Bobsled boasts diversity

Diversity is the theme of this season’s U.S. women’s bobsled roster.

The nine-person team includes an Olympic sprinting gold medalist, an elite hurdler with more than 300,000 Twitter followers, four other athletes with extensive track and field backgrounds, a personal trainer, a volleyball player and a softball shortstop. They come from California to New Jersey, Georgia to Illinois.

Also, just two of the nine are white.

“Two of the nine are Caucasian. One is Hispanic and the rest African-American,” U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation CEO Darrin Steele said. “This is the most diverse national team on the women’s side that we’ve ever had.

“It’s a nonstory — which makes a great story.”

Minority athletes in bobsledding is hardly a new concept — one of the sport’s most memorable moments came in 2002, when Vonetta Flowers helped push a U.S. sled to Olympic gold at the Salt Lake City Games, becoming the first black athlete from any nation to stand atop a medal podium at a Winter Olympics.

This, however, is different.

For the first time that anyone can remember, minorities form the majority on a U.S. sliding team.

“We’re broadening the sport,” said U.S. driver Jazmine Fenlator, who is black. “We’re educating, we’re recruiting, but when you look at our team right now, it just goes to show you that winter sports can be for anyone. A lot of times it’s a stigma — winter sports, skiing, snowboarding, rich people do it and usually minorities stick to sports like basketball and football. It’s not the case. Sports are sports.”

Of most importance to the USBSF, this group, which doesn’t exactly have a whole lot of experience, is winning.

Having elite track Olympians such as former LSU hurdle star Lolo Jones (who identifies herself as being of African-American, Native American, Norwegian and French descent) and Tianna Madison Bartoletta (part of the team that smashed a long-standing world record in the 4x100-meter relay at the London Games) on the team drew plenty of attention to the U.S. squad before the season’s first race.

Winning three silver and two bronze medals on the World Cup circuit since then has added to that buzz, and the five trips to the medal stands has the U.S. tied with Canada for the most of any nation.

Canadian driver Kaillie Humphries has won the gold at all five World Cup starts so far this season, which resumes with racing in Altenberg, Germany, on Friday — as the push resumes toward the 2014 Sochi Games, now less than 14 months away.

American bobsledders are not competing in the Altenberg World Cup, opting instead to get extra training at St. Moritz, Switzerland, the site of this season’s world championships.

“Being a minority athlete in this sport, it’s been wrought with challenges, but I wouldn’t consider myself a trail blazer. There’s a lot of doors that are being opened to us right now,” U.S. driver and Olympic medalist Elana Meyers said. “We’re a sport that was in obscurity for so long, we started to get used to that. But now it’s an exciting time to be a women’s bobsledder.”

Meyers was a softball player in college and is from Douglasville, Ga., not exactly a winter sports hotbed. After the London Games, Jones and Bartoletta were invited to try out last fall as a way of boosting team morale — then wound up blowing away expectations.

Cherelle Garrett was a personal trainer. Jamie Greubel ran track at Cornell, Fenlator was on the track team at Rider, Emily Azevedo hurdled at UC-Davis, Katie Eberling played volleyball and Aja Evans never tried bobsledding before this season, yet is already the national push champion.

Azevedo is of Hispanic descent, Eberling and Greubel are white.

Each woman is wildly different, yet they’re Team USA. And of the nine, seven already have at least one World Cup medal this season.

“People always try to tell you what you can’t do,” Evans said. “But you have to go out there and show them what you can do and believe in yourself.

“I think this will definitely open a lot of doors for minorities. Young women are going to see that there’s big opportunities outside of what they’re used to. This is really stepping outside of what was my comfort zone, and I love it,” she said.

While the bylaws of the USBSF include mention of the “desirability of diversity,” the team didn’t set out looking specifically for athletes of a certain color for either the men’s or women’s squads.

Steele said they were merely looking for the best, regardless of where they were from or what their backgrounds were.

“There’s a lot of winter sports that the athletes come from the local areas, and it’s predominantly white, and it’s a big deal for a person of color to sneak on a team,” Steele said. “With us, they’re coming from football and track and field and college sports where you simply have a lot of diversity. We do a better job than most winter sports and we’re proud of that, but at the end of the day it’s about talent.”