| Story by Brian Burnsed
The skills former student-athletes honed in college propelled them to the Olympics … in a sport they'd never imagined.
Original image by Charlie Booker / USA Bobsled; Sport Graphics Illustration
A mile of concrete, entombed in ice, lies at Aja Evans’ feet. Her fingers grip smooth, circular handles on the tail of a 400-pound sled, sheathed in carbon fiber. A morning wind bites near the summit of Mount Van Hoevenberg, nine miles south of Lake Placid, N.Y., but Evans and her driver, Elana Meyers, can’t feel it. They’re swaddled in adrenaline, thick helmets and suits engineered to keep the ice from gnawing at their skin should Meyers lose focus for even a breath.
They stand side by side, looking down the slope that will lead them to a hard right and the unforgiving tunnel. Evans stands behind the black sled, squeezing those handles, sinking low. To her left, Meyers crouches and offers two firm slaps on Evans’ back as they dig their metal-spiked shoes into a frostbitten block of wood.
Meyers places her right hand on the sled’s left edge, swings her left arm in front of her and lets her fingers hang in the cold air. They linger a few feet behind the bar protruding from the vessel’s side. For that second, the coaches and teammates around the duo are silent and still.
Now all they have to do is push.
Amid an explosion of shouts and screams, the pair bolt forward in unison. In a step, driven by legs that can squat 500 pounds, Meyers erases the distance between her outstretched hand and the bar. Evans lurches forward, her helmet dipping low into the bobsled as she summons every strand of muscle to conquer inertia.
Their thick legs churn like pistons for only a few seconds, but they've soon eclipsed 20 mph as they surge down an ever-steepening slope. Meyers catapults herself over the sled's left edge, both feet surmounting the lip simultaneously, and sinks so low that her eyes sit level with the top of the sled like a crocodile's surveying the water's surface. Evans pushes for a few more strides, pulls herself into the sled's open back, forces her head low and mutters encouragement that Meyers can't hear over the caterwauling of metal and ice. The nearly 750 pounds of carbon fiber and flesh and steel roars down the white gantlet, down the anaconda sunning itself on the mountain's northeastern face, down 351 vertical feet in a minute's time, down 20 curves that will push and tug on their bodies like a fighter pilot's, down, down, down, 75 mph, and up the side of high-banked turns where the smallest miscalculation by the driver will send them tumbling over, heads clattering against ice and concrete, bodies at the mercy of friction and gravity.
Meyers played shortstop in college. Evans heaved a shot put. Bobsled is not an NCAA sport. So what lured them into the belly of that steel comet? What compelled them to put their bodies at the mercy of the mountain?
Neither Meyers nor Evans dreamed of careers careening down the ice. But they, fellow Olympic hopeful Katie Eberling and the six other members of the U.S. Women's Bobsled National Team were once NCAA athletes across an array of sports. Some of those nine were unwilling to let athletic careers be snuffed out when they clutched diplomas and shook hands. Others – like Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams – are elite summer Olympians who yearn to keep competing. They spent their time in college oblivious to each other's existence. But their paths converged when they stumbled upon this cold, obscure sport practiced in cold, obscure places like Lake Placid; St. Moritz, Switzerland; and Winterberg, Germany, that might afford them the chance to fulfill once-abandoned Olympic aspirations.
After qualifying runs at home and a World Cup season abroad, only six of them, spread across three teams of two, earned the right to compete in this month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Evans and Meyers made the team, while Eberling was named an alternate.
"It gives people a second chance," Evans says. "Who wouldn't want that?"
Jamie Schwaberow / NCAA Photos
George Washington University Photo
Meyers made her mind up at age 9: She was going to be an Olympian. It didn't matter what sport, she says, but she was certain that one day she would emulate heroes such as decathletes Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson, who captured her attention as they vied for spots in the 1992 Summer Games. Fortunately, she had a head start. Her father, Eddie, was a running back for the Atlanta Falcons. Today, Meyers stands 5 feet, 8 inches and boasts a football player's sculpted shoulders. She grew up amid the heat of suburban Atlanta, far from the icy run in Lake Placid: Bats and balls were her first love.
And they loved her back. Meyers was the first softball player to receive a scholarship when George Washington launched its program in 2003, and she would go on to be named team captain and MVP each year of her career. She bashed a go-ahead grand slam in her final home game, ensuring not only that the Colonials would win, but that they would garner a spot in the Atlantic 10 tournament for the first time in the program's history.
The Olympics no longer seemed like the far-fetched yearnings of a child. Meyers' impressive career – she hit over .400 in each of her last two seasons – was enough to garner tryouts for the national team in 2004 and 2006. But carrying the weight of a lifelong dream into the batter's box overwhelmed her.
