As Athletes Pivoted To 2020, So Did USA Bobsled & Skeleton
The NGB had to get creative to keep everything running amidst the global pandemic.
Kaillie Humphries with her homemade push sled (credit: @kailliehumphries)
By Karen Price
Red Line Editorial
If you were Kaillie Humphries’ neighbor, you might have raised an eyebrow at the sight of the two-time Olympic champion pushing a flatbed cart loaded with weights down the middle of a residential street this summer.
Then again, you likely understood that with COVID-19 impacting daily life all over the country, athletes had to get creative to keep up their training. The organizations supporting them had to get creative, too, and that’s exactly what USA Bobsled & Skeleton (USABS) did to continue to take steps forward as a group in the midst of a global pandemic.
Just about everything USABS did looked different this year, from recruiting to training to planning for the future.
Aron McGuire had only been in his role as CEO of USABS for a few weeks when the pandemic arrived in the U.S. He remembers flying home from the world championships and being on the phone in the Chicago airport making the decision to cancel the national championships, scheduled for late March.
“At that point it became pretty clear that 2020 was not going to be a year that was business as usual,” he said.
As the pandemic wore on into spring, McGuire and those around him realized that the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 weren’t going to wait for them to be ready.
One thing they needed to do was continue to search for the next wave of potential bobsled and skeleton athletes.
Typically, the organization hosts eight to 10 in-person combines across the U.S. throughout the spring and summer in order to find the next crop of talented athletes. When it became clear that gathering groups of athletes together wasn’t going to be an option, staff found the alternative they needed with a virtual combine, powered by Hammer Strength.
Partnering with a company called GMTM, USABS launched a platform where athletes could upload a series of videos of them performing sprints, standing long jumps and other tests, from the comfort of their backyards, to demonstrate their speed, power, strength, mechanics and other skills that could translate into bobsled and skeleton. They were also able to upload a highlight video of their choice and tell a little about why they wanted to be part of the team.
“We got some creative videos of athletes jumping over couches, pushing cars, it was fun,” McGuire said. “It was very effective in allowing athletes to very easily send us videos and share their interest in the sport, and it expanded our reach. Instead of just going to eight or 10 cities, any athlete in the U.S., or even outside the U.S., was able to basically try out and share their interest.”
Through that process USABS staff identified more than 100 athletes who they were able to later bring to rookie camps, where they narrowed the field even more. McGuire said they plan to keep virtual options open as part of their recruiting efforts moving forward.
As far as athletes already on the team and within the system, the priority early on was making sure they had what they needed to stay on track with their training and fitness. USABS ’partners at Hammer Strength got to work shipping weights to athletes at home so they could set up their personal gyms, or even build their own makeshift sleds, as Humphries did.
And by working with team doctors and medical staff, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee and other national governing bodies, USABS determined best practices for bringing athletes together for camps, including testing, social distancing, wearing masks and working in pods.
Team officials also made the decision to skip the first half of the racing season in Europe.
“It can be overwhelming for an athlete to realize that this season is not going to be the same as any other season, whether training or competing,” McGuire said. “The athletes that recognize that and accept it and maximize the opportunities are the ones that are going to be the most successful, and our athletes have done a tremendous job at being resilient and adapting to everything that has been thrown at us collectively.”
As USABS officials and staff shared their athletes’ photos, videos and stories on social media to demonstrate the work safely happening off the track, they had their own preparation to focus on as well.
Instead of holding an in-person strategic planning session as scheduled this summer, USABS pivoted to a virtual conference. The organization was able to include all of its key stakeholders, including athletes, coaches, staff members, the board of directors and partners such as the USOPC, and as a result USABS updated its mission and set specific goals for what it wants to accomplish over the next six years.
“To be able to host the video conference and breakout sessions and being able to share ideas both in written form and verbally that way was incredible,” McGuire said. “We had a little concern going into it because we thought there are so many benefits to getting together and seeing each other in person that maybe we should wait until we can meet in person. Ultimately I’m glad we decided to move forward via virtual sessions because we were really able to put together a robust plan and engage people at a level I didn’t think we’d be able to through video conference.”
Finally, despite the pandemic, USABS was able to not only strengthen relationships with existing partners, such as Under Armour, KOA, BMW, Snap Fitness, and online fundraiser Omaze, but also developed new ones and found ways to create shared value for all involved.
Icon Meals, for instance, provided healthy meals to their athletes over the summer, giving them one less thing they had to worry about with so many unknowns. The organization also partnered with Bumpboxx, makers of modern versions of the old school boom box, to make a USABS-branded model, and added Slate Milk to the list of partnerships, providing the athletes with sustainably-packaged high-protein, low-sugar chocolate milk to aid in recovery.
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.