Oleson, mates ready to tackle bobsled run
NAGANO, Japan – Bob Olesen's Olympic dream didn't start on some frozen pond or ski slope. He prefered the hard runway and sand landing pit of the triple jump.
The former Downers Grove South athlete got pretty good in his favorite sport. At Illinois, he moved to third on the school's career list. He won a Big Ten title. He became an All-American. He went to the 1992 Olympic trials.
Then, Champaign's Olesen hit his personal ceiling. He wasn't quite good enough to compete internationally. That meant no Olympics and the end of one dream.
"I didn't seem to really be able to go a whole lot further," Olesen said.
Working as a graduate assistant coach at Southwest Texas State, Olesen considered switching to the decathlon. He thought it might be his road to the Olympics.
We'll never know.
One day in the summer of 1994, a Southwest Texas assistant coach noticed an ad in the San Antonio newspaper. The U.S. bobsled team was holding tryouts in San Antonio, a short drive from the San Marcos, Texas, school.
The assistant talked a reluctant Olesen into going.
The first day, athletes were tested in six events, much like a decathlon. Sprints, jumps, throws. The events just happened to fit Olesen's triple jump training. Olesen set a tryout record. The next day, contestants had to push a bobsled on wheels down a set of rails.
The top three finishers in San Antonio qualified for the national tryouts. Olesen made the cut.
A month later in Lake Placid, N.Y., Olesen set another record at the national trials. Coaches and drivers got together and picked him for the team. The triple jumper had become a bobsledder.
"I was excited about the chance to continue on," Olesen said. "One of the original attractions was the ability to travel internationally, which was something I had wanted to do in track and never quite attained."
At 185 pounds, Olesen was big for a triple jumper. But he was tiny by bobsled standards. Today, Olesen weighs 220.
"We wanted to be as big as we can be and still be able to run that short distance very fast," Olesen said. "You can't have a 150-pound sprinter be successful. You can't be a 280-pound lineman, either, because you have to be able to move 30 or 40 meters very fast and be agile to get into that sled."
Though he was on the team, Olesen hadn't even been in a bobsled. His first run came later in 1994 at Calgary.
At the top of the hill, Olesen remembers feeling eager. The feeling never goes away.
"Even today, when you get to the top and you're about to push that sled, your adrenaline's flowing," Olesen said. "It never gets old."
He wasn't afraid.
"You wouldn't be there if you were scared," Olesen said.
For Olesen, the bobsled run is like being on a roller coaster with your eyes closed.
Olesen serves as brakeman in both the two- and four-man races. He sprints for 30 to 40 yards, jumps in the sled and tucks his head low. Upright bobsledders finish last.
"We don't see anything but the bottom of the sled," Olesen said. "I don't really see the speed. I'm feeling it."
Brakeman is a misnomer. During the race, Olesen isn't allowed to hit the brakes. His work comes at the end, after the sled crosses the finish line.
"You don't have a whole lot of room to stop it," Olesen said.
His driver in both races, Jim Herberich, can yell 'Stop' all he wants. It won't help. The riders can't hear anything but the wind and the loud sound of sled against ice. Olesen compares it to the noise a jet makes.
"The important part is being able to know where you're at on track without being able to see it," Olesen said.
The sleds go as fast as 90 mph while negotiating up to 19 turns. Sometimes, it doesn't work. Remember the Jamaican bobsled team, which became famous for crashing.
In three-plus years, Olesen has been in six wrecks. He has a permanent knot in his back from one crash. Others have given him nasty shoulder burns.
Olesen isn't complaining. Without the bobsled, he wouldn't be competing in his first Olympics.
Next weekend, he'll team with Herberich in the two-man race. Over two days, they'll make four runs, the gold medal going to the team with the fastest combined time.
For decades, the Americans have been an Olympic bust in the bobsled.
"It seems to be that every time they come around, something happens, something goes wrong," Olesen said. "I can't identify anything that's going to derail us."
Confidence is high, especially after the team's performance in a 1997 Nagano meet. Herberich won the silver medal in the two-man. In the four-man event, American Brian Shimer took the gold, and Herberich finished fifth.
Olesen has won seven World Cup medals, including two golds. His former coach at Illinois isn't surprised to see him succeed.
"He's always been very determined," Illinois men's track coach Gary Wieneke said. "He knew what Saturdays were for, and he was always going to compete up to his training level or above."
Bobsledders don't make the big bucks
Michael Johnson, Nancy Kerrigan and Picabo Street have turned Olympic success into financial security.
Olympic bobsledders aren't earning the same coin.
Olesen said he made enough to get by as a U.S. bobsledder in 1997.
"We're not putting any money away," Olesen said.
Olesen's wife, Cindy, works while taking care of 9-month-old daughter Elizabeth. Bob Olesen spends four months of each year competing with the American team.
The Centennial graduate traveled to Nagano, Japan, with Melanie Piker and Jill Gordon, Bob Olesen's cousins.
Thanks to AT&T's U.S. Olympic Family Program, the trip will be easier. In Nagano, AT&T has a hospitality center where family members can visit the athletes, eat and make free calls home.