Small goals lead to big dreams for first woman para bobsledder

Dec. 02, 2016, 12:47 p.m. (ET)

Small goals lead to big dreams for first woman para bobsledder

By Kristen Gowdy

Dawn Macomber has never been one to dream big.

Her goals have always been attainable, manageable targets that lead her to the next step. It’s been the way she operates best. Getting from the floor into her wheelchair unassisted. Teaching herself to walk again. Completing a 15-lb. deadlift then, two years later, completing the same lift at 325 lbs.  

So no, Macomber never focused on the big dreams. Never, that is, until she found herself staring down the most daunting — and potentially most rewarding — challenge of her life.

“When you say the word ‘Paralympian,’ it’s just mind-blowing, but I guess that’s what the goal is now,” she said.

It is a dream that has arisen within the past month, when Macomber discovered para bobsledding. Last month, she attended a driving school in Latvia, where she got into a bobsled for the first time. Last week, she slid from the top of a track for the first time. Just a couple of short days later, she threw down the fourth-fastest downtime in the second heat of her first Para World Cup race in Park City, Utah against a field of male competitors, many of whom have been sliding for years.

And just like that, the 45-year-old New Hampshire chicken farmer started to dream big.

“Now I’m in it to win it,” she said. “I want to go to these World Cups in Europe. I’m all in. If I beat a few boys along the way, then I do, and if I beat women, I beat women. Whoever wants to race me, let’s do it. I have nothing to lose.”

Twenty-five years ago, though, Macomber had everything to lose. A 20-year-old in the Army, she had graduated from high school after captaining her school’s soccer team and running track and field. But once in the military, she suffered disc herniations in her back. What had been a promising military career was suddenly barred by pain that would continue for the next 20 years.

On June 27, 2010, two of the herniations imploded on her spinal cord after a failed spinal cord surgery the previous year. This would, in some hidden twist of fate, turn Macomber’s life around.

While recuperating in various private hospitals and Veterans Affairs facilities, Macomber found she could feel her legs despite her diagnosis of incomplete paraplegia. She remembers frequent scoldings from nurses for getting out of bed, sitting on the ground and working to get up into her wheelchair by herself.

But it was her first small goal. And she was going to accomplish it.

“I told them I could feel my legs and I was like ‘Why aren’t we trying to get me to walk again if I can feel my legs?’” she said. “They’re like ‘Because you’re paralyzed.’”

Disregarding the notion that her paralysis would prevent her from anything — Macomber was never one to accept the word ‘No’ — she next set her sights on standing up. Then walking. Then running with crutches. Then she found CrossFit through a Wounded Warriors Clinic, and was told ‘No’ over and over again until she found a CrossFit gym that would allow her to train, regardless of the “liability” she created by training with her injury.

CrossFit was another new beginning for Macomber. Her first day at the gym, she struggled with a 15-lb. deadlift and a 25-lb. bench press. In the two years that followed, she built her strength to the point that she was ready to enter a CrossFit competition.

Macomber’s injuries prevent her from putting weight on her back, so she entered a push-pull competition that involved deadlifting and bench-pressing. Her lifts that day? A 325-lb. deadlift and a 152-lb. bench.

She won the competition.

“I can’t feel my legs and that causes a lot of people to say ‘Oh it’s easier for you because you can’t feel leg pain or you can’t feel them getting tired,’” she said. “I can’t feel anything and so it’s actually harder for me because I’ve had to train my brain to make those connections that are lost between the ground and my legs.”

At an Adaptive Sports Foundation clinic in Lake Placid, N.Y. last March, para bobsled was first planted in Macomber’s mind. She was in the best shape of her life, even better than when she was in the Army. Like with so many other opportunities that had been thrown her way, she realized she had nothing to lose.

The Latvia driving school frustrated her when coaches wouldn’t let her drive from the top of the track. Her first complete run came while she was attempting to qualify for the first Park City Para World Cup race. After missing the qualification for that race, she rebounded to make the field for the second and final competition.

Her first run, she mustered just the 14th-fastest downtime of the heat. The second, she bounced to fourth.

“When I first started this journey, a lot of people told me that I couldn’t do this thing. I don’t look like a typical athlete,” she said. “To me, it was a just a validation that I could do it and be competitive with everyone else.”

The race not only spurred Macomber’s career, but the sport itself. At the race, Para Bobsled Team Captain David Kurtz recalls, other nations were more than accepting of Macomber’s presence in what has always been a male-dominated field.

“I saw coaches and staff from other nations nodding their heads with smiles while looking at the posted times for Dawn,” Kurtz said. “It was confirmation that women’s para bobsled has arrived and is equal out of the starting gate. The USA is the birthplace of para bobsled and para skeleton, so it was inevitable that the USA would be the first nation to encourage and welcome gender equity into the Para Program.”

But for Macomber, who is also training for the Summer Paralympics in shot put, it’s more than a “boy against girl thing.” Competing against and beating the men is great, she says, but she also understands the unique position she’s in as a pioneer in an ever-evolving sport.

She wants to take advantage of that as best she can, in hopes of seeing even more women on the track.

“My hope is to make people less scared about doing things for the first time,” she said. “If someone asks me whether I’m scared to be a bobsled pilot, I’d tell them no. What’s scary is taking that first initial step after someone tells you ‘No’ to develop your own goals even when the world seems like it’s against you. That’s what I hope to do and to change in the minds of other women out there. That sounds cliche, but I am proof that anything can happen. I’m living this whirlwind of a dream. My dreams are just starting to happen and they’re absolutely incredible.”

Kristen Gowdy, USABS Marketing and Media Assistant, (719) 722-0522,