Chasing the Olympic Dream: How I Tried Out for the U.S. Bobsled Team
Standing next to the bobsled track at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, a familiar feeling washed over me. As the athletes flew by, I felt a hunger in my stomach, and it wasn’t for another round of Korean BBQ.
I was hungry to compete again, to feel the building up of nerves before a match and the joy or frustration that followed. I missed being around people who were also athletically motivated and dedicated to working towards something bigger than themselves.
After competing as a track and field athlete in college, I struggled to find my sports niche. The transition from working out twice a day, six days a week, to having a completely open schedule was weird. I missed having the direction of a coach and a training plan that would get me where I wanted to go. Give me a workout and I’ll do it but give me the opportunity to plan my own and I’ll flounder around and probably convince myself I made it too hard and I’ll finish early.
It was at the Winter Olympics this past February that I first heard about the tryouts for the US Bobsled team.
How Does It Work
Every summer the US Bobsled and Skeleton Team recruits athletes from other sports through open combines across the country. At the tryouts, they have athletes sprint, jump, and throw, to test their explosive strength which roughly translates into pushing a sled.
Anyone can sign up and from the results at the combine, they invite select athletes back for “Rookie Camp,” where they actually put you in a sled on a course and see how you like it.
But right now, I’m no where hear that step and I’m just looking to see if I even have a shot.
The coaches look at your 45m sprint speed, standing long jump, and underhand shot put toss. Luckily, we used to test all three events as a part of my college training program. Our coach would use them to see our progress after the summer and compare our fitness results year to year. But that was four years ago.
Looking at the list, sprints have always been my weak point. I like to say that I used to be fast back when I was eight years old and a foot taller than my peers because my long legs would just outrun them. But then, as they all started to catch up height-wise, they kept getting faster while I stayed the same.
For the jumps, I don’t have any skills but I’d been feeling leaner over the last year since I’d started CrossFit. My gymnastic movements have felt better so hopefully that would translate well. Lastly with the throws, I was in my comfort zone. I threw in college so I felt the most confident in this one out of the three events. Throwing a shot put underhand forward would come down to technique. You have to be careful not to throw it too high or it just goes straight up and then back down again. Throw it too low and it beelines into the ground.
Overall, I knew I had my work cut out for me and I’d be lucky if I didn’t come in last but there was a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe I could do this. And that little piece of hope was all I needed to get started.
Five Months Out: So You Think You’re an Athlete
I came back from the Winter Olympics feeling invigorated and excited to have a reason to train. I was probably 60% serious that I wanted to try out for the bobsled team but I liked the idea of having something to work towards. I started mentioning the idea to a few friends and then to my CrossFit coach, who seemed excited by the idea. This was also where the Cool Runnings jokes began.
The more that I thought about it, the more excited I got. I did feel like I’d lost a little of that drive after college as I realized that the chances of making it to the next level as a thrower would be even harder on my own. But here was an opportunity to try something new, something that looked like a lot of fun and it totally lined up with my dream in college to find a career that let me wear sports bras and spandex everyday (I know you do have to wear normal clothes sometimes but in my perfect world, the spandex days to outnumber the “real” clothes days).
I’m also riding an athletic high, after getting my first pull-ups since college during my gym’s CrossFit Open, a six-week competition that takes place at boxes around the world. At our gym, it’s a time when everyone comes together on Saturday mornings to cheer each other on and people accomplish things they never knew they could. For me, that was pull-ups.
I describe myself as a dense person, not mentally but physically. I’ve always been heavier on the scale than I think I look and because of that I feel like gravity and I have a great relationship. Now, put me in the air, upside down, or any other position that challenges my relationship with gravity and there’s a 100% chance I’ll fall, slip, or come close to hurting myself. But for some reason, on a Saturday in early March, something clicked. I credit my supportive teammates, their cheers, and all those jumping pull-ups finally paying off.
I can do pull-ups, something I’ve dreamed of being able to say. I’m feeling great and ready to tackle these bobsled tryouts.
Three Months Out: Feeling Young
I’ve started to feel comfortable telling people that I’m trying out for the US Bobsled team and take solace in the fact that the dates haven’t come out so I still have time to reconsider. I’ve been ramping up my CrossFit workouts to four to five times a week, with the fear of making a fool of myself at tryouts as a motivator for getting out of bed a few of those days.
I’ve definitely gained perspective on the concept of “being old” from living abroad as I’ve found other mid-twenties friends in the US lamenting about how old we’re getting. But when I look around in Shanghai, I’m the youngest of my friends and would definitely get ridiculed for saying 26 is “old.” At the Winter Olympics, I’d also noticed that most of the bobsledders were in their early/mid thirties so I had plenty of time.
