All for a sport I barely knew how to do.
Photo: Mindy Keane
Nicole Brungardt, 27, is a field engineer at CenturyLink in Omaha, NE, an athlete on the USA Bobsled North American Circuit team and an Olympic bobsled hopeful. Here, she shares the unexpected journey that might just score her a spot on the USA Bobsled team at the next Winter Olympics.
A year ago, the word "bobsled" wasn't exactly top of mind. Now, it's pretty much all I think about in my free time—my pursuit to bobsled at the highest level is quickly shaping the next four years. Six months ago, I made the decision to pack up my life in Omaha and move across the country to train with USA Bobsled in Lake Placid, New York, all for a chance to make the Olympics. How I even got to the point that this was an option in my life is still hard for me to wrap my head around.
This whole journey started last summer, when I couldn't stop thinking about competing in a sport again. In 2012, I had graduated from Wayne State College in the tiny town of Wayne, NE, where I'd played volleyball and track (and even set some records). The Olympics had always been this sort of far-off, out-of-this-world dream. But even though I knew I was a strong, talented athlete, my sprint times weren't fast enough for the Olympics, so I put that goal on the shelf. I got an apartment with my stepsister and started working as a field engineer at CenturyLink in Omaha, training on my own just to stay in shape. Five years later, I still had this itch to be competitive in some way.
One day I was listening to Joel Osteen (a popular pastor) on the radio, and he was telling a story about Olympian Vonetta Flowers. She was an aspiring Olympic track athlete, but after several failed attempts to make the team, she turned to bobsledding—and won gold. I was intrigued but felt like it was too late for me to get involved in a new sport. How do you even try bobsledding, anyway? I didn't have the first clue about the sport, but the seed had officially been planted.
I sat on the idea for about a month, but I couldn't stop thinking about bobsledding. I started creeping on the Team USA website, and found out there were tryout events called combines all over the country that summer. There weren't any near me, but I scoped out a combine in Utah in June that seemed doable. I told my dad and we booked a long weekend trip to Park City. I was so excited to test my chops, but I didn't tell anyone outside my immediate family the real reason I was going. I hadn't competed in five years, and maybe I wasn't actually in great shape anymore. I was opening a door that might get slammed right back in my face. I told myself that if that ended up being the case, I could just call it a fun father-daughter trip and move on.
But that's not what happened.
When we arrived, I met up with 15 other athletes (only three of whom were women) and the organizers at a high school track. We completed three tests meant to measure our strength and power (the key components to being a good bobsledder). My scores for a standing long jump, a 15-, 30-, and 45-meter sprint, and an underhand shot put throw had to total over 500 points for me to make it to the next round of bobsled tryouts. I was confident going into it, and I was the only athlete there to get over 500. (FYI, Olympians use powerlifting and plyometrics to train for all different sports.)
The organizers let me know I would hear from the Team USA Committee, and my dad and I flew home, hyped up at the possibilities to come. I still had no idea what to expect, or how my life would change over the next few months.
Soon I got a call from the committee with an invite to August rookie camp at the Olympic training facility in Lake Placid. I'd spend a week out there with other new athletes, maxing out on our squats and power cleans (they'd add those scores to our combine numbers), and pushing a bobsled on wheels to get a feel for the actual sport. At the end of the week, we'd compete to see who moved on for a chance at team trials.
I had to go. But I also didn't have enough vacation days to take off a week of work on a whim. I went to my boss and told him what was up. "I thought that trip to Utah was kind of weird," he laughed. Amazingly, he let me take a few extra days off. My whole office jumped on the bobsled bandwagon—they even started a GoFundMe page after they found out what I'd secretly been up to. My family and I were paying out of pocket for all my travel and lodging, and without their support, I would have had to take out loans or put all my expenses on credit cards. It all ended up being worth it, though; I placed in the top three at rookie camp to move on to team trials. That meant I would get to stay and train with the current USA bobsled athletes in Lake Placid in the months leading up to the Olympics—as long as I was willing to take the leap.
After rookie camp, I traveled back to Omaha knowing deep down that I would definitely go back to New York in October. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I couldn't pass it up. I told my boss I was probably going to be away for the next four months, and he said they'd make it work so that I could keep my job. I was officially in the clear. I haphazardly packed a suitcase with winter clothes, my giant helmet and spikes, and flew off to Lake Placid.
I'd still never actually ridden a bobsled down a track.
The other athletes (mostly bobsled, skeleton, luge, and alpine skiers) and I lived in hotel-like dorms at the facility. (BTW, here's the difference between luge and skeleton.) I met my roomie and now best friend, along with crazy-famous athletes like Lolo Jones. The whole experience was surreal. We trained and traveled to compete for medals in various races that would determine what teams we ended up on. There's the North American Circuit (the team I'm on now), which is like JV. Then there's the World Cup Team (varsity) and the Olympic Team (on another level).
I was the only rookie in our group to win a gold medal during our training period—but I wasn't successful right off the bat. My first time actually going down actual track, I was terrified. You're going so fast you can barely see the turns coming, and I got major motion sickness. When I got out of the bobsled, I felt like I could have violently puked for days. It was so bad, I didn't know if I could keep competing—especially since it was on my home track in Lake Placid, and I'd be seeing a lot of that track if I kept trying for this. Enter: self-doubt. (Luckily, Dramamine made the runs much more tolerable.)
What Dramamine couldn't fix, however, was my first crash. I was going 80 miles per hour during my first race, and my pilot and I flipped on a turn. I screamed the entire way down. My shoulders were beat up and ice-burned. My pilot had a concussion. It was terrifying, but we were both too competitive to quit. We were back on the track the next week, and the two of us were bonded for life after that.
By now, my GoFundMe page had raised $20,000 to help me with my bobsled costs. It was the only way I was able to keep traveling with the team to rack up more race experience and medals. I spent November in Canada and December in Europe. By the end of the season, I'd eaten through my donations, but I came away with three gold medals and one fourth-place finish. I wasn't on the Olympic team (yet), but I'd put myself in the best position to be at the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.
I'm back in Nebraska now, but, mentally, I'm still riding that icy track. I'm all-in for any bobsled opportunities that pop up in the next four years. Once the season starts again next fall, I'll be trying out, traveling, and competing again—hoping that, this time, I'll make it to Olympic ice.
It might seem insane to leave your entire life behind to try a sport you've never done before, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. It certainly wasn't easy and, at times, it was completely petrifying, but it was also unbelievably fun. It showed me that when you take a leap of faith and trust yourself, things fall into place—or, at least start sliding down the track.
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