"I was swinging at balls over my head," Meyers says. "It was so atrocious that I knew Olympic softball wasn't in my future."
As Meyers amassed softball accolades and endured Olympic disappointment, Katie Eberling was morphing into an elite volleyball player 506 miles away. She'd earned several scholarship offers but landed at Western Michigan in part because it afforded her the chance to play outside hitter, one of the sport's vital positions. Her decision was immediately rewarded – she made the MAC's All-Freshman Team in 2006.
As a junior, Eberling pushed Western Michigan to an NCAA tournament Sweet 16 appearance. The team was shorter than most elite squads and hadn't been expected to reach the tournament, much less propel itself within four wins of a national championship. It was the pinnacle of her college athletics career, she says.
The year Eberling first took the court at Western Michigan, Evans started her college track and field career at UNLV. Evans later transferred to Illinois to be closer to her family. She was destined, it seems, to be an athlete: Her brother Fred is a defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings; her father was an NAIA swimming national champion; her uncle and cousin – Gary Matthews and Gary Matthews Jr. – both played professional baseball.
An ACL injury in high school hindered her hopes of becoming a champion sprinter. Unable to run for several months, she picked up a shot put, she says, "as a joke." The results were anything but. Evans went on to capture three Big Ten shot put titles and was named an All-American five times. Though she desired an Olympic career, rising to an internationally elite level in shot put meant she'd have to pack on a significant amount of weight. Unwilling to eat her way to the Olympics, she put her degree in recreation, sports management and tourism to use and began working as a trainer in Chicago.
But she was incognizant that the short burst required to throw a shot put, the ability to use her entire body to propel an object, was precisely the type of training she'd need to become one of the world's best in something else entirely.
Similarly, Eberling didn't realize that leaping repeatedly, thousands of times, on a volleyball court was building the explosive power she'd need to one day start a 400-pound bobsled from a dead stop. She didn't understand that the drills in practice she dreaded most, the ones that forced her to dive onto hard wood floors, bruising elbows and knees and shoulders and ribs, would prepare her for the routine battering she'd endure on a sled barreling down a mountain.
And how could Meyers have known that the rapid-fire reaction time she'd honed smacking 70 mph fastballs would one day help her maneuver a sled traveling the same speed, often faster?
Amanda Goehlert / Sport Graphics
Sources: The United States Olympic Committee, Olympic.org, International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, Olympstroy State Corporation
Bobsled's roots trace back to European winter resorts in the late 1800s, when revelers would hop aboard wooden sleds that looked like little more than crudely assembled picnic tables. Using a wheel bolted on one end, they'd steer themselves down icy runs. Soon, though, leisure morphed into competition: Four-man bobsled was a part of the first Winter Olympics, held in Chamonix, France, in 1924. Eight years later, a two-man competition was added to the Olympic program. Women didn't participate until 2002, when Americans Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers captured the sport's first gold in Salt Lake City.
By then, wooden sleds had long since given way to steel skeletons encased in fiberglass or carbon fiber. The bobsleds are designed by experts who factor in aerodynamics and weight distribution as they craft the vessels. At the 2014 games, Team USA will use sleds designed by BMW.
And, like a BMW, these sleds hide secrets under their chassis. Steering wheels were replaced decades ago. Drivers, who sit in the front of the sled, must navigate the 15 to 20 curves that are strung together on mile-long runs with gentle tugs on a pair of small rings that lie in the belly of the sled. With one in each hand, they control a pulley system that moves the runners – narrow steel blades upon which the sled rests – a few inches left or right.
The panicked squeeze of a hand at high speed can flip the sled, exposing a driver and her passenger to the whims of concrete and momentum. And drivers must make these delicate movements – their hands more like a surgeon's than a race car driver's – while combating incessant jostling down rough ice.
Television is a shoddy means of conveying what bobsledders endure. They rely on adjectives like "violent" and "brutal" to describe the sport they love. Helmets and bodies are assaulted from all sides by the steel cage as it clatters down the track. Riders feel up to five times the force of gravity press into them as they climb up the bank of 20-foot-high curves. It's disorienting, particularly for brakemen, who sit behind the driver with heads tucked low, blind to the landscape rushing by but acutely aware of the deafening noise created by the interplay of ice and steel. They push as hard as their bodies will allow for five seconds and then relinquish their fate to the driver. All that's left to do is sit and breathe and whisper and wait.
And if the driver takes a poor line into or out of a turn, the resulting crash – akin to dropping a motorcycle to the pavement at highway speeds – often causes a concussion, sometimes worse. British bobsledder Serita Shone was airlifted away from a crash in 2011 and had spinal surgery to stave off paralysis. German Yvonne Cernota was tossed off the track entirely in 2004. She lost her life.
