U.S. bobsledder Katie Eberling hoped that in her second attempt to make an Olympic team, she would hold more control of her destiny.
That all changed three weeks ago, when she suffered two high-grade hamstring tears at a preseason camp in Calgary.
She would not be able to return in time for next week’s national team trials, effectively ending her 2018 Olympic hopes.
Eberling flew home to the Chicago suburbs. She took a few days. Thought about it. Thought about the last few months. Maybe even thought about what happened in January 2014.
Eberling remembered what she prayed on the flight out to Calgary in early September.
“God, if this [bobsledding] is not where I’m supposed to be, just please make it clear because I’ve reached the point of exhaustion of just feeling like my head, my heart, my gut were kind of not on the same page,” Eberling shared. “So, He made it clear.”
Eberling decided to retire from bobsledding at age 29.
She’s at peace, grateful for what happened.
“I needed the injury to make the decision,” Eberling said in a phone interview. “If I didn’t have an injury, then I wouldn’t have stopped. But it was the right decision without it, too.”
She ended one of the most unique and challenging careers in the sport.
Eberling picked up bobsled in 2011, one year after finishing a four-year volleyball stint at Western Michigan. She was recruited to the sport by Elana Meyers Taylor, a 2010 Olympic bronze medalist brakewoman who transitioned to driving.
Meyers Taylor was looking for somebody to help push her sled and saw Eberling’s name on a National Strength and Conditioning Association Athletes of the Year list. Eberling could run 40 yards in 4.65 seconds, her bio read. So Meyers Taylor sent her a Facebook message.
Less than a year later, Meyers Taylor and Eberling won bronze at the world championships. The following year, the year before the Sochi Olympics, they won silver together.
But on Jan. 19, 2014, Eberling was told by a six-person selection committee that she wouldn’t be an Olympian.
They chose three other brakewomen, all with less experience than Eberling but some with better recent results or better speed or strength statistics. Lolo Jones was the last brakewoman to make the team. Controversy followed.
“After the selections, I talked to all the brakemen,” Meyers Taylor said last week. “I was heartbroken over Katie, especially because she was in my sled. Because I brought her up. Because I felt like I mentored her the entire way.”
Eberling deliberated and accepted an offer to travel to Sochi as an alternate. She helped lug 400-pound sleds and sanded blades at the Olympics. She remained a team player despite officially being cut from the team.
She obliged some media requests and noted her Opening Ceremony experience, tears falling as she watched the event on TV.
Eberling returned from Russia with another choice — continue in bobsled after the public heartbreak or put a teaching degree to use.
“I will not move forward in this sport as a brakeman; I can’t deal with the subjective decision-making and the lack of control and job security,” she blogged a few days after the Sochi Closing Ceremony. “If I don’t at least try driving, I will never truly understand it as an option. … I may love it or I may hate it. I may be a natural or I may be the worst person to ever try it. Point is-there is only one way to find it out.
“For now, I don’t have to commit to another four years… just to another month.”
The transition was difficult.
Eberling spent the last two seasons scraping with three other drivers to be the No. 3 U.S. pilot behind Olympic medalists Meyers Taylor and Jamie Greubel Poser. It’s likely that the U.S. will qualify the maximum three sleds for PyeongChang this winter.
“I genuinely believed that I was going to be able to earn a spot on the team,” Eberling said last week. “Driving really challenged me in a lot of ways. I crashed a lot. I learned a lot. I got to compete for my country. And I got to go through it with some really great people. And so I think for the amount of experience that I gained, there’s no way I can see any regret. Even knowing how this summer went.”
Eberling planned to spend the entire summer in Johnson City, Tenn., living and training with Steven Holcomb, a triple Olympic medalist and the face of U.S. Bobsled. They would build up to the 2018 Olympics together.
“I would say that the person that spends the most time with me is fellow bobsledder Katie Eberling,” Holcomb wrote in a questionnaire before an NBC Olympic shoot in late April. “We’ve been close for a number of years, and I hang out with her more than anybody else.”
On May 6, Eberling was driving from her family’s lake house in Indiana to Johnson City to start her preseason training. She expected Holcomb to meet her the following week, even though he had been quiet in recent days.
A teammate called Eberling during her drive and told her to pull over.
Holcomb had been found dead in his room at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y.
“My family drove and met me and drove me back to our lake house,” Eberling said. “It’s kind of a blur, to be honest.”
Eberling spoke at both of Holcomb’s memorial services in Lake Placid and in Park City, Utah.
“Because I knew him in such a different capacity, I wanted to make sure everyone knew him beyond his accolades and beyond his medals,” she said. Holcomb gave his podium flowers from the Sochi two-man event to Eberling, who still has them at her home. “It was important that I wanted them to remember the amazing person that he was. Kind, considerate, thoughtful. Just how good he was at seeing things and the needs of people. It was just a really special gift.”
She returned to training, but it never felt right going to Lake Placid or Calgary.
“Every time I left home, I was being submerged in an environment where I felt the loss the deepest,” she said. “I told myself to keep plugging away.”
“Your dream of being an Olympian,” she said. “I always said I would do it as long as I felt like I had purpose and joy in it, and as long as it seemed like it was the right path. And it did.”
When she got hurt, Eberling knew in her heart that she needed a new path. She hasn’t decided what that will be. The passionate Chicago Cubs fan would love to work at Wrigley Field (“Even if I have to clean toilets,” she joked.)
For Christmas 2012, Holcomb gave Eberling a dream capsule.
She took out what she had written and ripped it up in 2014, changing the last phrase to what it reads today: To live in the moment, trust God with my all my heart, to love all people and to become an Olympian in 2018.
“I know it’s going to be hard,” she said. “I couldn’t have foreseen it ending like this.”
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