Aja Evans finds push she needed

In Sequocoria Mallory’s collection of family photos, there is a picture of her two daughters and son taken during their harrowing ride on the Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida.

The expressions of the faces of Aja, Racheal and Fred Evans are, well, what you’d expect while plummeting 13 stories in full free fall.

“They were screaming,” Mallory said. “Everybody was screaming. It was hilarious.”

In the interest of full disclosure, Mom freely confesses she was strictly an observer that day. Like many of her contemporaries, such G-force adventures no longer hold any appeal after a certain age.

It’s clear, however, that Aja hasn’t lost her taste for face-flexing, spine-rattling, gasp-inspiring rides. Good thing, too, because it comes with the territory when you’re a world-class bobsled pusher hurtling down a narrow, twisting ice track at speeds exceeding 70 mph.

For the first-time U.S. Olympian and former University of Illinois track and field All-American, the relationship with this daredevil sport isn’t so straightforward. One moment, Evans will tell you: “Scary is an understatement. Scary is a given. Intense, loud, bumpy. You don’t know where you are on the track.”

The next? “It’s fun. You look forward to the new tracks and getting a new feel. It’s fun.”

Mallory isn’t the least bit surprised by her 25-year-old daughter’s bobsled pursuits.

“She’s always been a little fearless,” Mallory said.

That was evident from an early age, according to Evans’ mother. If Aja had had her way while growing up in Chicago, the Six Flags Great America theme park in north suburban Gurnee would have been a weekly family destination.

“Aja has always loved roller-coaster rides,” Mallory said, adding that older sister Racheal was an enthusiastic ride partner.

“They couldn’t even get off the rides before they were running back to get back in line,” Mallory said. “I’m screaming the whole ride, and they’ve got their hands up in the air.

“So I knew (Aja) didn’t have that fear (of bobsled). I didn’t think that was going to faze her too much.”

Nor does it surprise Mom that her daughter would gravitate to a winter sport. There were hints early on. When her children were growing up, Mallory made a point of getting them involved in outside recreational activities when the snows arrived. The toboggan-sized hill at Dan Ryan Woods on Chicago’s South Side seemed to hold a special appeal for a young Aja.

“We would purchase those plastic sleds, and she loved it,” Mallory said. “She liked the thrill of going down the hill, so it wasn’t like the concept (of bobsled) was totally brand new where it was a shock to her.”

★ ★ ★

Mike Erb was the first to pose the possibility to Evans.

As the 2010 Winter Olympics approached, the then-Illini track and field assistant coach was “poking around” U.S. Bobsled’s website. Erb was drawn there to learn more about testing the U.S. Bobsled Federation used to screen candidates for pushers, a group that has drawn from the ranks of track and field athletes since at least 1980, when four-time Olympic hurdler Willie Davenport competed in the Lake Placid Winter Games.

This cross-pollination has never been more apparent than this year. All three pushers on the U.S. women’s bobsled team headed to the Sochi Olympics — Evans, world indoor champion hurdler Lolo Jones and Olympic silver-medal sprinter Lauryn Williams — come from track backgrounds.

The inquisitive Erb learned that U.S. Bobsled’s tests for speed and power — such as 30- to 50-meter sprints; standing long jumps; even a variation of a shot put throw — were strikingly similar to testing done in his sport, so the field events coach decided to compare Evans’ results with the standards established for pushers.

“Looking at what Aja had done, she had exceeded the highest percentile in just about every single test that (U.S. Bobsled) had,” Erb said.

He decided to bring up his findings with Evans, whose unique athleticism allowed the Chicago Morgan Park High School graduate to make a collegiate impact not only in the throws but as a sprinter. In other words, just the combination of strength and speed U.S. Bobsled looks for in a pusher.

“Throwers are quick and can maybe move (fast) over 10 or 20 meters, but she was able to really be competitive in the sprint world, too, so that’s really unique,” Erb said. “(At times) she led off our 400(-meter) relay. She really could run; 11.90 (seconds) in the 100 meters.”

When the current University of New Orleans head coach mentioned what he’d discovered to Evans, his intent was merely to give her “something she might (eventually) want to look into. I don’t know that she really understood the potential that was there and, really, I didn’t, either. I just saw these (testing) numbers are something you can do. This might be something you might have some talent.

“It wasn’t a light-bulb moment necessarily.”

★ ★ ★

Perhaps not, but Evans never flicked the light switch of that conversation to off, either.

After completing a college track career that produced five All-America awards and three Big Ten titles in shot put, Evans headed to the Chicago area for the semester-long internship she would need to complete her degree in Recreation, Sport and Tourism. Her duties at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park included training other athletes.

After completing the internship, Evans came to a fork in the road of her eventual journey to Sochi. The Illini indoor and outdoor shot put record-holder had long assumed she would give pro track a try following college. However, the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Evans was told by multiple coaches that she would need to gain 20 to 30 pounds to be an elite shot putter.

