Amid the recent chatter about sports GOATs, German bobsledder Francesco Friedrich hones his craft in Altenberg, site of the two-week world championships that finish this weekend.
Every run down an icy chute, every piece of conditioning, every second of studying tracks is a step closer to a goal that Friedrich may have already reached.
“He wants to be the greatest in bobsled history,” said older brother David.
David is considerably responsible for Friedrich’s success, which may have crescendoed on Super Bowl Sunday.
Friedrich won a record-breaking 10th world championship, taking the two-man event by 2.05 seconds, the largest margin in at least 15 years (since times are readily available online) and greater than the margin separating second place from 16th place.
This Saturday and Sunday in the prized four-man event, Friedrich bids to sweep both titles at a record-extending fifth consecutive global championship (Olympics and worlds).
“Bobsledding is 99 percent doing other things than your sport,” Friedrich said before worlds, noting the strength training, the mental prep and even gaining sponsors and finding the right push athletes to fill sleds for competition runs that total less than an hour over the course of a season. “The races are the last part of the puzzle.”
David was the first piece. The native of Saxony took up bobsled at 18. A year in, he crashed a four-man sled on his home track of Altenberg, losing consciousness and breaking his helmet.
David was placed in a coma for three weeks. German media at the time reported his life was not in danger.
The next year, Francesco followed his brother into bobsled.
“We didn’t consider to quit bobsled after the crash,” David wrote in an email. “We already know that such crashes could happen.”
Another crash happened months later. This time, the younger Friedrich was driving. David was the brakeman and got the worse of it. He had a broken vertebra and ultimately retired.
“In the beginning it was difficult for Franz,” David wrote, “but the X-rays showed us that it was an injury from the crash one year before.”
Friedrich continued on. The retirement of four-time Olympic champion Andre Lange in 2010 helped open the door for Friedrich to make his world championships debut in 2011. He placed 11th in the two-man, worst of the four sleds for Germany, the most successful nation in the sport’s history.
The next year, Friedrich placed fourth in the two-man. It was the last time he left a worlds without a gold medal.
“He is more powerful than many brakemen,” David, now a German junior skeleton coach, wrote. “Losing a race is his biggest motivation.”
That made what happened at the Sochi Olympics particularly moving. Friedrich was part of a German bobsled program that went medal-less at an Olympics for the first time in 50 years. He vowed, on the final day of the Games, that it would never happen again on his watch.
“From this point, I started to train harder, I think about the [mental] material more,” he said. “I have this whole thing more in my mind. All my decisions are to be the best, I think.”
They were the right decisions, resulting in historic dominance.
Starting in 2015, Friedrich competed in 13 Olympic or world championships events, winning 11 golds, one silver and placing fourth once. He ran his World Cup wins tally to 52, most for a male or female driver in history (breaking the record held by countrywoman Sandra Kiriasis, who did so with one event, not two, available for women).
This year, he won 15 of 16 World Cups and last week broke the record for world titles held by the man long considered the GOAT — Italian Eugenio Monti. Next year, he can become the first man to sweep two- and four-man titles at back-to-back Olympics (Kaillie Humphries won back-to-back two-woman titles in 2010 and 2014).
“Franz is a professor in bobsled,” David said. “He wants to leave nothing to chance.”
Friedrich is still just 30. He is meticulous. He is humble, helping find sponsors for other bobsledders. And looking for an adrenaline rush, if not in a sled, then chasing speed on a bike or in a car.
Friedrich has studied the legends who came before him, including Lange and Christoph Langen. (He said he has never seen video of Monti’s championships in the 1950s and ’60s, when bobsled was a technologically different sport.)
“My mentality is to pick from all the best,” Friedrich said. “I see them all. I see how they slide. I ask them what they do to be fast. I picked altogether from all the best. I go my own way, but I take some things from that.”
NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.
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