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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: Driving a bobsled with Olympic medalist Elana Meyers Taylor
November 9, 2018

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LAKE PLACID - Bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor has the Olympic spirit. She likes to win, she likes to be in the driver's seat, and she likes to pay it forward to the next generation, making sure America's athletes are prepared to compete in future Olympic Winter Games.

Meyers Taylor, 34, is from Douglasville, Georgia. Over the past 11 seasons, she's won more than 60 medals, including three Olympic medals, a bronze in 2010 and silvers in 2014 and 2018; and four World Championship gold medals, two for the team event and two driving her own sled.

Exactly how many medals has she won since joining the U.S. bobsled team in 2007?

"To tell you the truth, I have no idea," Meyers Taylor said at the USA Bobsled & Skeleton office on the second floor of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid. "I'm always on to the next thing, so there's days even I forget I'm an Olympic medalist, believe it or not. ... The focus is on 2022 or even this year, the World Championships."

Meyers Taylor was the only woman on the U.S. bobsled team this year to get a bye - ensuring her place on the team without trying out this fall at the Mount Van Hoevenberg track, based on her results from last season. She was ranked No. 2 in the World Cup standings.

The 2018-19 World Cup season begins the second weekend of December in Sigulda, Latvia. The World Cup tour comes to North America at the end of the season, with a stop in Lake Placid on Feb. 15-16 and Calgary, Alberta on Feb. 23-24 with the World Championships in Whistler, British Columbia in March.

Meyers Taylor said her main goal for the year is to learn more about driving and to refine her skills.

"I feel like I'm in a really good place in my sled, but I want to continue to get better. Of course, you want to win races. You want to win a World Championship ... but at the end of the day, I'm going to use this year to kind of lead into the next three and then lead into the Olympics in 2022 in as good shape as possible."

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Becoming an Olympian

When Meyers Taylor was young, she didn't dream about becoming a bobsledder. She grew up playing softball. Yet, no matter the sport, she definitely wanted to be an Olympian.

"I was trying to make the Olympic softball team," she said. "I had an Olympic tryout and it went horribly awful, and then softball was taken out of the Olympics, so I knew I wouldn't be on that team and I knew I wouldn't play softball. ... But at the end of the day, I had an Olympic dream, and I wanted to do whatever I could do to make it happen."

One day, Meyers Taylor's parents were watching bobsledding on TV and they suggested she try bobsledding.

"And I was like, 'Sure, why not?' And I just googled it and emailed the coach and got invited to a tryout," she said.

That's typical for bobsledding; many of the team's athletes come from other sports, including track and field. Lauren Gibbs, Meyers Taylor's brakeman from the 2018 Winter Olympics, came from volleyball.

Meyers Taylor made the U.S. bobsled team in 2007 and competed as a brakeman for three seasons, earning a bronze medal at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver with pilot Erin Pac. Yet she knew the first week in bobsled that she wanted to be a pilot.

"After the push, you don't really do much," she said. "You're just trying to stay in a low aerodynamic position. You know, we're not really pulling the brakes all the way down or anything like that. So I'm just sitting there with my head between my knees, and I have no control. I was like, 'This sucks. I want control of this thing.'"

As soon as the 2010 Olympics were over, Meyers Taylor attended bobsled driving school and made the transition from the back of the sled to the front because, as she said, "'I've got to take control of my career.'" She earned her first Olympic medal as a pilot - a silver - in 2014 at the Sochi games.

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A year-round process

Meyers Taylor and Gibbs were the first bobsledders to head down the Mount Van Hoevenberg track in Lake Placid on Monday, Oct. 15, the day the sliding center opened for the season. Practice on their home track that week led to the team trials the following week. And while it was the beginning of this year's sliding for the bobsled team, it was not the beginning of this season's preparations; that began in the spring.

"Typically, your fitness goes down a little bit through the course of the season, so we want to make sure we come into the season as fit as possible and try to maintain that throughout the course of the season so we're ready to go at the World Championships," Meyers Taylor said. "So we've got six months to maintain our fitness and hopefully even try to improve it. But it's very difficult when we're on tour, so that's what we're doing all summer long. We started around May 1st honing those skills, honing that speed and power."

