The U.S. Olympic bobsled team will be named on Monday—and there is a good chance there will be a Pacific Northwest athlete on the team. That’s unusual because the only World Cup-class bobsled track in the Western U.S. is in Utah.
Olympic hopeful Sam Michener of Gresham, Oregon, came to bobsled in adulthood. The life-changing tip came while Michener was wrapping up his undergraduate years at the University of Idaho. He was running track—he was a standout sprinter—and thinking about where to go for medical school.
One day an athletics department staffer pulled Michener aside.
"Trin, my sports psychologist was like, 'This is an opportunity for you. Have you thought about maybe pursuing bobsled?'" Michener said.
That was in the spring of 2012. The man making the suggestion was Greg Sun, a former Winter Olympian in two-man bobsled from the Caribbean island of Trinidad. Hence the nickname "Trin."
"It looked like he wanted to talk to me for some time. He was just waiting for the right moment,” Michener said. “My time was pretty filled with school and track. I'm not wanting to hear about something like bobsled. I don't even know what bobsled is at the time."
But Michener listened to Sun, whose three trips to the Winter Games in 1994, 1998 and 2002 coincided with the peak of tropical nation participation in Olympic bobsledding as well as the release of the Disney movie "Cool Runnings."
"He was like, 'Hey, you have some attributes that I think would fit well into the sport of bobsled. You should think about doing this combine,’” Michener said.
The combine was a tryout at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center. Michener learned the explosive speed and strength he had from being a track sprinter and football player were also the desirable skills for a pusher and brakeman in the back of a bobsled.
"I have always been a little bit of a risk taker, a little bit of a gambler,” Michener said. “I'll take the chance and go out there and try it. But I really didn't have any expectations. It was more, have fun for a week and see how it goes."
Michener tested well at the tryout and was invited to join the U.S. national developmental team. His transfer from the track to ice is actually the most common path onto the U.S. bobsled squad, according to the sport's national federation.
Michener has since moved up the ranks and the former Idaho Vandal, now 30, gives the count to launch the USA-2 sled, which is coincidentally driven by a former Boise State Bronco, Nick Cunningham. Their four-man bobsled can reach speeds in excess of 90 mph and pull five Gs in curves.
"When you get into a sled with three other guys in a choreographed way, that's what really gave me the bug,” Michener said. “Because what I missed since high school was the camaraderie - that was football in high school."
Michener is a product of Gresham's Sam Barlow High School, on the eastern fringe of Portland. He returned there to use the weight room and do sprints on the track during a short visit home for the holidays last month.
On the final weekend of the year, he bumped into his former football coach Bruce Schmidt who is now the school principal. Schmidt said he wants to figure out how to stream or record and playback Michener's Olympic races for students at the school.
"It's exciting,” Schmidt said. “It's really neat to see somebody who has worked so hard have the opportunity to compete for their country and to represent their community."
Michener trained with the national team alongside another convert to bobsledding from Oregon, 2012 Summer Olympics sprint relay medalist Ryan Bailey of Portland and Salem. But a doping suspension knocked Bailey off the U.S. team in November. Bailey contested the penalty on the basis that he made an inadvertent mistake with a supplement, but the appeal was denied.
Also hoping for good news from Monday’s 2018 Olympic team selection announcement is Summer Olympian turned Winter Olympic hopeful Lolo Jones, a 100-meter hurdler who was recruited to bobsled after the 2012 London Games. Men's bobsled team member Sam McGuffie played college football at Michigan and Rice University and spent some time in the NFL and the Canadian Football League before being introduced to bobsled by a strength coach around 2015.
At the 2018 Winter Games, the U.S. bobsledders will probably face their stiffest competition from traditional powers Germany, Switzerland, Canada and however many Russian athletes are let in under the Olympic flag.
Michener said he is unhappy about the deal that let the Russians come the PyeongChang Games despite a recent documented history in that country of systemic doping.