Meyers' parents had seen Flowers, a former long jumper, capture gold in 2002. Aware of their daughter's Olympic aspirations, they suggested she consider bobsled. Meyers had the requisite size and strength, and bobsled was littered with athletes such as Flowers, who had excelled in other sports. But Meyers brushed off the suggestion, certain she'd soon be playing Olympic softball.
After the botched softball tryouts and the news that the sport wouldn't be played in the Olympics after 2008, Meyers wouldn't give up on a 9-year-old's dream. She emailed U.S. bobsled coaches in 2007, detailing her athletic achievements.
"They invited me up to Lake Placid, and I never left," she says.
At first, Meyers felt like a softball player, quite literally, on ice skates. She had the power to push the sled but demonstrated little skill on the ice, and equates her first runs with being stuffed in a trash can and kicked down the side of a mountain. She marveled at the grace of teammate Valerie Fleming, who had won silver at the 2006 games. Fleming moved fluidly with the sled and could catapult herself into the vessel with ease.
"I had all the athletic tools from my softball background, but I didn't understand how to use those tools behind the sled," Meyers says. "I had a rough couple weeks."
Even so, Meyers' strength compensated for her fledgling skills. She made the national team, which guaranteed her only the chance to compete for one of the six spots on three sleds that would make the trip to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. As Meyers improved, she shed the nerves that plagued her softball tryout and quickly became one of the team's top brakemen.
And she learned to embrace the dread inherent in the sport. Meyers came to realize that it doesn't only entail lifting weights and sprinting and pushing. Danger lurks on every inch of those mile-long treks down the mountain.
"You're not a bobsledder if you haven't crashed," says Meyers, who has endured more accidents than she can recall. "Part of the beauty of bobsled is that you're asked to constantly face fear. You can't run away from it. That fear is what's going to allow you to be great."
Meyers and driver Erin Pac used that fear to capture bronze in Vancouver. As Meyers stood on the podium, the Olympic medal she'd long desired hanging around her neck, Eberling and Evans were fast approaching the terminus of successful college careers and, potentially, shedding the label of "athlete" that had defined them since childhood. All three were unaware that their paths would soon intersect: Meyers craved more than bronze, and she needed help.
Jamie Schwaberow / NCAA Photos
Gary Shook Photo
After Eberling played her final match at Western Michigan, finishing fifth in school history in kills and third in digs, the elementary education major turned her focus to her career. In December of 2010, job interviews and student teaching loomed when a small red square at the top of her Facebook page beckoned. She had a message.
It was from Meyers, who had transitioned from brakeman to driver. She needed someone strong and explosive like herself to push from the back if she was going to capture gold in the front seat, so she started recruiting. She sent a deluge of emails and Facebook messages to athletes from a cross-section of NCAA sports who had been named strength and conditioning All-Americans. Eberling, thanks to her outstanding leaping ability and leg strength, was among them.
"At first I thought it was some sort of joke," she says.
"I got a lot of ‘no's,'" Meyers laughs.
But Eberling didn't say no. She asked questions. She spoke to her family. They were startled at first but soon realized she hadn't quenched her competitive thirst. Eberling says Meyers sold her on the Olympic dream, that a niche winter sport could lead to achievements greater than an improbable run to the Sweet 16. Eberling had the strength and speed. But did she have the nerve to handle something so foreign, so frightening? She hasn't forgotten her first time down the bobsled run at Lake Placid.
"It was just pure confusion," Eberling says. "It was so violent. I guess the only way to describe it would be being in a blender. It was a frightening experience and something my body had never encountered before, but I came back."
A few months after she survived her first trip, Eberling participated in a combine for potential bobsledders that tested her speed, jumping ability and strength. She scored well and moved on to the 2011 U.S. National Push Championships, which take place off the ice. In the event, brakemen push a wheeled sled on rails in hopes of producing the fastest start time. Eberling beat out more than a dozen other athletes – several of whom had competed in the Olympics – and solidified her spot on the team.
Soon, she was Meyers' brakeman. The duo quickly became one of the world's best, but they were about to be joined by a formidable teammate and rival, another star athlete who'd grown weary of an ordinary day job and an ordinary life.
Jamie Schwaberow / NCAA Photos
University of Illinois, Champaign, Photo
Evans worked as a trainer in Chicago for a year and a half after graduating in 2010. While she relished helping others achieve goals, she realized she had abandoned her own. Despite all the success at Illinois, all the Big Ten championships, she craved more. Though she had hoped to return to track and field as a heptathlete, she knew it was too late to qualify for the 2012 London Games and wasn’t willing to wait four more years until Rio.
