Bobsledding is a unique athletic endeavor in that its athletes are largely transplants from other sports.
A little over a decade ago Lauren Gibbs was the captain of the volleyball team at Brown University. In high-school, she also played soccer and participated in track and field.Today she’s hoping to view the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang from the back of a bobsled as a brakeman.
Not so long ago, Gibbs, who turned 33 in March, was a retired athlete, living in Denver and working in corporate America. But a chance encounter with a friend at the gym changed all that.
“She came over and asked me ‘How much do you squat’” Gibbs recalls “and I told her how much I squatted. She came back and asked ‘How much do you deadlift? And I told her how much I dead lifted and she was like ‘Can you sprint?’
Gibbs’ friend was Jill Porter who had played Rugby Sevens with Elana Meyers Taylor, one of the premier bobsled pilots in the world.
In short order, Gibbs, who was 30 at the time, found herself in Colorado Springs at a combine for prospective athletes where she did well enough to be invited to the Olympic training center in Lake Placid, New York where her technique would best be described as ‘raw.’
“I went to the camp (in August of 2014) and was just awful,” Gibbs says, “probably the worst of everybody at the technique and my coaches kind of kept looking at me like ‘What are we going to do with her? She looks like a bobsledder but she’s terrible.’ “I had terrible body control and wasn’t a sprinter in college. All these people were sprinters so their technique was a little more natural.”
By the end of the week-long camp, however, Gibbs’ considerable competitive instincts had kicked in; she won a push competition. Her reward was an invitation to the national push championships in September where she placed second to U.S. Olympian Lauryn Williams.
In October, Gibbs found herself back in Lake Placid preparing for the U.S. team trials. Up to that moment, she had never been in a bobsled before. Her first experience in a sled came in a training run with Meyers Taylor as her pilot. “I was just worried about being able to breathe for some reason,” Gibbs recalls.
“Everybody has fears about what it was going to feel like and I knew it was going to be rough because everybody has told me that, but I was afraid of just running full speed and being in a bent-over position and not being able to get my helmet or my mouthguard off. I knew I was safe because I went down with Elana and by that time she had already won two (Olympic) medals but it was, disorienting I would say was how my first ride felt.
Because you don’t know the track, so you don’t know “Are you supposed to hit that wall? or ‘Is it supposed to be that bumpy? Is it supposed to be that back and forth? is it supposed to rattle that much? Is the sled supposed to make that much noise? All your senses are heightened because you just don’t know what to expect and I think that’s the scariest part for most people.”
Today Gibbs considers heading down a mountain at perhaps 80 miles per hour as ‘Just a normal day at the office,” but her office environment is different than most. “Some have likened it to being kicked off a cliff in a trash can,” she says, “but it’s nothing like a roller coaster, nothing like a waterslide. It can be more violent than that because the track is not smooth, its fast and it’s bumpy and if you don’t know the track it can be a little jarring. “And then once you learn the track and you understand the sport you (realize) at Lake Placid the pilot is supposed to tap the wall out of the third corner because that’s just the fastest way to get through.”
Gibbs has spent three years with the U.S. national bobsled team in a sport where the team concept is somewhat nebulous. While the athletes are all wearing the colors of Team USA they are also competing against each other.
To put it succinctly, there are only so many slots available; the U.S. will enter a maximum of three sleds in the competition in PyeongChang so there are slots for three pilots and three brakemen. About the only time teamwork is mandatory is when the athletes are moving their sleds, which weigh a minimum of 165 kilograms (363.76 pounds).
“When one sled wins, the whole team doesn’t win,” Gibbs points out. “Team USA wins but really only two people are going to win a gold medal at the Olympics.”
A number of elements factor into pairing a pilot and a brakeman. For team trials, the pilot, who is the more prominent half of the tandem, has her choice of a partner. But the American coaching staff is involved in the process when it comes to preparing for the World Cup season or the Olympic Games. Ideally, the top pilot is paired with the fastest brakeman. But weight also factors into the equation.
International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) rules stipulate that the sled with the two athletes in it ready to race can weigh no more than 325 kg (716.5 pounds). Subtracting the minimum weight of the sled means the competitors themselves, in full gear, can weigh no more than a combined 160 kgs. or 352.74 pounds.
Ideally, the sled itself should be as light as possible to make it easier to push at the start, but the sled with the athletes aboard should be as heavy as allowable since the force of gravity has a greater impact on a heavier object sliding moving down a mountain. In practice, the idea is to come as close to the weight limit without exceeding it. But if the pilot is a bigger woman, her companion in the sled must be smaller to avoid exceeding the weight limit.
So Gibbs had to lose weight, some 20 pounds her first year with the team when the weight limits were slightly higher than they are now. The following season (2015-16), in an effort to get more athletes from more nations involved in the sport, the ISBF lowered the weight limits to the current standards, and Gibbs had to lose an additional 10 pounds. She’s listed as weighing 172 pounds.
The relationship between a brakeman and her pilot varies according to the personalities of the athletes involved.
“Obviously you want to be jelling,” Gibbs says. “I think being connected is important, or at least kind of being on the same page. And getting along its preferred absolutely.”
Once the World Cup season begins pilot and brakeman are inseparable. “Once our season starts, we’re together until the end of the season,” Gibbs says. So it’s a lot of time together and whether you’re friends, don’t get along, acquaintances, or just teammates, you eat, sleep, breath, work out, train, compete together. I think our last season we were together for 13 straight weeks.”
Gibbs has been paired with a number of pilots over the course of her three-year career, including Meyers Taylor, with whom she won a bronze medal at the 2016 World Championships in Igls, Austria. She’s also teamed up with Jamie Greubel Poser, Jazmine Fenlator, and Brittany Reinbolt, with whom she spent the majority of the 20-16-17 World Cup campaign.
I’ve gotten a lot of experience,” Gibbs says. “I like that I’ve switched around a lot because if push comes to shove and I get chosen for the Olympic Games I know I’ll be comfortable with any pilot.”
At present, the members of the American team are training on their own. Gibbs is preparing for push championship events in July and September before she joins the rest of the American team in Lake Placid in October when the members of the National team will be selected. The Olympic team named in January 2018.
“I’m assuming making the Olympic team would be amazing,” Gibbs says. “I would be a first-time Olympian at 33 after supposedly retiring from elite sports. It would be the culmination of a dream I never even knew I had.”
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