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From bodybuilding to the Olympics – a bobsledder’s story

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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker once converted to bobsled. So did Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Chelios. And Edwin Moses, who won two Olympic 400m hurdles titles among a streak of 122 straight victories.

Now, there’s Hakeem Abdul-Saboor. He isn’t as accomplished as any of those names but has his own unique story to tell.

Abdul-Saboor is the first U.S. Olympic bobsledder since at least 1998 (perhaps ever) to convert from another physically demanding exercise – bodybuilding.

OK, not exactly bodybuilding.

“I call it bodybuilding, but I do physique,” said Abdul-Saboor, a 30-year-old born in New Jersey. “It’s not like I’m up in a Speedo in there. It’s what you try to aspire to look like at the beach, so I’m wearing board shorts [in physique competitions].”

Abdul-Saboor said he did five shows and won three titles (one is usually eligible for multiple physique titles at one show).

That was before he was introduced to bobsled in 2015 and made the U.S. Olympic bobsled team this season.

Abdul-Saboor’s athletic story began as a basketball, football and all-around track and field athlete at Powhatan High School in Virginia, about 30 miles west of Richmond.

He went on to play running back at Division II University of Virginia at Wise. Abdul-Saboor said he ran a 4.30-second 40-yard dash.

But his football career ended four games into his senior season in 2009. Abdul-Saboor said he tore an ACL one week too late to receive a medical redshirt for the season.

NBCOlympics.com: More on Team USA

“Hakeem is probably the best all-around athlete I have ever coached,” UVA-Wise coach Dewey Lusk once said.

Abdul-Saboor stuck around campus for a while doing what he loved – hitting the gym. One of his friends was a bodybuilder and suggested Abdul-Saboor enter a contest.

He submitted photos and made the cut. Abdul-Saboor flew to Boise, Idaho, for the 2012 Bodybuilding.com FIT USA Event. He had to pay for everything except entry fee.

“Flight, hotel, spray tan,” he said. “I think they picked 16 or 20 of us from the nation. I ended up winning the people’s choice award. So that was everybody over the nation voting for which contestant they liked, their physique the best. That was before the show. I ended up placing fourth in the total competition.”

Abdul-Saboor said he performed well enough in shows to be invited to bigger competitions.

“But I never had the means of doing a national show because of the funding,” he said. “The pros get sponsors and everything, so they make pretty good money if you become a pro. At one point, I did think I would like to pursue that, but I would need to have found a job to help me start that, or a sponsor.”

Abdul-Saboor found a job in Knoxville, Tenn., as a speed, agility and quickness coach and personal trainer for Performance Training, Inc.

That’s about 100 miles west of East Tennessee State University, where a number of U.S. bobsledders, including the late Steven Holcomb, have spent offseasons training.

Word spread to ETSU of this physical specimen in Knoxville.

“An undergraduate student on campus brought my attention to a video of a young man (Hakeem) performing a vertical jump and touching his head to the [10-foot] ceiling of a Knoxville-based fitness center he was personal training out of,” Dr. Brad DeWeese, a former U.S. Olympic Committee head of physiology and current ETSU associate professor, wrote in an email. “Having coached a large portion of Olympians in the sport, it was obvious that Hakeem had the power and physical build to be successful in bobsled.”

DeWeese tracked down Abdul-Saboor through Facebook and invited him to Johnson City for a dryland bobsled combine.

“Needless to say Hakeem had a perfect score in each event, even after becoming ill from nerves halfway through the test,” DeWeese wrote. “Since then, I have had the honor of coaching Hakeem to 3 national team designations and finally to an Olympic team. In short, you never know who is watching.”

Abdul-Saboor started as a push athlete on the minor-league North American Cup in fall 2015, but by January 2016 competed in three World Cups.

 

NBCOlympics.com: Everything to know about bobsled

 

This season, he was in veteran Nick Cunningham’s sled for the last seven races since Dec. 1. That included a pair of North American Cup wins and a fifth-place finish in a two-man World Cup in Austria, the best result for any U.S. sled outside of an American track this season.

No surprise he’s in Cunningham’s sled for both two- and four-man events in PyeongChang.

Abdul-Saboor thought his sports career was over when he tore the ACL eight years ago. Now, he plans to continue bobsledding beyond the Olympics and maybe even return to physique, though he would have to drop 20 bobsled pounds.

He does not consider physique a sport, even though it’s sweat-inducing.

“You get pretty nervous, and before you go on stage, you’re back there getting a pump,” he said. “We’re like working out backstage to make your muscles look good.

“We don’t have to pose like bodybuilders, but we do have several poses like one hand on the hip. You have to kind of look like a model up there. That’s how they judge us.”

It’s the judging that sometimes confused Abdul-Saboor.

“There are bodybuilding teams that come to one of the show, and usually someone from the team is in one of the top places, which feels like the judges are biased towards them,” he said. “Several times, there are times that when I didn’t win a show, and I go out into the audience to talk to fans and people watching the show, they don’t understand why I did not win.”

The only judging in bobsled is done by coaches and officials determining who goes into the sled.

Most of the famous athletes who converted before Abdul-Saboor never made it to an Olympics – including Chelios, Moses, Renaldo Nehemiah and Willie Gault.

