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THE COLOR OF U.S. BOBSLEDDING 2014: BLACK
By Eric Graham
Updated: February 6, 2014
By Arthur George and Gary Norris Gray
Like former hurdler Lolo Jones, Aja Evans and Lauryn Williams, two other new members of the United States Olympic Women’s Bobsledding Team, both made steep and rapid ascensions to make the team, and also with stunning athletic ability. The diversity and construction of the team remains controversial, however, largely around the retention of Lolo Jones and the demotion of past team veterans. Of the six woman final team, only one is caucasian, one is Hispanic; the remainder are African-American.
In the summer of 2012, Aja Evans scored 794 out of a possible 800 points in a combine test held by the U.S. Bobsled Federation and won the U.S. National Push Championship, emerging as if out-of-nowhere after a shot put career at the University of Illinois. Evans has won two golds and one silver medal in World Cup competition over 2013-2014, paired with top driver Elana Meyers. Lauryn Williams attended a rookie bobsled camp in Calgary, Canada in August 2013, and after just three days of training, finished third in U.S. National Push Championships.
Within three months, Williams earned a silver medal with Jazmine Fenlator in her first World Cup appearance. By January 2014, Williams had won gold in a World Cup race, pushing for driver Jamie Greubel.
A training session for Evans, as reported by the Chicago Tribune, would include sets of box squats, in which she eventually lifted 365 pounds; sets of dead lifts up to 195; crouching carries of a 40-pound sandbag; repeat flips of a 400-pound tire; and box jumps. Box jumps involve springing forward from a seated position to a stack of pads about 2 feet in front of the seat. Evans launched her 5-foot-10, 175-pound body to the top of a stack that was 4 feet, 3 inches high. Such is the strength and explosiveness of a bobsled pusher. Evans, when paired this season with driver Elena Meyers, has won three gold and two silver medals in World Cup competition.
Defending the Team
Bobsled driver Elana Myers defended the selection of Lolo Jones to the bobsled team. “Everyone may not agree with the decision,” she wrote on Facebook, “but the fact of the matter is the numbers supported the selection committee’s decision.” Myers said that the athletes that were chosen were because of the numbers they have put up this season, with subjective input from the bobsled drivers as to who it is believed would best contribute to success.
The hard-training Aja Evans defended the selection of Lolo Jones, and that Jones had earned her spot on the team. “I think it’s sad that takes away from the credit and hard work she’s put in the sport – because she has put in a lot of hard work into this sport just like the rest of us.”
Katie Eberling, one of the team veterans demoted to alternate status when Lolo Jones was named to the final squad, complained that she had been deprived of pushing for top drivers. Lolo Jones and driver Jazmine Fenlator finished seventh at the World Cup competition in Austria on January 19. When Fenlator raced with Katie Eberling a week earlier, they finished seventeenth. When Fenlator was paired with veteran Emily Azevedo, they placed fourth in a Lake Placid World Cup meet, but that race took place on December 14.
Fenlator had better results when paired with Azevedo rather than with Lolo Jones, finishing fourth twice, but no Azevedo pairing produced any medals this season. With Lolo Jones, Fenlator finished 15th and seventh, but Jones had medal wins with other drivers. On the World Cup circuit this season, Lolo Jones won two silvers to Eberling’s three bronzes, but one of Jones’ medal was with Meyers, the world’s No.2-ranked driver. Eberling did not have an opportunity to compete with Meyers, and it was said that decision was made to obtain performance criteria on newer athletes while the veterans were known quantities.
Brakeman Curt Tomasevicz, a brakeman on the United States’ gold medal 2010 Olympic four-man bobsled team, said that Evans and Williams were “good, solid picks,” but he questioned the selection of Lolo Jones. Tomasevicz was involved in creating the selection criteria, but did not participate in the selection itself.
“In my opinion, Aja was a clear-cut No. 1,” Tomasevicz said. “Lauryn definitely had some great results and was a distant second and not far ahead of the other three,” Jones, Eberling, and Azevedo. Tomasevicz told USA Today that “It’s hard for me to name one or two athletes that would completely agree with that decision” to advance Jones.
Emily Azevedo, who didn’t make the team behind Jones, believes the decision came down to more of a popularity contest than an actual competition. Steele, the CEO of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, states the decision came down to who was better leading up to the Olympic Trials because the numbers were so close.
“There is no doubt in my mind that people are disappointed that Katie and Emily did not make the team. But it’s never about publicity or marketing. The best way to market the sport is by winning. It was a really close call. That always makes it more difficult. The trending was going toward Lolo and she’s a great athlete and at the end of the day that’s who we think is a better brakeman for the Games.”
Jazmine Fenlator, driver of one of the three sleds that will go to Sochi, said that the team has developed a bond, and call themselves, with Jones, the Wolf Pack. ”We have each other’s backs,” said Fenlator. “We have great chemistry together; don’t know how the team would do without her.”
Recruiting Talent, Finding Diversity
Fenlator, who is black, said that the diversity of the team is broadening the sport. “We’re educating, we’re recruiting, but when you look at our team right now, it just goes to show you that winter sports can be for anyone. A lot of times it’s a stigma – winter sports, skiing, snowboarding, rich people do it and usually minorities stick to sports like basketball and football. It’s not the case. Sports are sports.”
Evans agreed. “I think this will definitely open a lot of doors for minorities. Young women are going to see that there’s big opportunities outside of what they’re used to. This is really stepping outside of what was my comfort zone – and I love it.”
“There’s a lot of winter sports that the athletes come from the local areas and it’s predominantly white and it’s a big deal for a person of color to sneak on a team,” U.S. Bobsled Federation CEO Darrin Steele said. “With us, they’re coming from football and track and field and college sports where you simply have a lot of diversity. We do a better job than most winter sports and we’re proud of that, but at the end of the day it’s about talent.”
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