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Hooked on Speed: How Jazmine Fenlator Feeds Her "Bobsled Habit"

Team USA's pilot on crashing, winter Olympic diversity, and the high cost of competition.

| Thu Dec. 26, 2013 7:00 AM EST
Jazmine Fenlator.

A "controlled car crash." That's how US bobsled pilot Jazmine Fenlator, 28, remembers her first run. "I was sliding down a mile of ice with my head buried in the bottom of the bobsled," she says. "I'm getting jostled around and I'm not understanding why I'm moving so much." She ended the run drooling and shaking, but she was hooked.

Bobsledders, many of whom, like Fenlator, hail from track-and-field sports, have to be some level of crazy to send their bodies careening down steep ice passages at speeds up to 100 miles per hour. But it's not just the risk of bodily harm that makes the experience intense. "It's a grueling blue-collar sport," Fenlator says. "We carry our sleds. There's no caddy, there's no pit crew." And, like many Olympians in less-prominent sports, the athletes often have to dip into their own coffers to pay for their training. At one point, Fenlator and her teammate had to scrounge up $20,000 for a new sled—which meant a slew of side jobs.

Their dedication paid off in early December, when Fenlator joined five teammates on the podium for a World Cup sweep—the first since 2001* for US women's bobsledding, and a hopeful indicator of what may lie ahead for Team USA in Sochi.

Mother Jones: What kind of reactions do you get when you tell people what you do?

Jazmine Fenlator: A lot of people think I'm on the Jamaican bobsled team. It's a question every black bobsledder gets, even if you're wearing a USA shirt. Or a lot of times people don't know what bobsled is, so they'll reference luge or skeleton. It's a hard sport because not many people can relate to it, and it's a hard sport to spectate. You only see it every four years on TV, and it doesn't have a lot of popularity, which we're trying to change. So, you get a lot of naïve questions. But I welcome those. The more people I can teach and tell about bobsled, the more cheers we'll have in Sochi.

MJ: How does one become a bobsledder?

JF: I was a senior in college in 2006-2007 at Rider University as a track and field athlete. I started to realize that I was a little bit behind the pace I needed to qualify for Beijing. I was really going to focus on revamping my training when my coach mentioned bobsled. I didn't really take him too seriously, but he submitted my athletic resume and the team invited me to a tryout camp. I jumped on the opportunity. It's not everyday a national team invites you, especially if you've never done the sport before.

MJ: Had you ever even imagined bobsledding?

JF: No. I'd seen Cool Runnings and watching the 2002 and 2006 winter games, but I did not actually know much about it.

MJ: What do you remember from the 2002 games, the inaugural year for women's bobsled?

JF: For Team USA to bring home gold, as well as Vonetta Flowers winning the first medal in winter sports for an African-American, was huge. I remember watching her and Jill Bakken push that sled down the start ramp on the final run and the announcer saying, "This is where Olympians are made, this is where medalists can break or make it." They kept their composure and they did just what they needed to do and came across the line screaming.

"It's not everyday a national team invites you [to try out], especially if you've never done the sport before."

MJ: What was bobsledding like the first time you did it?

JF: I had no idea what is happening. I was a brakeman, so you don't get to see where you are going. My helmet doesn't even fit properly, I am getting jostled around in this sled. A lot can happen in your brain in a minute, I've learned.

One of the coaches stood at the bottom to make sure that the newbies weren't getting motion sickness or about to run and call a taxi and head to the airport. I'm breathing heavy and have drool and snot probably everywhere. I can't unbuckle my helmet. I'm shaking, and I feel like "Aaah, I don't really know. How many times do we do this today?" He's like, "Great, 'cause we have a couple more training trips to go! Head right on the truck and go back up." It was a pretty incredible experience. Extremely humbling.

MJ: How do you shave seconds off your time?

JF: You're searching for thousands of seconds that add up to equal hundredths. I've gotten third in a race by six-hundredths. You can't even blink that fast. And you can be like, where did I lose that time? Was it a piece of tape flapping on the side that I forgot to take off when cleaning my sled? Was it this little mistake here or there? You can't just be a great athlete. You can't just be a great pilot. You can't just have great equipment. You're looking for a combination, because it's not just one thing. That's why you're in the weight room, and sprinting every day—to shave off hundredths in your 30-meter time, and lift 5 or 10 more pounds in the squat. Because all of that adds up.

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MJ: What kind of mishaps lead to crashes? 

JF: There's a joke that we say, "It's the brakeman's fault: They moved!" [Laughs.] It could be something with your equipment. I've been in a sled where one of the ropes that connects to the steering has snapped, and now you're pretty much driving with only one side, and sometimes you make it down and sometimes you crash. Sometimes it's a driver error: You did the wrong steer in a corner, which put you in a poor position. Maybe you needed to be lower around the corner, and you let the sled in so you're higher around the corner. Well, sometimes you run out of corner to finish your steer, and you flip the bobsled.

MJ: That's a lot of pressure. Why do you prefer to be the pilot?

JF: I like manipulating scenarios and trying to find speed and adapting. Throughout my life, I've had to adapt to different situations, and I think being the pilot suits me. You're never going to have a perfect run. There are so many variables: temperature, ice conditions, your push time, your equipment, your reaction time. If you're late coming around the corner, you need to get back to what's right. You need to have a plan B, C, and D to get back on the line and still be fast.

MJ: Tell me about your worst crash.

JF: I've crashed a lot. I crashed my third day ever in the sport in Lake Placid, and I have permanent ice burns and a scar. I slid from corner 4 to 20 on my side. That was not fun. But you learn a lot. It's a long way down.

MJ: Winter Olympics have traditionally been extremely white. Bobsledding seems like one area with some racial diversity—in women's bobsledding, you now have Aja Evans and Lauryn Williams, for instance.

JF: Growing up biracial, I never really thought about things. I mean, you're treated differently and you have some acceptance issues, but I grew up in a predominately white town. My whole side of the family I'm closest with is all white. I'm used to being surrounded by blond, blue-eyed people. It was only when noticed our women's team was so diverse that we realized we were really, I guess, making a statement and breaking through for winter sports. To me it's inspiring to let people know that it doesn't matter where you come from or what you look like. If you have a goal and you want to be the best, no one can tell you no.

MJ: Your dad is Jamaican. How does he view the sport?

*Correction: The original version of this article stated that the US women's bobsled team swept the World Cup podium for the first time ever.

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