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Katie Eberling came to bobsledding late, then got on the fast track

Katie Eberling had finished a college volleyball career and was preparing to become a teacher. Then a Facebook message led her to a new career: bobsledding brakeman. She's an Olympic hopeful.

January 16, 2014|Stacy St. Clair
  • Bobsledder Katie Eberling poses for a portrait during the U.S. Olympic Committee's media day last spring.
Bobsledder Katie Eberling poses for a portrait during the U.S. Olympic… (Harry How / Getty Images )

Katie Eberling laughed when she first saw the private message sent to her Facebook account in December 2010.

Olympic bobsledder Elana Meyers, who won a bronze medal at the Vancouver Games earlier that year, had written a note asking if Eberling would be interested in trying out for the U.S. team.

It didn't matter that Eberling's knowledge of the sport was largely limited to the plot of "Cool Runnings" and a few races shown on television during the Olympics. Meyers cared only that the suburban Chicago native was a collegiate volleyball star who had been named to the National Strength and Conditioning Assn. All-American team.

"I wanted really strong, powerful athletes. Katie fit that description," Meyers said. "But I know she thought I was crazy."

Concerns about Meyers' sanity aside, the offer simply didn't jibe with the future Eberling had mapped out for herself. She had just finished a record-breaking volleyball career at Western Michigan University and had spent the last semester student-teaching in Kalamazoo. With graduation approaching, she was starting to apply for elementary education jobs back in Illinois.

The idea of learning to bobsled seemed, well, laughable.

It was only some time later, after talking with her parents, that Eberling realized what Meyers was proposing: a chance to compete again, to train, to push herself and to defy expectations. In short, Meyers was offering everything Eberling had enjoyed about being an athlete.

"So I decided to give it a try," said Eberling, now 25. "What did I have to lose?"

Not much, as it turns out.

Eberling has built a world-class bobsledding career that includes a silver medal at last year's world championships. After securing three medals in four World Cup competitions this season, she stands on the cusp of making her first Olympic team.

The team — which will be named Sunday — is spoiled for choice when it comes to brakemen, the athletes who help push the sled at the start and then work the brakes to control speed. In addition to Eberling, the deep U.S. talent pool includes former college track star Aja Evans, world indoor champion hurdler Lolo Jones and Olympic silver medal 100-meter runner Lauryn Williams.

All four women had success on the World Cup circuit this season and all could legitimately claim a spot on one of the three U.S. sleds expected to compete in Sochi next month. Eberling, however, is the only one of the four to medal at the world championships — a feat she accomplished twice in her first two seasons.

"We have so many talented brakemen, it's going to be hard for our coaches to pick just three people," Eberling said. "I'm working my hardest to make sure I'm one of them. That's all I can do."

On a late December morning in her hometown of Palos Hills, Ill., Eberling's mind seemed wholly focused on her upcoming World Cup competitions in Europe. Following a detailed workout devised by her national team coaches, she pushed through a series of weightlifting sets under the watchful eye of U.S. Olympic bobsledding champion Steven Holcomb.

Holcomb, who was in town to attend a wedding, was staying at Eberling's parents' house and had joined her for the morning training session. In between a set of squats, Holcomb noticed the Amos Alonzo Stagg High School weightlifting records posted on the gymnasium wall and asked Eberling if her name appeared there.

"No," Eberling said, shaking her head. "I was a stick when I went here."

"You looked a lot like a stick when you showed up at Lake Placid too," Holcomb said, referring to the full-time training facility in New York.

The 5-foot-10 Eberling weighed 140 pounds when she first appeared at the Olympic training center in 2011, making her at least two inches taller and 35 pounds lighter than the three brakemen who competed for the U.S. team in Vancouver. She seemed so lanky — at least from the beefy bobsledding perspective — Holcomb assumed her flirtation with the sport would be short-lived.

"At first sight, nobody thought she had much of a chance," he said. "She was a tall, skinny volleyball player. She didn't look like your average bobsledder."

Her athletic background, as much as her size, set Eberling apart from the women who traditionally compete for spots on the national team. Though track and field athletes had been turning to bobsledding for years, the U.S. program had seen few volleyball converts.

Meyers, however, liked what she saw on Eberling's resume. In addition to the impressive sprinting and lifting numbers that made Eberling a strength and conditioning All-American, Eberling had led Western Michigan to a 2008 NCAA Sweet 16 appearance as an outside hitter her junior season and still holds the school record for most matches and sets played and most career kill/dig double doubles.

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