Seizing her second chance

Feb. 16, 2016, 2:57 p.m. (ET)

Seizing her second chance

by Kristen Gowdy

For Cherrelle Garrett, bobsled was a second chance.

She had run four successful years of track at the University of California, Berkeley, made good use of that blazing speed that in high school had prompted her to make the switch from basketball to track.

But after she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2011, Garrett was lost.

“I was doing a whole bunch of career-oriented things, trying to structure my life that way,” she said. “But I really wasn’t happy.”

Without track — the sport that had been her anchor for eight years — keeping her grounded, Garrett found herself moving aimlessly through her career in teaching drama and personal training. She loved her job, but missed the feel of crossing the finish line after a 100-meter sprint.

“I realized I still had my competitive spirit,” she said. “I didn’t want to give up on sports just yet.”

That was when she got the email. It was the product of a fleeting idea that had been briefly planted in Garrett’s mind during her freshman year at Cal. One of her coaches had told her that one day, she’d make a good bobsledder.

At the time, Garrett hadn’t thought much of it. After all, the Hayward, Calif., native and self-described “sea-level girl,” had barely even seen snow, much less thought about racing down an icy track. But then one of the most decorated female bobsledders in U.S. history, Elana Meyers Taylor, reached out to her in 2012, and Garrett found herself confronted with an opportunity that she couldn’t resist.

Meyers Taylor, whose husband, Nic Taylor, had run track with Garrett in high school, had recognized potential in the young track athlete.

She wasn’t wrong. Garrett, who had found a love for athletics when she played basketball in high school, had all the necessary tools for a dominant push athlete. The speed was there — Garrett had, in fact, switched over to track because she often found herself “sprinting off and leaving the ball behind,” on the basketball court. The work ethic was there — her junior year, Garrett had helped the Golden Bears qualify for the NCAA championship meet, running anchor in the 4x100 relay. And most importantly, the desire was there.

Meyers Taylor’s email gave Garrett the second chance in athletics she had been looking for. Even if it wasn’t on a track, Garrett would give being a professional athlete a try.

“At least then I could say I tried it,” she said. “Ever since then, I’ve kind of been hooked on it.”

Garrett watched as Meyers Taylor and Lauryn Williams took the silver medal in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games, and, heading into this past season, Garrett knew she had a new goal in mind.

“Definitely making sure I stay on track and position myself for 2018,” she said. “I want to keep my eyes on the road to PyeongChang. I want to make that Olympic team and I want to win gold.”

But it wasn’t going to be that easy. It would — and thus far, it has — taken years of training and dedication to achieve a coveted spot on the 2018 Olympic team. Garrett has made the most of what little time she has had on the national team.

And she has done almost all of it pushing for the athlete that gave her that second chance.

Garrett spent nearly her entire first season on the team last year as Meyers Taylor’s brakeman. The duo spent the first part of the season on the North American Cup where Meyers Taylor made history as the first female pilot in an international four-person competition.

While Meyers Taylor was learning to adapt to a new style of bobsled, Garrett was working on adapting to a new sport. She accompanied Meyers Taylor to the North American Cup for more experience on each track, and pushed her mentor to two golds and a silver in three races on the circuit.

Then, they joined the World Cup circuit for the remainder of the season, where Garrett accumulated seven more podium finishes, pushing for Meyers Taylor and Sochi bronze medalist Jamie Greubel Poser.

As Garrett pushed for the two most experienced pilots on the American women’s national team, she watched and learned from them, particularly Meyers Taylor, who had began her own career as a push athlete.

“We had this understanding, and it was really awesome on the track. It wasn’t anything that we had to say or show anybody or be the best friends in the whole wide world, we were just always on the same page when we got on the line,” she said. “I love her hustle, I love her determination and she inspires me to keep going as a brakeman.”

And through her first season on the World Cup circuit, Garrett ironically found herself thinking less and less about her Olympic dream. While it was still lodged firmly in the back of her mind, she found taking the grind of international travel on a day-to-day basis more manageable.

“The games are two, three, four years from now,” she said. “You can’t waste your time with this whole dream of being an Olympian, you have to make sure your mind stays sharp. It’s easy to say ‘Oh, I’m wasting my time. I have a degree, I could get a job.’ It’s a long process, but each day you take one at a time.”

Frequent screenings of ‘Frozen’ in her hotel room, as well as unwavering support from her family helped Garrett make it through “a long season.”

But it was a long season that concluded rewardingly. Garrett, pushing for Meyers Taylor once again, earned the World Championship title in Winterberg, Germany, beating out the second-place German team by nearly half a second. It was the first-ever American women’s bobsled World Championship.

The win was a big one, but Garrett knew, even in that moment, that it would put an even bigger target on her back.

“I had a really good season and we became world champions, but everybody is going to keep working hard,” she said.

Once the season was over, Garrett returned to California to pursue her other passion, community service. In addition to her bobsled training, she works as a personal trainer and has volunteered for several different causes, including the Boys and Girls Club and the Betsy Coleman women’s shelter.

This is Garrett’s way of giving back to the community that gave her so much growing up. She feeds off of the energy it brings her, being able to see herself in the children she works with.

“I love being able to tell some kid from a lower income area, ‘that’s basically where I’m from. But you can do anything. There are so many possibilities out there,’” she said. “And it’s possible. Never in a million years did I think I was going to be a bobsledder.”

But then she got her second chance, and is now literally racing towards her dream of topping the podium. Garrett may be conquering a slippery, downhill track instead of a flat, rubberized one, but to her, that’s all the better.

“Bobsled takes you out of your comfort zone and helps you grow as a person, as an athlete, as a leader,” Garrett said. “It really brought out that competitive side in me. That was something I never got in track because it’s an individual sport and you get that one-on-one attention. There, it’s just black and white, you’re running fast or you’re not. With bobsled, there are so many other things, there are so many other criteria for being successful.” 

This season, Garrett returned to the World Cup tour, pushing for Meyers Taylor and Greubel Poser. In five races, Garrett has reached the podium three times, with a pair of gold medals and a silver. Last weekend, she took a shot at defending her title at the World Championships, this time alongside Greubel Poser. While the duo came up a little short, finishing fifth in the field on the Igls, Austria track, Garrett’s approach won’t change moving into the future.

“I want to make sure I’m using my resources and delving into those for the next two years going into the Olympics.”