Lolo Jones showed up in Lake Placid three weeks ago, unsure where her first foray into bobsledding could lead.
The answer might be another Olympics — only this time, the winter one.
Jones, a two-time Olympic hurdler, was one of 24 athletes announced Thursday as members of this season’s U.S. bobsled team, something that gives her the chance to vie for a spot on the World Cup circuit this winter and, possibly, represent her country at the 2014 Sochi Games.
“This is a breath of fresh air — cool, very cool, cold air,” Jones said.
It’s also what she said she desperately needed.
It’s been a rocky few months for Jones, who was criticized by even some of her own track teammates at the London Games for the enormous attention she generates — and how that attention isn’t always in line with accomplishment. She was the gold-medal favorite before hitting a hurdle and finishing seventh at Beijing in 2008, then managed only a fourth-place finish in London this summer.
So in Lake Placid, she’s tried to avoid the spotlight, even asking her new bobsled teammates if they’re comfortable having her around.
The answer has been a resounding yes.
“I didn’t have a lot of time to get to know Lolo through the media,” U.S. women’s bobsled coach Todd Hays said. “These three weeks, I’ve gotten to know her as an athlete. And she surprised me every day with how dedicated she is. The one word I keep coming back to is, she’s such a competitor. She cannot accept not being good at something. She gets up earlier than everybody else, goes to bed later, constantly trying to get better.”
Olympic sprint gold medalist Tianna Madison — part of the world-record-setting 4×100-meter relay team in London — also made the team as a push athlete. They’re the ones tasked with helping get the sled moving down the icy chute, then jumping into the back seat for the bumpy ride to the finish.
The first time she went down the mountain, Jones was ready to quit — and remembers looking around for the ambulance, just in case.
A few runs later, she was hooked.
“Definitely a thrill,” Jones said.
It was Hays who set this idea in motion when he invited U.S. track Olympic veterans Jones, Madison and Hyleas Fountain to the bobsled push championships earlier this month. Hays wanted to have accomplished athletes around his bobsled team to raise morale, and also wanted to see if he could strike gold by tapping into the track world — as bobsled has done countless times in the past — to find someone strong and speedy enough to push sleds.
Fountain would have been a strong candidate to make the team if she hadn’t gotten slightly injured.
“The obvious is their athleticism and that’s why we invited them here,” Hays said. “The other incredible quality about them, which was not known to me until they got here, was how competitive and dedicated they are in their pursuit of athletic excellence. They’re just great competitors and have become students of the game, just absolutely driven to succeed in whatever they try.”
Jones still plans to compete in hurdles at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Only now, a trip to Sochi might come first. As of now, she’s planning to take part in the next outdoor track season like usual. She’s passing on the indoor track season to pursue the bobsled idea.
“I just came out here and kind of needed to get away from track for a bit, kind of wanted to get some motivation,” Jones said. “I thought coming out here with the other girls that we could help each other, we could benefit from one another. I could help them with their speed and they could help me with my strength. And just being around them, hearing their goals gave me new goals and refreshed me.”
When Madison and Jones showed up for the push championships — which take place on dry land — neither had done any real training since the London Games.
“Once they were revved up, things started clicking for both of us,” Jones said. “It kind of overwhelmed us quite quickly.”
And one of the things Jones said attracted her to bobsledding was that, traditionally, it’s the pilot — not the push athlete — who gets virtually all the attention after races.
If that holds true, Jones might be thrilled.
“When I came here, I didn’t want any distractions,” Jones said.
Other women in the push-athlete mix are 2010 Olympian Emily Azevedo, world championship medalist Katie Eberling, Lake Placid start-record-holder Aja Evans and former Cal track athlete Cherrelle Garrett.
Three women’s pilots are on the roster: reigning world championships bronze medalist Elana Meyers will drive USA-1, Jamie Greubel will drive USA-2 and Jazmine Fenlator will be at the controls of USA-3. Coaches will likely determine next week which three push athletes work with the drivers for the first World Cup event of the season. Because that’s six women vying for three roles, there’s no guarantee that Jones or Madison would start on the World Cup circuit.
The men’s roster had few surprises. World and Olympic champion Steven Holcomb will drive USA-1, with Nick Cunningham in USA-2 and Cory Butner in USA-3.
Push athletes Steve Langton, Justin Olsen and Curt Tomasevicz helped the “Night Train” sled driven by Holcomb to the world title last year, and all are back this season. Coaches chose nine other men’s push athletes as well: Adam Clark, Johnny Quinn, Chuck Berkeley, Laszlo Vandracsek, Chris Fogt, Dallas Robinson, Jesse Beckom, Andreas Drbal and Nic Taylor.
The U.S. skeleton roster will be announced next week after team selection races end in Park City, Utah. World Cup racing for bobsled and skeleton opens in Lake Placid on Nov. 8.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.