Photos: Molly Choma
By Kristen Gowdy
The bracelet on Lou Moreira’s right wrist never comes off.
The 34-year-old bobsledder and Army veteran wears it as he travels the world, sliding down icy tracks across three continents. The bracelet — a thin, black band with white lettering to commemorate Staff Sergeant Matthew Sitton — is Moreira’s ever-present reminder of a past life and what was lost in it.
“It’s a popular bracelet, you’ll see people wearing them to commemorate a lost brother or sister,” Moreira said. “Out of all the guys I’ve lost, this one hurt the most because he was truly a best friend. We were young soldiers together, we grew up together in the same platoon. He died in Afghanistan when I was already out.”
More than anything, Moreira hopes to take the bracelet all the way to the 2018 Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. Making the team — and then standing atop the Olympic podium — would be the ultimate tribute, to both his friend and his country.
Regardless of what happens in February though, Moreira is already an embodiment of the American Dream. His parents immigrated from Portugal when Moreira was five. He grew up in the greater Boston area, picking up English as he went. He never participated in organized sports — the language barrier prevented him from getting involved. Instead, his childhood was spent playing outdoors.
“Through middle school, it was tough,” Moreira said. “You’re the last to get picked at recess for kickball because of the English barrier. Eventually, I caught up to my peers and once they realized how fast I was, I was the first one to get picked.”
By the time he entered high school, Moreira was a gifted athlete. He still holds the school record for the 55-meter hurdles, which he set in 2001, and he finished his senior season ranked second in the country. He accepted a track scholarship to Northeastern University, where he competed for one season alongside future bobsled teammate Steve Langton. But even as he ran Division I track, Moreira knew something was missing.
“I was a junior in high school when 9/11 happened, so I was a young adult and I wanted to take part in the fight,” he said. “Watching everything on CNN, seeing all the news and the troops deployed, it made me want to be a part of it. It just clicked.”
Instead of returning to Northeastern for his sophomore year, Moreira enlisted in the Army, joining the 82nd Airborne Infantry as a paratrooper. He would serve for six years, 27 months of which were spent deployed in Afghanistan.
Moreira’s leadership abilities caused him to rise quickly through the ranks, eventually earning the title of Staff Sergeant and a Bronze Star — the fourth highest honor that a member of the military can receive — for his leadership accomplishments in a combat zone.
He also separated himself from his peers in another way: While most of his comrades spent their sparse periods of downtime playing video games, Moreira started reading bodybuilding magazines and lifting weights.
“It was a new love for me, and it taught me a lot,” he said. “Bodybuilding isn’t easy, it’s a lot of sacrifice and dedication, especially with the dieting. I’d be posing in Afghanistan and the guys would just be like ‘What is Moreira doing?’”
What he was doing was crafting a passion that would only build after he left the Army. After six years and two deployments, Moreira decided it was time for the next chapter in his life. So he became a bodybuilder.
For the next three years, Moreira worked his way into several amateur bodybuilding competitions while also completing his bachelor’s degree at Southern Methodist University, then his master’s at the University of Southern California. Bodybuilding gave him a goal to work towards, a purpose after retiring from military service.
Moreira’s bodybuilding career culminated in a victory at the Texas state championships, one year after he “got his butt kicked” at the same competition.
As it happened, another dream was forming in the back of his mind.
“That was when I closed the door on bodybuilding because I was already thinking about bobsled,” he said.
Langton, who had remained one of Moreira’s closest friends, had been encouraging him to try bobsledding for years. But Moreira hadn’t truly considered it until watching Langton win two bronze medals in the Sochi Games in 2014. Six months later, Moreira was named Mr. Texas and left bodybuilding to follow his friend into the sport.
Moreira showed up to Lake Placid in March of 2015 and immediately began sliding. After three days of training, Moreira raced with pilot Jake Peterson in the 2015 USA Bobsled National Championships.
In their first run, they crashed. Moreira was unfazed.
“I was running back up to the top wanting to know when we could go again,” he said. “That’s when Justin [Olsen] and Coach [Mike] Kohn were like ‘Alright, we’ve got ourselves a bobsledder.’”
In the two seasons since, Moreira has been named to a national team and was chosen as Team USA’s flagbearer in the Opening Ceremony of his first World Championships race. When he was a Staff Sergeant in the Army, Moreira was responsible for up to 12 soldiers at any given time. Now, his teammates saw those same leadership qualities in him, and recognized him.
“I took a lot of pride in carrying the flag, more than I think anybody else would,” he said. “I think I have given my wisdom and motivated a lot of the guys who are better athletes than me. We’ve had a lot of talks about my experiences and how I apply those to bobsled. I’m glad I was able to give more to this federation than just the ability to push a bobsled.”
On a personal level, bobsled has filled the void left by the Army, Moreira said.
“Being in 82nd Airborne, jumping out of planes, you get really used to that adrenaline. Then when you get out of the Army, guys get really depressed because there’s nothing that can fill that void. Bobsled certainly does.
“It’s just really neat because it’s something most people don’t get to do, competing for their country on an international stage. I’m an American. When I go back to Portugal, they see me as an American. I was raised here. This is where I have lived my life and have accomplished my goals.”
And with the Olympics on the horizon, for now, only goal one remains.