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Learning to let go: Savannah Graybill's second chance at an Olympic dream

April 20, 2016, 12:14 p.m. (ET)

Savannah Graybill never even made it into a bobsled.

When she arrived in Lake Placid in the summer of 2010, fresh out of college and hoping to try out for bobsled to chase her ever-present Olympic dream, she immediately realized that bobsled wasn’t for her. A combine test, coupled with coaches’ encouragement, were enough to put Graybill on a different path, one that would better suit her 5’6”, 148 lbs., frame.

“I decided to tryout for skeleton instead of bobsled because of my size,” she said. “At the time, I was considered too small.”

But the transition from her short-lived bobsled career to skeleton wasn’t the first time Graybill had altered her Olympic dream. The Denver Pa., native grew up with field hockey aspirations that only got bigger as she pursued the sport.

Field hockey was always the constant in Graybill’s athletic career. She played four years at American University, starting at forward each year and earning numerous accolades, including a spot on the Division I Senior All-American team during her final year. But after graduation, she saw her Olympic field hockey goals slowly slip away.

“Ever since I was a kid, I dreamed of competing in the Olympic Games, specifically in field hockey,” she said. “There came a point where I realized this dream wouldn't come into fruition.”

Had Graybill known about skeleton earlier — it was never on her radar as she grew up playing baseball, field hockey, cheerleading, track and field and basketball — perhaps it would’ve replaced field hockey even sooner. As kids, Graybill and her twin brother were notorious for getting into trouble for being self-described “thrill-seekers with active imaginations.”

So when Graybill’s strength and conditioning coach at American University received an email from Elana Meyers Taylor recruiting push athletes, he forwarded it to her. It came at the perfect time, just a week after Graybill had come to the realization that her field hockey career was, in all likelihood, over.

The email sparked something new in Graybill.

“The timing of it all felt as though the universe was telling me I'm not supposed to give up my Olympic dream just yet,” she said.

She attended the combine in Lake Placid, where her objectives changed one last time when she switched to skeleton.

Graybill attended a sliding school that December, and continued to train in Lake Placid, living at the Olympic Training Center for the next three months. During this time, she was able to devote herself full-time to skeleton, and realized that it was the sport for her. It satisfied that need for adrenaline she had had as a kid while simultaneously fulfilling her desire to train for the Olympics.

Graybill’s twin brother, Donald, attended the same sliding school and trained with her during those first months. Having him there helped solidify Graybill’s newfound passion, bringing a source of comfort and familiarity to otherwise uncharted territory.

“I was so pumped and relieved to have him there with me,” she said. “We did everything together as kids, so sharing this amazing opportunity with him just felt right.”

While Donald would leave skeleton when he was accepted to Officer Candidate School just after his sliding career had begun, Graybill has never had any intentions of parting from the sport that ended up teaching her so much in the years since. In October 2011, Graybill’s sliding school was invited to the national skeleton team trials.

It was there that she realized she had a future in skeleton.

“I ended up finishing fifth overall and making the Intercontinental Cup in my very first team trials,” she said. “The whole experience was a little surreal to be honest. I've always learned to set lofty, yet realistic goals and while I had aspired to make ICC, I knew that it would be incredibly difficult. I think when I accomplished that goal, everyone was just as surprised as I was.”

Graybill had been sliding for less than a year at that point, but suddenly found herself thrust into international competition. She learned four new tracks within a month. She learned the ins and outs of international travel while competing as a professional athlete.

But most importantly, she learned how to succeed in her new sport.

“I think competing and traveling from the get-go helped accelerate my learning curve and forced me to get comfortable being uncomfortable, no matter the situation,” she said.

Following her Intercontinental Cup appearances in the 2011-12 season, Graybill spent the next year competing on the North American and European Cups, highlighting her performances with two bronze medals in the process.

She earned a second-place finish at the 2013 national championships before earning a spot on the World Cup circuit for the 2014-15 season. Though she had traveled internationally on the Intercontinental and European tours, the World Cup presented a whole new challenge to Graybill in the level of competition.

She began the season with a promising fifth-place finish in Lake Placid, but ended the season disappointed in herself. After the Lake Placid race, Graybill failed to finish higher than 11th in any race — though she did end in the top-20 sliders in each competition.

The unfamiliarity of the circuit — four of the second-half tracks were new to Graybill — certainly   didn’t help her results, but Graybill also found herself struggling mentally.

“My first season on the World Cup tour was full of ups and downs, but felt a little disappointing, if we're being honest,” she said. What I hadn't prepared for is some of the mental challenges I faced. I was trying to be perfect, which in skeleton racing, doesn't equate fast times. It took a while to come back from that, and to understand that failure doesn't mean the end. Failure gave me an opportunity to learn and grow from my experiences, and to make the changes necessary to help me succeed.”

Which is why, now, Graybill approaches skeleton with a different mindset. Back on the Intercontinental Cup this past season, she has altered her strategy in the sport. Instead of trying to be “too perfect” while navigating the twists and turns of the tracks, she has learned to let go.

“In skeleton, there is a balance between letting a sled run, but also executing the right steers,” she said. “Let a sled run too much and you run the risk of crashing. Steer too much and you drive pretty lines, but slowly. I'm trying to use this season as an opportunity to understand what situations lead me to perform at my best, what situations hinder my performance and how to find a way to avoid or handle the latter.”

The adjustments have paid off, spurring Graybill to medal three of the six ICC races this year.

But she is still far from where she wants to be. For Graybill, getting back on the World Cup circuit and earning a spot on the 2018 Olympic team — the ultimate goals — will take mental consistency. She said she needs to continue working on her ability to relax during races, to not focus too much on the technicality, but to achieve a balance between the two.

That, she said, will be the only way to get her to the Olympic dream she’s had since she started playing sports — even if it’s not in field hockey as she originally planned.

Having glimpsed the feeling before, Graybill will know when she has found it.

“My goal is to relax and slide without hesitation; to trust the instincts that had enabled me to slide quickly and freely,” she said. “When I'm at my best — my most relaxed — it feels like I'm flying. It feels like I'm free.”

Kristen Gowdy- USABS Media and Marketing Assistant, kristen.gowdy@usabs.com, (719) 722-0522

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Savannah Graybill