I also was feeling inspired by Meghan O’Leary, my friend and colleague at InstaViser. She was a two-sport college athlete and picked up rowing when she was 26. After realizing how much she loved it, she dedicated herself to training and has since competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics and won a silver medal at the World Championships. I’ve seen that it’s not all glamour and glitz to make it as an Olympian but she’s done it and loved the process.
If there’s ever a time to try to be an Olympic athlete, it’s probably now or never.
Two Months Out: You Are What You Eat
My workouts are feeling better and better and I’m still nowhere near Olympic status but I’ve been consistent and I’m getting stronger which is always encouraging. I met with my friend Esme, who’s a personal trainer and nutritionist to chat about my diet as it felt like the final piece of the puzzle. I also kept picturing everyone at the tryouts made completely of six packs and biceps and then there’d be me, looking like an average person.
I’d kept a food diary for the past month, writing down what I ate and when. I didn’t getting into the details of exactly how much but I kept a record. I was surprised to find that just the act of writing it down would make me hold myself accountable and I started avoiding some of my guilty pleasures because I knew I’d have to write it down.
I had an eating plan in college from our team’s nutritionist and I’d tried a few Whole30s post-college but hadn’t found anything that was sustainable with my lifestyle. I was hoping she would be able to give me one or two manageable tweaks to my diet that would make a little difference because to be honest, I love food, like I really like food. I lead local food tours in Shanghai for Untour Food Tours to give guests a taste of local Shanghainese breakfast and lunch foods. I know that I’ll never be someone who can only drink healthy juices or boiled chicken or spend hours a day meal prepping.
After looking at my food diary, Esme pointed out that if I could switch my lattes for black coffees and avoid eating carbs at dinner or later, I might start to see a difference. I prefer my coffee black but I guess my every-so-often lattes had added up to two or three a week. As for the dinner, my go-to homemade meal is breakfast for dinner: eggs, potatoes, mushrooms, and bacon. I’d even switched out the potatoes a few months ago for sweet potatoes. But since I work out during the morning or midday, it’s better to load my carbs around my workouts so I started to switch out potatoes with more mushrooms or zucchini or some other vegetable.
Six Weeks Out: Pick A Date, Any Date
The tryout dates and locations are up online. It’s time to put my money where my mouth is after telling (probably one too many) people that I would be trying out this summer.
The only option that worked with my travel schedule was July 7th, a few days after Independence Day and just a week after I was on holiday in Portugal but I didn’t have another option. To be honest, I think part of me wanted to continue talking about how I was going to try out but not actually do it. It’s funny how our brains think that way sometimes.
But after a little floundering, I realized I just needed to do it, so I submitted my athlete resume (high school sports count right?), paid my $30, and sent in my information.
My tryout would take place at 8:30AM on Saturday, July 7th in Lake Placid, New York. I would either make a fool of myself or be taking the first step into a new adventure. Now with an actual date on the calendar, I found my nerves begin to take over.
Three Weeks Out: Put Me In, Coach
I’m back in the US for my younger brother’s high school graduation and a few work meetings. I rejoin my local CrossFit gym to keep up my routine and I start looking for a coach who can help me with my running form. I’m secretly hoping they’ll be able to suggest one or two things and magically make me a whole second faster (which is a lot in sprinting time).
I schedule a one-on-one with one of the local running coaches, Glenn. He watches me sprint and gives me a few pointers which is encouraging. To be honest, I was just happy he didn’t keel over laughing after seeing me run since I’ve never felt like the most graceful runner.
I’m not snail pace slow but I’ve never claimed to be a runner. I ran a half marathon a year out of college and while preparing for that, I’d hoped to discover the “runner’s high.” I ran a lot that spring as a part of my training and I felt nothing, zip, zilch, nada. Running has forever remained something for me that is a chore. With my workouts over the last few months, I’ve started to view running as a necessary evil — I don’t have to like it but it’s useful and sadly I need it to get better.
In my coaching session, we practice the standing long jump and again I feel good. I’m not as heavy feeling as I’d thought I would. The main feedback I get is to yell as I jump, not anything too crazy but a short burst to try to give my jump just a little extra oomph. I never was a yeller in college when I threw and back then my coach had tried to get me to do it and I really couldn’t. Since then, I’ve learned an extra grunt or short yell in CrossFit can make all the difference and it’s not actually that embarrassing at all. I give it a try and we see a small improvement in my jump. I make a note to be sure to yell at my tryout.
