. Wesenberg had also set a new track record – her 54.56-second finish had beat out Great Britain’s Elizabeth Yarnold’s 2011 record of 54.92 seconds. But at the time, Wesenberg was more relieved just to be done with her first race down the icy track.

She ended up taking first overall in Lillehammer, then proceeded to have one of the most successful rookie seasons in U.S. skeleton history. Wesenberg won the European Cup by a margin of more than 40 points, becoming the first American woman to win the overall cup and the first U.S. skeleton athlete to earn the title since Rob Murray in 2005.

But Wesenberg’s first season as a skeleton athlete was more than just podium finishes – she would end the season with three – and succeeding in a new sport. It was also about learning. Learning to deal with the strenuous travel schedule, learning to improve her technique, learning to adapt to new environments that made Wesenberg’s season so memorable and marked what could be the beginning of a new era for U.S. women’s skeleton.

A Google search and a dare, that’s how Wesenberg’s skeleton career began. After the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, she was curious about bobsled and how the Olympic bobsledders were so successful even though most hadn’t grown up around the sport.

A simple Internet search led her to Team USA Bobsled & Skeleton’s website, but it was not bobsled that ended up catching Wesenberg’s eye.

“I was immediately drawn to skeleton,” she said. “After a couple more Google searches and some YouTube videos, I was stoked on skeleton and told my brother and sister that I thought I should give it a shot.”

The ever-competitive Wesenberg acted on a dare from her siblings: she would try out for the national skeleton team.

“In typical sibling fashion, they told me that I would never do that,” she said. “Thus, I had to give it a shot.”

Wesenberg emailed the team’s coaches to express interest in competing, and received instructions on signing up for a combine. She attended the combine and then driving school, and was “completely sold.” But before she could commit herself fully to her passion, Wesenberg had a tough decision to make.

At the time, she was a junior at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and pursuing skeleton would mean giving up receiving her bachelor’s degree in business administration. So, she put her newfound Olympic dream on hold and took the time to graduate.

Two years later, Wesenberg, fresh from completing her degree, moved to Park City, Utah to train. Her goal of becoming a professional athlete had remained constant in the back of her mind during her final two years of college, and she was finally ready to make the commitment.

She trained for two more years before attending the national team trials prior to the 2014-15 season. After successful trials, she earned a spot on the European Cup.

But for the Modesto, California, native, the hectic nature of the European Cup was unlike anything she had ever experienced. She had grown up playing sports – primarily soccer, volleyball and basketball – so the competition was nothing new. But it was the everyday grind of traveling that made the experience unique.

“It was basically a constant cycle of unpack, learn a track, have a race or two, pack back up, travel, and then repeat with some workouts, laughs, sightseeing, television show binge watching and mishaps along the way,” she said.

But the craziness led to memories both on and off-the-ice that Wesenberg said she would cherish as she progresses in her career. She, along with some of her teammates, had a curling match against Team Great Britain. She raced up a frozen river in Pontresina, Switzerland, running on the ice in tennis shoes. She earned Athlete of the Month honors from the U.S. Olympic Committee in January.

Perhaps the best of these memories however, Wesenberg said, was after she won the overall European Cup. Her parents had made the trek to Igls, Austria and were in attendance along with the rest of the European Cup athletes and coaches as Wesenberg took the top spot on the podium to conclude the season.

“It was really special to stand on top of the podium,” she said. “Standing up there with the national anthem playing was an awesome feeling.”

After all, as Wesenberg looks to her future in skeleton, that’s the ultimate goal.

“I think I love everything about skeleton except traveling with our gear,” she said. “I feel like I have adjusted fairly well to the sport ... but I don't know if I will ever get to a point where I am not learning new things or better ways to do things. There is so much to learn and so many variables to factor in. I think it will be a constant learning process.”

This season, Wesenberg will be one of two American women skeleton athletes competing on the World Cup tour, thanks to a top-two finish at national team trials in November. While the challenges will be new for the first time national team member, Wesenberg shouldn’t be bothered. She has proven that she is always up for overcoming a challenge and that no learning curve is too steep.