Then, as she lay in bed one night in March of 2012, discontented and unable to sleep, she remembered something. Mike Erb, one of her coaches at Illinois, had mentioned bobsled after watching Meyers and others compete in the 2010 Olympics. He knew his pupil was faster and stronger than many of the women he’d seen on the ice. She laughed him off, but the thought had resurfaced that night as her mind raced. So she took to her computer, digging into the sport and watching YouTube clips until 3 a.m.
“How can I get back to an elite level?” she asked herself. “How can I do these things I wanted to do? How can I be an Olympian?”
Bobsled, despite being such a drastic departure from the sport she had mastered in college, seemed to be the answer. So she spent the summer training alongside Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte to prepare for October’s bobsled combine. Her NFL-caliber DNA and training partner paid off. She outperformed all the other women at the combine, even broad jumping 10 feet, 2 inches, which bested some of the men. Coaches quickly pulled her aside.
Would you be willing to stay an extra day, so we can watch you push a sled on the dry track?
So Evans stayed. She pushed her way onto the team.
Evans endured her first odyssey down the ice only three days before team trials, her first official race. Though she sat still through the ride, she likens the exhaustion she felt when she climbed out of the sled to the moments after running a 400 at full speed. She’d clenched every muscle in her body; she’d forgotten to breathe.
Despite all the training, she wasn’t sure if she was willing to endure that harrowing ride again, to face the fear. But three days later, thanks to encouragement from her mother, she was back on top of the mountain preparing to push her sled down the icy chute.
As Evans grew accustomed to the perils of her new sport, Eberling and Meyers were mastering it. They captured bronze in the annual World Championships in 2012 and silver in 2013. But despite their successes and Evans’ inexperience, she supplanted Eberling as Meyers’ brakeman, though pairings can shift as the Olympics approach.
“We’re all competitive; we’re all going for the same goal,” Evans says. “As soon as we pass the finish line, it’s back to team USA. The same people we were competing against are the same people helping us lift our sled off the ice.”
Jamie Schwaberow / NCAA Photos
Gold medals may be decided on the ice, but bobsledders don't spend much time there. American athletes are anchored near the two U.S. tracks in Lake Placid and Park City, Utah, but only go on practice runs – twice per session – when temperatures drop. The rest of their time is spent sculpting bodies equipped to push those colossal sleds. To excel, they must combine the speed of sprinters with the power of weightlifters. Six days a week, hours running sprints and strengthening cores blend into many more in the weight room. Meyers can squat weight equivalent to the bobsled she drives. Evans can jump from a chair onto a 52-inch box in front of her; she floats as if she's being hoisted by a puppeteer.
The results of their efforts are apparent. Each has arms college-age men strive to build. Their broad shoulders match dense legs, all painstakingly built to push that sled for five seconds. And they must keep their weight up – the hard way. Rules allow the driver, brakeman and sled to weigh up to 750 pounds. They try to use every pound of that limit to get the biggest allowable assist from gravity. Eberling has packed on 20 pounds of muscle since she began training more than two years ago.
"If I could just sit there and eat chocolate cake and all kinds of goodies," she says, "it'd be a lot easier."
Drivers like Meyers are tasked with memorizing the world's 14 internationally sanctioned bobsled runs. As brakemen, Eberling and Evans are responsible for tending to the sled. The dark morning hours before practice runs or races are spent tightening bolts and polishing steel.
Designs for the gold medals that will be awarded in Sochi were released last May. Evans takes a close look at the photo every day – it's the background image on her phone and iPad. Eberling wants to hear the national anthem. Meyers aches to win a medal from the front seat, not the back. If they make the team, those aspirations will be tested over four runs down a freezing mountain in Sochi, far from the warmth of a volleyball court in Michigan or a track in Illinois or a softball field in Washington, D.C.
"I look at my medal sometimes, and it's like I can't believe this actually happened," Meyers says. "I can't believe I actually have one of these things. … But people expect you to win another medal and expect you to win gold now. It's a lot of pressure."
Evans and Meyers fire out of the final turn at Lake Placid – lungs heaving, nerves frayed – after sliding down that mile of concrete, after eclipsing 70 mph, after plummeting 351 feet, after navigating 20 curves, after enduring a summer of squats and sprints and years of sweat and doubt.
They hop out of the vessel, embrace and join the other members of the team – the ones they're battling for those six precious spots – and carry the sled, all of them, together, into the back of a truck.
It's October. The flight to Sochi doesn't depart for another four months, and there are more weights to push, more turns to master, more fear to fight as they edge up to the thin line that separates triumph and calamity.
So they venture back up the mountain.