We test out the throws and everything seems fine. I don’t have the actual 12-lb weight I’ll be throwing but I feel like Wonder Woman throwing my 6-lb weight around so we’ll just have to wait and see until the day of. I leave my training session feeling a little more optimistic about my tryout, at least I won’t make a complete fool of myself.
One Week Out: Tick, Tock, Tick, Tock
Nerves are starting to overpower the excitement as the calendar has officially turned to July and there’s no more space for excuses and there really isn’t time left. I’m feeling more and more silly about trying out as my family has told most of my neighborhood.
The last two weeks have been filled with running into people saying “Oh, you’re the daughter trying out for the bobsled team?” *gives me a slow up-down.* There’s just enough of a pause for my inner evil voices to fill that silence with their inner judgement.
I’ve been feeling slow and sluggish after a week holiday in Lisbon at a friend’s bachelorette party. I was able to go on a few runs near our house but we were too far away for me to lift weights. Maybe the week of modified workouts is good for me since I’ll be better rested, though I’m not sure how much the cheese, bread, and wine helped.
I’m remind myself it’s all for fun and I just need to enjoy myself because hey at least I’m trying out. I order my sprint spikes because that’s a requirement for the testing. I used to have a pair of them from college but gave them to my high school for them to use after I graduated because I’d never thought I would ever need them again (little did I know I’d need them four years later). I find a used pair on Ebay that are an obnoxious purple and pink but the price is right and they are guaranteed that they’ll arrive before I leave for Lake Placid. As I click order, I realize I probably should have ordered these sooner (oops).
I invite my parents and brother to come along and support. Lake Placid is a six hour drive from Philadelphia and I don’t think I want people yelling and screaming my name but it’d be nice to have someone to talk to or look to for a reassuring smile during the tryout.
Two Days Out: New Shoes, Who This?
I have my sprint spikes in hand and I’m heading to the track to test them out. Since it’s only 48 hours until my tryout, I’m not going to do a full workout but want to get a few sprints in and make sure that the shoes work.
I put them on and run a few short sprints. They fit fine but definitely are a little snug and I can feel blisters starting to form on my heels. They’ll do, I just have to wear them for three 45-meter sprints and then I can switch back to my flat CrossFit shoes for the jumps and throws.
I spend some time looking up the results from the combines that happened earlier in the summer. There are some badass women out there who came out and crushed the workouts. There are also a few younger ones who got zero points, meaning they completed the events but their times were outside of the ranges that you can get scores for (ie. not fast enough, not far enough). This was oddly reassuring to me because I now know I wouldn’t be alone if I also got zero points. The women who’ve already competed have been of a variety of ages from 16–39 and weights, another fact that reassures me.
Earlier today, my mom asked me what success looks like from this weekend. Honestly, I’m just hoping to get close to what they’re looking for and then leave with a handful of things I can work on and spend the next year focusing more on my training and getting faster and stronger.
Worst case scenario, I bomb it and I’m so slow that I’m not even on the charts. I know that’s my inner evil voices again but sometimes they can be really convincing. I push them out by reminding myself that I need to have fun and hey how many people can say that they were an Olympic hopeful, even if it is just for a day.
Night Before: Butterflies for Breakfast
The butterflies about tomorrow are setting in hard now in my stomach. The weather looks like it’s going to be much cooler than the temperatures in Philadelphia this past week where we were hitting the 100s. Tomorrow at 8:30am looks to only by 60 or 65 degrees, slightly chilly but also warm enough for a good outdoor workout.
All I can hope is that tomorrow there are a range of women, in age and ability so that I feel like I fit in. It sounds silly that at a tryout where you want to stand out, all I can think about is how I want to blend in. I just want one other person to be just as good or as nervous as I am. It’s all just for fun, I say again. It’s a win to even be here.
My palms are sweating as I write this but I received an encouraging email from a friend I met volunteering at the Winter Olympics back in February. She’d been very supportive of my joking comments about trying out and she’s continued to support my dream. She sent me this quote from Colin Powell, “Optimism is a force multiplier.” Again, I tell myself, I’m here to have fun and just try.
My sports psychologist in college taught me that nerves are actually a good thing. It means your body is in heightened awareness and you’re ready for something to happy. It’s up to you to harness that extra energy to help you perform instead of letting it control how you do. Well I’m definitely nervous, so let’s try to channel this tomorrow.
I kept waking up every twenty minutes, starting at 5AM, a tell-tale sign that I’m nervous about oversleeping the day’s activities. I take a walk down the street from our hotel to grab my standard breakfast of champions: iced black coffee. I played around with intermittent fasting a few months ago and found that I actually like doing short workouts on an empty stomach. Plus, the way my stomach is dancing around, I don’t know if I could keep down solid food.
