Elana Meyers Taylor is one of the best in the world at what she does; driving a bobsled down the side of a mountain. When the 2018 Olympics begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea in February, she will, barring unforeseen circumstances, be piloting one of the American sleds.
But first, there is a demanding World Cup schedule ahead, consisting of eight events, beginning in Lake Placid, New York in early November. As the calendar turned to October, Meyers Taylor and the rest of the American contingent of sliders reassembled in Lake Placid for training.
“The good thing in Olympic seasons is we have the Olympics at the end,” Meyers Taylor says, “and you know each week is leading up to that Olympic competition. So it kind of drives itself. You stay motivated knowing that you’ve got this huge event coming up, but also, you take it week by week and have different goals for every single week.”
The 2018 Olympics will be Meyers Taylor’s third. She won a bronze medal as a brakeman in 2010 in Vancouver (Erin Pac was her pilot), then took a silver as a pilot four years ago in Sochi with Lauryn Williams as her brakeman. Her resume also includes seven world championship medals in the past nine years, two of them gold.
Qualification for the U.S. Olympic team is based on international points earned during the 2017-18 season. The team will be named on Jan. 15.
As is usually the case with athletes competing in her sport, Meyers Taylor, who turned 33 on October 10th, has a wide-ranging athletic background. Growing up in Georgia, she played basketball and soccer and ran track before concentrating on softball at George Washington University where she helped get the varsity program started (she has both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Georg Washington as well as a master’s degree from Keller Graduate School of DeVry University.)
After college, she played professional softball and earned two caps with the U.S. national rugby sevens team. She switched to bobsledding at the urging of her parents; the sport turned out to be a perfect fit.
“Growing up I always liked speed,” she says, “I always liked going fast. We used to ride downhill on skateboards head first and feet first in Georgia. So I’ve always had that kind of edge about me. Bobsled seemed like the perfect mix of using my athleticism with that need for speed.”
Meyers Taylor made the U.S. national team in 2007 at age 22 and won her first world-championship medal two years later, as a brakeman.
She started driving following the 2010 Olympics age 26, which meant accepting the responsibilities that go with the task.
“The biggest difference between a brakeman and a pilot is the brakemen have to be as strong and fast as possible for those five seconds (at the start).” Meyers Taylor says, “and if you’re not the strongest and the fastest, you don’t have a spot on that sled, versus as a pilot, you know you’re racing every week. You have a unique skill that gives you the ability to be on the sled every week. But what comes with that is the responsibility of not only getting down track safely but also getting down track fast. The majority of the work that goes toward the winning of medals is your responsibility so if something good, bad, or indifferent happens it’s your responsibility.
“I like to look at it as pieces of the puzzle and putting those pieces together to try to navigate the curves in the tracks has always been something that thrills me.”
Meyers Taylor points out that transitioning from brakeman to pilot requires negotiating a learning curve. “Part of it was going through the ups and downs,” she says, “because every pilot is going to go through a certain amount, but I was fortunate in that I garnered success very early. I finished second in the junior world championships and ninth in the world championships my very first year of driving so that was pretty remarkable, and then to win a world championship medal in just two years of driving, I don’t think we’ve seen that in a long time.
“So, I had a lot of success early on, but my career has had more ups and downs than just about anybody’s career. Yes, I’ve won races, but I’ve also crashed out of races and had some pretty huge setback as well.
During competition, Myers Taylor strives for a balance between relaxation and alertness “The biggest thing for me is I just try to stay focused and relaxed,” she says. “I know that in order to be able to control something going that fast you have to be able to make split-second decisions and if I’m tight, or I’m too focused or too anxious, I’m not going to be able to make those split-second decisions. So when I’m in my sled, I have to be in my sled, I have to be present in every single moment.”
Meyers Taylor admits that while she’s able to achieve that mindset with relative ease in competition, it’s much harder for her to do during training runs.
“It’s very hard in practice to make sure you’re not over focused and make sure you’re not too tight,” she says. “Because in practices, you’re really trying to fix lines and figure out what is the best line.
“If anybody’s ever seen my practice times or anything like that, I’m usually at the bottom of the pack. I don’t practice well, not for lack of trying, but probably for lack of over trying. The day before world championships this year I think I finished 11th in training so I’m not a very good practice player. But during races, I’m just able to let my mind relax and rely on all the hard work I’ve put in over the week.”
The American coaching staff has the final say on pairing up brakemen and pilots but the pilots themselves have significant input into the process. Meyers Taylor has very definite ideas about the type of individual she wants in the sled with her in Pyeongchang, or elsewhere for that matter.
“Speed and power (are important),” she says. “How fast can they actually push a sled? But we’ll rotate throughout the season to make sure we have the right combination.
“But the biggest thing that I’m looking for is somebody who ‘s willing to get in the sled every single day. Somebody who is willing to basically ride or die with me. “We’re going to have our crashes, we’re going to have our downsides but I need somebody who’s resilient behind me who can go through all the ups and downs and still fight for medals.
“At the end of the day, the Olympics is going to be a very tightly contested race. It’s going to be difficult to win it. I want to win a gold medal more than anything, but I know I’m going to need a person behind me who has got that same huge drive and that same hunger to do it because it’s going to be a battle from to finish.”
Meyers Taylor is grateful for the support of her husband, fellow bobsledder Nicholas Taylor. The couple married in April of 2014 and plan to start a family following the upcoming Olympics.
“He is my biggest supporter,” she says, “and he’s there and has not only provided that emotional support but also supplies physical support, whether it’s moving my sleds or making my (spikes). Without that support, I wouldn’t be as successful as I am, not just him but my entire family.
“But to have him there by my side and to understand the ins and outs, the ups and downs. He unfairly sometimes serves as my sports psychologist just because he knows me better than I know myself.”
Meyers Taylor isn’t planning on stepping away from the competitive arena anytime soon. She’d like to compete through the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. When her competitive career does end, she plans to stay involved in the Olympic movement. She’d like to be the CEO of the International Olympic Committee one day; she served an internship with the IOC in the summer of 2015.
She’d also like to help create opportunities for other American women who want to get involved in bobsledding.
“What I would like to be most known for in my sport is paving the way for other women to get involved,” Meyers Taylor says. “Whether it’s four-man, hopefully one day a woman will able to drive four women in competition or just have more opportunities in the United States to show your strength and to show that big powerful strong women can be successful in athletics and can go on to do these things and to be successful on the world stage, that’s the legacy I hope to leave.
“There are going to be Americans who win medals. There have always been Americans on the U.S. bobsled side to win medals I feel like there always will be just because we make sure we have a strong pipeline, but I want to be known as one of those persons that left the sport better than when I came in.”