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Becoming a bobsledder

10/3/2012
Elana Meyers, left, and Erin Pac won the bronze in two-woman bobsled at the 2010 Olympics. Courtesy of Elana Meyers

How does a girl from Georgia (average annual snowfall: 2 inches) grow up to be an Olympic bobsledder? Well, it all goes back to 1996, when the Summer Games were in my hometown of Atlanta.

I was 11, and I got to go to the Olympic village and even hold the torch. Afterward, every time we drove downtown I'd see the Olympic rings and the torch as a constant reminder, and the dream of making an Olympic team myself really got stuck in my head.

The Atlanta Games were also the first time softball was an official Olympic sport, and softball had been my sport of choice since I was 9. I went on to play it in college at George Washington University and to play a summer of pro ball after I graduated.

But it turned out that softball wasn't going to be my ticket to the Olympics, because it was announced it would be taken out of the Games after 2008. So in 2007, I officially retired from the sport and set my sights on med school.

I couldn't let go of that Olympic bug, though. I really, really wanted to be an Olympian. My parents knew about this dream of mine, and they suggested I try my hand at bobsled. They'd seen it on TV at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 and thought it would be a good sport for me. Bobsled is best for athletes who are fast and strong, which were my strengths in softball.

I emailed Bill Tavares, one of the U.S. national bobsled coaches at the time, and he invited me up to the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., for a tryout. I did well in the test, which involved a series of sprints and power lifts, and they invited me to train at the center. I was crazy excited but had no idea what I was getting into. I knew I was somehow one step closer to my Olympic dream and could see it within my reach, but I had no idea how hard getting there would really be.

Honestly, I was horrible for the first two months of training. If you've seen "Cool Runnings," it looks pretty easy. You're just riding in a sled, right? Not exactly. Bobsled actually involves a series of complex movements that aren't like those in any other sport. You put your body into a really awkward position to push a 400-pound sled downhill on ice.

It takes a lot of repetition to get the hang of it, but because of the limited number of sleds and the huge amount of setup time each run requires, you get only two runs a day -- about five seconds each. That's 10 tries, total, a week. Most of what we do is get the sled set up: We'll spend four hours at the track getting prepared, and the total training time is two minutes. Before that we're like mini-mechanics, doing things like putting the blades (called runners) on our sled and sanding them down to make sure there are no scratches that could slow us down.

In bobsled you work as a team -- a driver and a brakeman. Both athletes push, but the brakeman's biggest responsibility is to push as fast as she can and get in and ride down in a good aerodynamic position. The driver helps to push but gets in first and then steers the sled down the track. We aren't just along for the ride, despite how it looks!

The hard part is, you aren't always racing with the same person, so someone who is your competition one week might be your teammate the next. Each week, the coaches determine the teams based on medal potential and previous races. The coaches are looking to put the best teams together for each race, which can vary from week to week.

This is exactly what happened to me at the Vancouver Games. I was the brakeman, and my driver, Erin Pac, was a very intense competitor I'd raced against on and off throughout the three years leading up to that race. We ended up being a perfect match, though. I'd never seen her smile in a race, but right before the start, I saw the crowd and started smiling hard and laughing under my helmet. Seeing how excited I was, she busted out a big smile. We both had a lot of fun that day, and I think that's why we won the bronze medal.

Now I'm in my third year of driving, competing against people who have been doing it for 20 years. I knew I wanted to start driving a bobsled from the moment I rode down as a brakeman, but I also knew my best chance to make the 2010 Games was as a brakeman, so I waited. Driving isn't for everyone, but now more and more strong brakemen are becoming drivers. Erin, my Vancouver teammate, was first a brakeman, and I followed in her footsteps.

One of my goals for the first World Cup race coming up on Nov. 9 is to break the record for fastest start. I have the record as a brakeman, so I'm actually aiming to break my own record, this time as a driver.

And I'm still hungry for gold. I have a silver from 2009 worlds, a bronze from the 2012 worlds and Olympic bronze, and I'm really getting tired of colors other than gold. I want to win my first World Cup race and a world championship this season.

It's all about getting experience now so that when I go into 2014, I'm prepared to make the Olympic team and go out and win. This year's Summer Games were so inspiring, especially the women athletes: Serena Williams, Missy Franklin and the Fierce Five gymnastics team. My favorite part, though, was beach volleyball, where it came down to two USA teams fighting for the gold. That's what I'd like to see happen with the bobsled in Sochi, Russia.

I think we can do it.