“Bobsled is definitely harder [than bodybuilding],” Abdul-Saboor said. “It’s just such a unique sport. You get athletes out here who you would think would be able to push fast and do well in bobsled. They might be fast but not strong. Or strong but not fast. Or even both but just don’t have the technique to push the bobsled. You have to have the total package in order to become a good bobsledder.”

Shelby Houlihan shatters American 5000m record

Shelby Houlihan
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Shelby Houlihan chopped 10.52 seconds off her own American 5000m record, clocking 14:23.92 at a Bowerman Track Club intrasquad meet in Portland, Ore., on Friday night.

Houlihan, who was 11th in the Rio Olympic 5000m, has in this Olympic cycle improved to become one of the greatest female distance runners in U.S. history.

She first broke Shannon Rowbury‘s American record in the 5000m by 4.47 seconds in 2018. In 2019, she broke Rowbury’s American record in the 1500m by 1.3 seconds in finishing fourth at the world championships in 3:54.99.

On Friday, Houlihan and second-place Karissa Schweizer both went under the American record. Schweizer, 24 and three years younger than Houlihan, clocked 14:26.34, staying with Houlihan until the winner’s 61-second final lap.

“I knew Karissa was going to try to come up on me and take the lead. She does that every time,” Houlihan told USATF.tv. “I had decided I was not going to let that happen.”

Houlihan improved from 41st to 12th on the world’s all-time 5000m list, 12.77 seconds behind Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba‘s world record.

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Can T.J. Oshie, other established Olympic hockey stars hold on for 2022?

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T.J. Oshie will be 35 years old during the next Winter Olympics. Jonathan Quick will be 36. Now that the NHL is one key step closer to returning to the Winter Games, the question surfaces: which 2014 Olympians will have a difficult time returning to rosters in 2022?

Oshie was the last of the 14 forwards chosen for the U.S. Olympic team for Sochi, beating out Bobby Ryan and Brandon Saad, in part for his shootout prowess.

In group play against Russia, Oshie was memorably tapped by U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma six times in a shootout, including all five in the sudden-death rounds. Oshie beat Sergei Bobrovsky four times, including the game winner.

“After I went out for my third attempt, I figured I was going to keep going,” Oshie said, according to USA Hockey. “Each time I would look up to see what [Bylsma] had to say, and he would just give me a nod every time. I kind of started laughing toward shot five and six because it was getting kind of ridiculous.”

Oshie became known as “T.J. Sochi” on social media. President Barack Obama congratulated him on Twitter. The U.S. eventually lost to Canada in the semifinals and Finland in the bronze-medal game.

When the NHL chose not to send its players to the PyeongChang Winter Games, it may have spelled the end of Oshie’s Olympic career.

Consider that the oldest forward on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team was 29, six years younger than Oshie will be come 2022. A recent Olympic roster prediction from The Hockey Writers put Oshie in the “Just Missed Out” list.

NBC Sports NHL analyst Pierre McGuire has Oshie among the finalists for the last forward spots in his early U.S. roster prediction.

“I wouldn’t discount T.J. Oshie because shootout is still part of it,” McGuire said. “He still has his shootout moves, even though he’s not getting any younger.”

Quick, the unused third goalie in 2010, played 305 out of 365 minutes in net for the U.S. in Sochi. He was coming off a Stanley Cup in 2012 and en route to another one in 2014.

Since, he was sidelined by a knee injury that required surgery. He remains the Los Angeles Kings’ No. 1 goalie, which almost automatically puts an American in the Olympic roster discussion these days.

“Somebody like Jonathan definitely merits consideration just because of his achievement level over time, but I think he’d be the first person to tell you injuries have definitely affected him,” McGuire said of Quick, looking to become the second-oldest U.S. goalie to play in the Olympics after Tom Barrasso in 2002. “It’s not going to be easy for him.”

The U.S. could bypass Quick for three Olympic rookies in 2022. Connor Hellebuyck, John Gibson and Ben Bishop have superior save percentages and goals-against averages and more games played than Quick since the start of the 2018-19 season.

A wild card is Spencer Knight, the 19-year-old No. 1 from the world junior championships who last year became the highest-drafted goalie since 2010 (No. 13 to the Florida Panthers). Knight would break defenseman Bryan Berard‘s record as the youngest U.S. Olympic hockey player in the NHL era.

The Canadian roster has traditionally been deeper than the U.S. The talent is overwhelming at center, led by Sidney CrosbyConnor McDavidPatrice Bergeron and Nathan MacKinnon. The Canadians must get creative if the likes of veterans Jonathan Toews and John Tavares will join them in Beijing.

Toews, then 21, was the best forward at the 2010 Vancouver Games and Canada’s only one on the all-tournament team. While Toews’ last NHL All-Star selection was in 2017, his last two seasons have been his best in terms of points per game since 2011.

“The one thing that Canada is very good at, they do it extremely well, they select players that fit roles,” McGuire said, noting Mike Richards shifting to the wing during the 2010 Olympics. “When you look at the overwhelming depth that Canada has, that’s going to be the thing that’s going that’s going to be very interesting to watch to see how it plays out at center.”

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