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Honing skills

Even as she continues to recover from an injury - partially tearing her left Achilles tendon a week before the 2018 Winter Olympics - Meyers Taylor is working on her driving skills. Going 80 to 95 mph down an icy track is always a challenge, especially with unpredictable variables such as weather and ice conditions.

"I haven't ever had a perfect run," she said. "I don't know anybody who has had a perfect run. So there's always stuff you can learn. Not to mention, we travel throughout the world and a lot of these tracks we don't have a lot of runs on, so every time we're there, you're learning something new, learning something new about curves, learning something new about your driving skills and continuously refining them."

This year, Meyers Taylor is focused on mastering the track in Whistler. Doing that from her home track in Lake Placid is difficult but not impossible, she says.

"Every single track in the world, there's bits and pieces you can learn from other tracks that will help you. So even though we're in Lake Placid now, there's stuff at this track that will help me drive Whistler better. So if I can really get good command of my sled and really learn more about, say, Curve 5, it might mimic a curve in Whistler and really help me hone those skills."

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Equipment

Before she gets to the track, Meyers Taylor is in the gym every day. That means weightlifting and sprints.

"Bobsled is one of the most physically intense sliding sports because we have two people pushing, in the women's bobsled case, 170 kilograms, which is about a 360-odd-pound sled," she said. "So we have to be as strong and as fast as possible."

The team also has a dry-land push track - a bobsled on a rail system that allows athletes to push and refine their skills before they get to the track.

Once at the track, Meyers Taylor works on her sled. She has a two-man and a four-man sled for the season, although most of her competition is in the two-man sled. With only one mechanic for the entire team, athletes spend a lot of hands-on time with their sleds.

"It's funny because at the beginning of the year, I'll start with my hands all manicured and freshly polished," she said, "but by the time we even start ... my nail polish will be gone, my hands will start to get a little bit rougher because we're really intense on working on these sleds on a daily basis."

Every day, the first thing bobsledders do is put the runners (blades) on their sleds. They polish them to make sure there aren't any scratches, which create friction on the ice, slowing down the sled. Pilots also make sure their steering systems are set up. There is no steering wheel. It's a pulley system - with D-ring handles - so it has to be constantly greased and maintained.

Meyers Taylor says that choosing the right runners for the weather and ice conditions is crucial.

"There's days when you are like, oh, the ice is a little bit slushier and you choose the wrong runners and you can just feel when you're going down the track, you're like, 'Oh my gosh. My sled is just digging into this ice way too much. I made the wrong decision with the equipment.' ... Sometimes, it costs you the race, but you learn from that situation and then hopefully the next time you choose better equipment."

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Future

Meyers Taylor has taken on a leadership role for the U.S. women's bobsled team this year. With veteran pilot Jamie Greubel Poser's retirement announcement on Oct. 19, the team is now in a rebuilding stage. Greubel Poser won 27 World Cup medals and a bronze medal at the 2014 Olympics.

"Part of my job now is to make sure we're in a good position that when I do have to retire, when that day comes when I'm no longer driving a sled, the program will be in good shape," Meyers Taylor said, adding that U.S. women bobsledders have won a medal at every World Championships or Winter Olympics since the 2008-2009 season. "For me, it's about making sure when I leave that we continue that legacy and continue that tradition."

Her leadership skills are also being shared with students around the world. Once a month, she videotapes inspiring messages for the Classroom Champions program. She has two classrooms in Germany and two in New Jersey, and she shares lessons such as perseverance, self esteem and confidence.

Meyers Taylor is the current president elect of the Women's Sports Foundation, an organization founded in 1974 by tennis legend Billie Jean King.

"I'm really looking forward to trying to increase the participation of women and girls in sports throughout the world," she said.

After bobsledding, Meyers Taylor said she'd eventually like to become the CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, but even if that doesn't happen, she'll continue to be involved in sports.

"I've always viewed sport as a microcosm to the greater world, and I think there's a lot of good that can come from sport, whether it's at the grassroots level or at the highest level," she said. "People see a lot of hope in sports, and if I can be in a position to influence that and change it for the better, then that's where I want to be."

For now, however, Meyers Taylor says her sights are set on the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, China, driving a bobsled for Team USA.

"I always told myself that I'll do it until the wheels fall off, wheels meaning my legs. I'll go until I can't go anymore. Hopefully that point isn't before 2022."

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