“And it just didn’t feel like the right fit for me,” she said.

Instead, Evans accepted an offer from EFT to join the training staff full time. A year into the job, however, the itch to resume a competitive athletic career simply had to be scratched.

“After a while, honestly, it was killing me,” she said. “It was like I was trying to deny something. I was helping all these athletes reach their goals and meet their potential, and I kind of didn’t give myself the opportunity to do so.”

By then it was March 2012, far too late to get into the mix for the London Olympics that year. And the next Summer Olympics wouldn’t be until 2016.

“I needed something sooner than that,” Evans recalled. “I wanted an opportunity now. I wanted something to train for. I wanted to be that elite athlete I knew I could be now.”

That’s when the memory of that conversation with Erb resurfaced.

At the time, what Evans knew of bobsledding pretty much began and ended with the 1993 movie “Cool Runnings” — based on the Jamaica national bobsled team’s debut in a Winter Olympics in 1988.

“It actually was one of my favorite movies,” Evans said. “So funny.”

Like Erb before her, Evans went online in search of information. There, she found a schedule of combine tests the U.S. Bobsled Federation would hold at various sites during the summer of 2012.

That July, during a combine at Lake Placid, N.Y., Evans’ potential was immediately apparent. She scored 794 out of a possible 800 points on the combine test and then won the U.S. National Push Championship.

If others were stunned by the out-of-nowhere emergence of this novice, Evans’ own reaction was no less surprised.

“I had a very short window to prepare for that sport,” she said. “(At the combine), I knew I was even better than I was in college — faster, stronger, more powerful. To see how well I performed only showed me I had so much more in store, so much room for improvement, so much potential.”

★ ★ ★

It’s one thing to grade high in combine tests and be a champion in dryland competitions. Quite another to climb into a 375-pound sled and race down a mile-long ice track at speeds exceeding some interstate highway limits.

In October 2012, during the U.S. Team Trials, Evans first took that plunge — pushing off the block, jumping into the sled behind the driver “and I held on for dear life.”

The experience shook her literally — “Lake Placid is a bumpy track” — and figuratively. Later that day, a flustered Evans called her mother.

“This is crazy. Why do these people do this?” she said to Mallory at one point.

Evans was ready to walk away right then from the sport but also was concerned about how it would look to family and friends.

“Do you think we told too many people about it?” she asked her mother. “Should I come home?”

Mallory managed to talk her daughter down from the ledge of quitting. And as Evans began to more calmly consider her situation — and her opportunity — it only made sense to push on.

“If it was really as crazy as I’m thinking, then people wouldn’t be doing it,” she told herself.

By the third day of the Trials, Evans had set a track record for the push start. It occurred during the first of two race victories with driver Jamie Greubel.

Just like that, the former Illini shot putter was a member of the U.S. National Bobsled Team.

And just like that, Evans was as enthusiastic about her adopted sport as, well, a Jamaican bobsledder headed to the Olympics.

“OK, I guess I like records and I guess I like winning, so I’ll stick with it,” she said.

★ ★ ★

What followed put Evans on the fast track of her sport. By the end of the 2012-13 season, she had won two World Cup medals, set start records at three tracks, and been awarded the U.S. Bobsled Rookie of the Year honor.

Evans has since proved she is no one-year wonder. Last summer, she recorded a perfect score at the combine and followed with her second straight national push championship title. And during the 2013-14 World Cup season, Evans added four medals to her growing collection.

Count Erb among those who have marveled at his former shot putter’s bobsled accomplishments.

“She might have been in the wrong sport this whole time,” he said. “I think she may have been made to be what she’s doing now. And that just happened to make her a good track athlete as well.”

Now, Evans is off to Sochi in search of more medals. The same Sochi track where Evans set a start record during a 2013 World Cup race.

Given all that she’s achieved in less than two years on this journey to the Olympics, it’s little wonder Evans isn’t lacking for confidence.

“Honestly, the sky’s the limit for me,” she said. “I keep progressing, I keep learning and growing along the way. I’m just really excited and trying to enjoy the road.”

Thanks to the generosity of big brother Fred Evans — a seven-year NFL defensive tackle who’s played the past six seasons with the Minnesota Vikings — Aja’s family will be in Sochi to cheer her on.

And even if it means waking up in the middle of the night to watch via the Internet, Erb will cheer from afar.

“With that personal connection, there’s no doubt that if I’ve got to be up at 3 in the morning watching some feed online, I’ll be doing that,” he said.

Erb will watch a first-time Olympian who has no intention of stopping when the 2014 Olympic flame is extinguished. Evans says she intends to resume her shot put career with a goal of reaching the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“I plan on coming back to the 2018 (Winter) Olympics, too,” Evans said, “so you won’t hear the last of me.”

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