From Diamonds to Ice
Aug. 6, 2012
When a 17-year-old Elana Meyers signed a National Letter of Intent in August 2002 to become the new George Washington softball program's first recruit, she dreamed of one day competing in the Olympics.
Nearly eight years later, her dream came true. However, what she never could have imagined back then was that she'd be competing not in softball, but bobsled.
Meyers won a bronze medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, becoming the first GW athletics alum to stand on an Olympic podium, and in June she was named the 2012 Women's Bobsled Athlete of the Year by the U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation (USBSF). So how does a softball player from Georgia become one of the best bobsledders in the country, if not the world?
Meyers, who was also recruited by the University of South Carolina for track, was on her way to nearby Georgia State to play soccer before GW and its brand new softball program came calling.
"Softball was my first love, and it was always my dream to play Division I softball," she said. "When I was offered the opportunity at a great school, I had to take advantage of it. Plus, it was an opportunity to start something and to leave a legacy - I was blessed to be a part of history and was sold on the fact that I would be able to help establish a program centered on excellence. My hope was to be able to create the foundation for a successful program; I wanted to be a part of something that meant more than just my performance on the field."
Primarily a shortstop on the softball field, Meyers also pitched as a freshman at GW, and not only threw the first pitch and earned the first win in program history but also recorded the team's first hit and scored its first run. A two-time Atlantic 10 Student-Athlete of the Year for softball and a CoSIDA Academic All-American, she is the only Colonials player to bat above .400 for a season - and she did it twice, in 2006 and 2007. She also set the program's all-time record in nearly every offensive category, many of which still stand today, including batting average (.356), hits (202), stolen bases (68) and runs scored (111).
Upon graduation, Meyers played one year for the Mid-Michigan Ice of the National Pro Fastpitch League, the only professional softball league in the United States. She struggled offensively and realized she was not going to make the Olympic team for the 2008 Beijing Games, and softball was dropped from the Olympics in 2012.
"I tried to go back to school and prepare to go to med school and put my athletic dreams aside, but I couldn't let go of the Olympic dream," said Meyers, who earned her bachelor's degree in exercise science from GW in 2007 and a master's degree in sport management from the university in 2011.
Her parents suggested bobsled because of her speed and strength, and she remembered Vonetta Flowers, the 2002 Olympic gold medalist in bobsled who was the first black athlete to win gold at the Winter Games.
"They saw that she was fast and strong, so they figured I could do it," Meyers said.
So she emailed a coach at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., and was invited to a combine-like tryout, where she was put through a series of athletic tests such as sprints and weight lifting to determine whether she had the athleticism to make it in bobsled. Based on her performance at the combine, she was invited to national team trials. Now she had to learn how to push a sled and get on the ice.
"My first experience in a bobsled was a whirlwind ride," she said. "I loved it from the very beginning. It was definitely a challenge, but I absolutely loved it."
Women's bobsleds are crewed by two athletes - a brakeman and a driver, or pilot. The brakeman pushes the sled at the start and hops in, rides low in the sled for aerodynamics and pulls the brakes at the end of the race, while the driver helps push the sled at the start of the race, then drives the sled down the track, moving it left and right to adjust for the curves and find the fastest lines possible.
To make the national team, a driver has to finish in the top three at trials, while the brakemen - which Meyers was at the time - are selected by a committee. Meyers was chosen for the team on her first try, and a year later she won a pair of World Cup medals with driver Shauna Rohbock, including gold in Whistler, the future Olympic venue, ultimately earning Rookie of the Year honors from the USBSF.
"It's much like driving a car - you get used to the speed and often crave it," she explained. "Also, we drive quite frequently on the Autobahn (German highways with no speed limit); when you're driving a car at over 220 kilometers per hour (137 mph), a bobsled at 90 miles per hour doesn't seem very fast at all."
Over the next two years, Meyers and her teammates worked tirelessly to qualify sleds for the Olympics.
"You compete against the world and against each other all at the same time," Meyers said. "Training is intense and a full-time job - we put in over 40 hours a week - but I love it. I love competing and challenging myself to have the opportunity to represent my country."
After two years with Rohbock, Meyers was paired with driver Erin Pac in the races leading up to the 2010 Olympics, and a month before the Games were to begin, the duo was selected to make up the second of three American sleds.
"I was so excited and so proud to be representing my country," Meyers said. "To be working for something your whole life, it was kind of overwhelming."
In Whistler, on the same track where she won her first international gold, Meyers and Pac shocked the bobsled community, finishing ahead of Rohbock, who piloted the top American sled, as well as the top-ranked team in the world from Germany to win the bronze medal.
"Words cannot describe what it was like to stand on the podium," Meyers said. "It was the culmination of a lifelong dream. In that moment, I could feel all the sacrifices of not only myself but everyone around me, and the great honor it was to represent them and the entire country. It was truly amazing."
Meyers moved into the driver's seat shortly after the Games - she said she knew she wanted to drive as soon as she got into the sport but started as a brakeman because she knew it gave her the best chance at making the 2010 Olympic team. She has been called an emerging elite pilot by her coaches, again winning USBSF Rookie of the Year accolades in 2011 because it was her first season driving. She then took home the organization's top honor this season after winning her first World Cup medal as a driver - a bronze in Austria - and her first World Championship medal as a driver, also a bronze, becoming just the third American female bobsled driver to win a medal at the World Championship.
Despite her busy training schedule, Meyers found time to follow her former team, as the GW softball squad was competing in its first Atlantic 10 Championship since Meyers' senior campaign in 2007.
"It's very awesome to see how far the team and the program have come," she said. "Those beginning years were quite difficult, and to think about all the blood, sweat and tears everyone poured out for the program throughout the years, it's awesome to see GW start to make a name for itself in softball. The program I envisioned when I signed my NLI is finally starting to become a reality, and I couldn't be prouder to be an alumna and be associated with such a great group of young women."
Meyers says she does sometimes miss softball, which she calls her first love.
"It's hard to watch sometimes, because I do miss it and I often wonder how much better I could have been," she said. "But I love what I'm doing now, so I have no regrets. Bobsled and softball are like children - I don't love one more than the other, but I love them uniquely. Softball was my first love, but bobsled is awesome. My life has changed and I think my sports interests have changed as well. One day I'll play again, though."
With the 2012 Summer Olympics in full swing, Meyers is intently watching her peers, many of whom also train in Lake Placid. While her favorite current summer events are gymnastics and track and field, she says she enjoys them all and uses them as motivation to train harder for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
"Every Olympic sport and competition is an inspiration to keep training for Sochi 2014," she said.
Of course, there is one sport that's missing from the Olympic slate; for the first time since 1992 in Barcelona, softball is not being played at the Games. The decision to remove softball from the program was made in 2005, but the London Games are the first without it.
"I was devastated, of course," Meyers said of learning of softball's exclusion while she was still very much entrenched in the sport. "However, my feelings are mixed now because I know if it were still in the Olympics I would have kept trying for it, and I wouldn't be where I am today."