The pay is awful, the workplace is freezing, making a mistake is about the only way to get noticed and trips down the mountain are always accompanied by some big-time turbulence.
Such is life as a bobsled push athlete.
Glamour-seekers need not apply. They are the offensive linemen of bobsledding, anonymous yet essential. Drivers get all the credit, but on race day it’s often the push athletes who make all the difference — and the corps of pushers who’ll cram into the sleds that the U.S. has taken to the Sochi Olympics may be the world’s best.
"I think it’s the deepest group we’ve ever had," U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation CEO Darrin Steele said.
Hoping to win medals in two-man, four-man and women’s bobsledding in Sochi, the U.S. has spent tons of time and money on making their sleds as fast as possible for sliding’s biggest races. But ultimately, winning and losing on the Olympic stage will largely hinge upon how effective the people who will be pushing those sleds are in their five-second explosive stints of work when the light turns green.
While keeping perfect time with the driver, the push athlete has to run at the same pace down an icy slope, find a way to get that sled going as fast as humanly possible before jumping inside, then remain low in an aerodynamic position for the rest of a trip that looks smooth on television but is actually quite bumpy.
"I love that extra emphasis of the Olympics because that’s our biggest race," said U.S. veteran pusher Curt Tomasevicz, who was part of the team that won a four-man gold at Vancouver in 2010 and is making Sochi his final Olympics. "That’s what keeps you going. When it’s every four years it’s four times the commitment, and it means even more to an athlete when they get there."
It looks easy. Looks are deceiving.
In addition to the sessions they all spend in a gym in a constant quest to get stronger and faster, the push athletes typically also serve as sled crews. They help pack the crates to ship the sleds around the world. They spend hours several days a week sanding down the steel runners, by hand, buffing away even the tiniest imperfections. And they don’t really get much of a say in anything; the driver, pretty much, is the boss.
"I didn’t know what to expect," women’s pusher Lauryn Williams said. "I didn’t know how much was involved, or how much I was going to like it."
Williams, Lolo Jones and Aja Evans are the three women on the Olympic push roster, all of them competing in the Winter Games for the first time, though Williams and Jones have a combined five trips to the Summer Games as track stars (and Williams also has an Olympic gold already in her collection).
Tomasevicz, Steve Langton and Utah Valley University alumnus Chris Fogt will be with Park City’s Steven Holcomb in USA-1 for the four-man race in Sochi. Tomasevicz has won golds on both the Olympic and world-championship stages, Langton helped push Holcomb to two- and four-man world titles in 2012, and Fogt was with now-retired pilot John Napier for the Vancouver Games.
They crashed out of that race, and Fogt has been waiting for a second chance since.
"No one will ever ask, ‘How did you race in Altenberg?’ No one will ever ask, ‘How did you race in Park City?’ either," Fogt said. "It’s always, ‘How was your race at the Olympic Games? And for the past four years, I’ve had to say we didn’t finish the race. That’s been a lot of my motivation. I’ve worked my way up and those days when I don’t want to train, not wanting to answer that question anymore has added fuel to my fire."
Justin Olsen was part of USA-1 in Vancouver and is back on this Olympic team, along with Johnny Quinn — a former football player who had stints with the Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers — and Dallas Robinson.
Each has a diverse story, and a few years ago none of them surely saw themselves in this spot.
And each has seemed to have gotten hooked since.
"Last year when we raced in Sochi my grandfather had just passed and I thought about going home," Evans said. "My mom convinced me to stay, my brother too, and that was the moment where I realized this was real. I was in Sochi and this was happening. So let’s do this. That was the turning point for me. That’s when I was no longer the deer in the headlights. I wasn’t the new girl anymore. I’m here and I’m going for the gold."
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