The sport of bobsled, or bobsleigh or bobsledge as it is called in Europe, conjures the image of an amusement park ride in a winter wonderland.
Lauryn Williams would stab an icicle through such an illusion.
“It’s like being inside a washing machine rolling down the side of a mountain,” she said. “The first time I did it I was swearing and praying all the way to the bottom.”
Williams still isn’t yelling “Whee!” when she slides down an icy chute at 60 to 90 mph. She’s too preoccupied holding an aerodynamic fetal tuck as G forces suck her head toward the ground while bumps and turns yank her from side to side.
“There are no seat belts,” she said.
But Williams has grown comfortable and competent enough in a bobsled to have pushed herself into prime position to make the U.S. team for the Sochi Winter Olympics.
In six months, Miami’s Williams has made the transition from summer track star running the 100 meters inside huge stadiums to brakeman on the obscure bobsled circuit in snow-blanketed mountain towns.
If she and her driver finish with fast times Sunday in Igls, Austria, Williams, a three-time Olympian and former world champion sprinter, could join a select group of Americans who have competed in both the Summer and Winter Olympics, including Willie Davenport, a gold-medal hurdler in 1968 and bobsledder in 1980, and Eddie Eagan, who won golds in boxing in 1920 and bobsled in 1932.
Football player Herschel Walker finished seventh in two-man bobsled at the 1992 Olympics.
Williams, 30, is one of six push athletes competing for three spots on the team that goes to Russia for the Feb. 6-23 Games. She’s won two silver medals in four races. Lolo Jones, the Olympic hurdler who persuaded Williams to try out in July, is also in the running. It will come down to a few hundredths of a second, as it always does in bobsled.
For a speed addict like Williams, beating the clock is nothing new. But she’s faced a steep and slippery learning curve. Now, she sprints for just 30 meters — on ice, wearing ice spikes and a helmet — before jumping into the back seat for the one-mile ride.
It’s cold. Williams, a Pittsburgh native, has spent the past 18 years toasting in Miami, first as a University of Miami athlete. Now she spends her days training and racing in an environment that feels like a walk-in freezer. At a World Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y., last month it was minus 17 degrees when she arrived at the track.
“Your face is freezing, and it’s difficult to talk, which is against my nature,” said Williams, known to converse in the same churning style with which she runs.
She’s bought battery-heated boots and hat.
“I have not found heated gloves — yet — but I keep a case of hand warmers in my bag,” she said.
It’s heavy. The U.S. team’s $60,000 two-man sleds, manufactured by BMW of North America, weigh nearly 400 pounds. Williams and her driver have to push the static object through the start phase, which she likens to the job of an offensive lineman.
The logistics of moving the sleds around — turning them over, lifting them on and off trucks, hauling them to the starting line and into the garage — requires hours of grunt labor. The nine women on the team also polish the $7,000 steel runners with sand paper.
“They are their own pit crew,” said Stu McMillan, U.S. start coach.
It’s dangerous. If a driver miscalculates and steers too high into a turn, bobsleds crash, flipping athletes onto the track. They wear protective vests under their sliding suits “because the ice will burn your skin off,” Williams said.
“When I started, everybody told me, ‘Look, you’re going to wreck but we’re all still fine,’ ” said Williams, who has had no major mishaps other than almost dropping a sled on her teammates’ toes. “On my first day there were three wrecks before I went down. I have to overcome fear every time I get on a new track.”
It’s not glamorous. Bobsled isn’t even a niche sport — it’s a nook sport that gets its moment in the Olympic spotlight once every four years. Budgets are tight. Many athletes work second jobs; driver Jamie Greubel has been a waitress in the offseason.
“We stay in small hotels that fit our small egos,” McMillan said. “A lot of the athletes have failed at another sport, such as football or softball or track and field, so they’re very down-to-earth people. Lauryn was a world-class sprinter in an individual sport who landed on our doorstep, but she fit right in. She’s all about the greater good, and her teammates love her.”
Williams earns a $1,000 monthly stipend from the team, which she has supplemented with fundraisers and a sponsorship from UHealth Sports Medicine.
“The analogy for Lauryn would have to be Michael Jordan going to the Olympics in the high jump,” said Dr. Lee Kaplan, chief of sports medicine and an orthopedist for UM and the Miami Marlins. “What she’s done shows a lot of guts in living beyond your comfort zone.”
In bobsled, Williams’ small size puts her at a disadvantage. She stands 5-3 ¼ — and she’s very possessive of that quarter inch. She’s added 10 pounds to get to 152. But the ideal weight for a female bobsledder is 175. Jones went on a 9,000-calorie- per-day bacon cheeseburger diet to add 25 pounds to her 5-9 frame and she’s up to 160.
When Williams races, pieces of lead are added to the bottom of her sled to compensate for her lack of weight.
“It’s a gravity sport, so the heavier the sled, the faster it’ll move downhill,” McMillan said. “Lauryn is actually pushing a heavier sled.”
Williams burns calories in the cold air, then doesn’t count them at dinnertime.
“Watching my weight had been hanging over me in track the past few years,” she said. “I like to eat. In bobsled, that burden is gone. When I have a cheat night I don’t even feel guilty.”
Williams retired from pro track early in the 2013 season. She won the silver medal in the 100 at the 2004 Athens Olympics and was world champ in the 100 and 4x100 relay in 2005. She won world 100 silver and relay gold in 2007, then at the 2012 London Games won gold as a relay team member who qualified the U.S. for the final.
Last summer, bothered by a recurring hamstring injury and debating whether to keep running or get on with her career as a financial advisor, she had an airport chat with Jones, best known for leading the 100-meter hurdle race at the Beijing Olympics until she clipped the penultimate hurdle and stumbled to seventh. Jones made the bobsled team in 2012, after placing fourth in the hurdles at the London Olympics.
“I asked out of curiosity, and she got really enthusiastic,” Williams said. “She said, ‘You know what, Lauryn, you can do it, too. You’ve got the build for it. They’ll teach you everything. Go for broke!’
“And here I am. It was that simple.”
With only one bobsled training session under her belt Williams finished third in the U.S. Push Championships and made the national team. She might edge Jones for an Olympic roster spot.
Williams’ power and strength made her a natural, but she’s had to learn bobsled technique.
“The two toughest things for a rookie are the initial hit of the sled and loading smoothly without pulling back on the sled,” said McMillan, also a track and field coach in Phoenix.
Knowing the idiosyncrasies of each track helps, too.
“If curve six is a big left, don’t fight it,” she said. “If you’re too tense inside, you’ll slow yourself down.”
Igls is an uncomplicated, short track that rewards fast starts, which bodes well for Williams, who will be brakeman for USA-2 driver Greubel on two runs. She’s ridden with all three U.S. drivers. Coaches are looking for the best combinations.
The forecast Sunday calls for 37 degrees and mostly sunny skies.
“Almost balmy,” McMillan said. “Lauryn will feel right at home.”