Pulling up to the track, the butterflies in my stomach haven’t calmed down at all but I’m partially relieved to get it all over with. I’d been talking about it with people for so long and finally it was here. I was ready to run, jump, and throw my way into my Olympic dream.
Within minutes of arriving, I run into an old UVA throwing teammate of mine, Christine. It’s nice to have a familiar face around and we meet a few of the other women trying out. They split us up men and women and we’re ready to roll.
They move through our group quick and efficiently, with each of us going one at a time, cycling through until we had three tries at each event.
The sprints were first, my least favorite, and I though I wasn’t feeling lightening fast, I wasn’t feeling slow either. Who knows the day’s perfect weather of 65 degrees and sunny could work in my favor and maybe the spring spikes will add an extra edge. They didn’t read us our times but I’m feeling good as we head into the broad jump.
I try my first jump with my sprint spikes on since I figured it couldn’t hurt. “2.04 meters,” lower than I’d hoped so I make the change to my CrossFit shoes. I’m going with comfort over flashiness and it pays off, as I improve on my next two jumps.
The last event, throwing, is right in my comfort zone. We’re throwing a 12-lb ball which isn’t heavy but the challenge is in the movement. After three throws and some high-pitched grunting which was my version of yelling, I feel good about my mark, somewhere in the 10 meter range.
And just as quickly as it started, it was over. We’re told the results will be posted tonight or tomorrow morning and those with over 500 points will be invited back for a rookie camp at the end of August.
A current US bobsled athlete was in our group, Nicole Vogt, who’s entering her eighth season as a bobsledder. She reassured everyone that she didn’t make it after her first combine and then trained for the following year before getting invited to rookie camp. Always encouraging that you don’t have to be a rockstar at this your first time around.
She emphasized that the coaches really want to see a strong sprint and back squat, which we didn’t do today as that’s only at the invitational camps. I love the lifting portions of my CrossFit workouts so if there’s anything I can work on for next year’s combine, it’s the sprints.
I get back in the car with my family and we hit the road for our six hour drive back home. I’m proud of myself for getting out there and doing it. It wasn’t as scary as I’d thought it would be and there were way more people also just trying out for fun which was reassuring. I already have my sights set on next year and how I could do better.
The Results & What’s Next
Sprints: 15m: 2.55 /30m: 4.61 /45m: 6.71 /30m Fly: 4.16 = 0 points
Broad Jump: 2.14 = 55 points
Shot Toss: 10.29 = 67 points
Total: 122 Points
It’s the night after the tryouts and I’ve had time to call friends, talk with my family, take a shower, and start to process the tryout. Seeing my score, 122 points, is bittersweet. I’m on the board, I didn’t get zero like my evil inner voice teased that I would. I also didn’t get 500 points which was their cutoff for rookie camp this year. Hell, I didn’t even get half of that.
But my inner optimist sees those zeros next to my sprints and I see hope and room for improvement. They don’t mark the ceiling of what I can do but merely the surface. I drop a tenth of a second and my score jumps from 0 to 60 points. Multiply that times four for each of the sprinting events and I have an extra 240 points on the board. That puts me in the mid 300s and a lot closer to the magic 500.
I’m happy with my shot toss and broad jump, my more comfortable events. I also wanted to jump and throw farther but I feel like that’s natural. In track events, it’s so black and white if you’ve been successful. You either ran fast or you didn’t, you threw or jumped far or you didn’t. You can say the effort counts but the measuring tape or clock really have the final say.
But at my core, I know that effort matters. I tried. I set a goal and I did it. I tried out for an Olympic development program.
One thing that I’ve continued to hold on to ever since walking off that track is the fire in my belly that pushes me to want to prepare for the 2019 combine already. I know what to expect and I know the flow of the day, all that is in my way is getting my body faster and stronger. I’ve missed that drive at times since college. I’ve learned that I need a goal, something tangible and measurable and it can’t be that number on the scale. It has to be something that I push my body to accomplish. And I’ll get there little by little each day.
Earlier this year, I got my first pull-up since college. Today, I tried out for an Olympic team. Next year, who knows.
Logan’s favorite memories growing up include camping out in bookstores waiting for the next Harry Potter book, cheering on her Philadelphia and UVA sports teams, and planning any and all kinds of events. She loves reading and listening to podcasts, which she credits for her interest in writing and telling stories. In her four years in China, she’s drank too many cups of coffee to count, developed a love of CrossFit and is forever in search of the perfect jianbing (Chinese breakfast pancake — it’s delicious). Connect with Logan on Twitter and LinkedIn.