Changing lanes: Track athletes switch to bobsled to prolong athletic careers

By Erin Barney

Evan Weinstock still laces up spiked shoes, pulls on a spandex suit and high-knees his way through a dynamic warmup before each race—a routine he perfected as a decathlete.

But the familiarity ends there.

At the conclusion of his senior season at Brown University, Weinstock traded track and field for bobsled. Now, while his alma mater competes at the IC4A Championships in Boston, Weinstock and Team USA are busy sweeping the two-man race at the Lake Placid North American Championships, ankle deep in slush and snow.

The transition from track to sled is a surprisingly common maneuver. Of the 15 men on the current U.S. National Bobsled Team, 10 were track athletes first. But not the 100-yard dashers like many might assume when watching a race that starts with an all-out sprint. It’s the shot-put and javelin throwers who find the most success in bobsled.

As a freshman, Weinstock saw two of his senior teammates land invites to the bobsled combine—an opportunity he made fun of at the time. But when his own graduation day arrived, Weinstock appreciated the sport’s draw.

“The combine tests are similar to track and field, so I figured why not,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to give [competing] up yet.”

Though bobsled and track appear dissimilar, the best athletes in both are built the same way. Weinstock wasn’t Hercules-strong when it came to moving the heavy sled, but he had prototypical running mechanics he developed from the 110-meter hurdles—his best leg of the decathlon.

“Running behind the sled is more natural for me just because I was a little bit stronger in the sprints,” Weinstock said.

Fellow USA teammate, Austin Landis, had the opposite skill set.

“When you watch [Landis] sprint, it’s not pretty,” said Joe Frye, Landis’ former Belmont University track coach. “But he can accelerate the heck out of anything he put his hands on.”

Like Weinstock, Landis wasn’t ready for his athletic career to come to an end, but he had taken track as far as he could. He heard about the bobsled combine on social media and self-trained his way onto the national team.

“He has the type of body to be able to do anything,” Frye said. “If he wanted to go do some curling or figure skating, even if it was way out of his comfort zone, he would get it and be pretty good at it.”

Robyn Mason, the digital production coordinator for the National Strength and Conditioning Association, said disproportionate strength to size is ideal in bobsled. She helps the team train by shooting and analyzing video of their starts and turns for each race, noting bobsled is ultimately a game of physics.

“Everyone besides the driver is done working after you’re in the bobsled,” Mason said. “All the work is done in the first eight steps.”

Gravity takes over from there.

The lighter the sled and its passengers, the better, but each team has to make a minimum weight. A four-man sled, excluding the crew, must be at least 210 kilograms (462 pounds).

Teams are also constrained to a maximum of 630 kilograms (1,388 pounds) when the riders are added. Compact track athletes are ideal, so they have to be careful about packing on too much muscle weight for added power.

Extra helpings at dinner could also tip the scales.

“If the driver goes out and has a bunch of pizza and beer and gains four kilos, everyone else has to lose it,” Mason said.

Weinstock was expected to maintain a healthy diet as a collegiate athlete, but wasn’t held to the meticulous standard he is now as an Olympic contender.

Adjusting to the weather was another tough change. Track athletes are used to competing in spring and summer weather or in controlled environments indoors. Weinstock said all converted bobsledders have to retrain their muscles to function in the cold.

“It’s much harder to prepare your body for an explosive movement in [the cold] when you really need to be warm and activated,” he said.

Layer up, and suck it up: advice to the Las Vegas native his first day on the mountain.

While they came to bobsled with different athletic backgrounds, the current team is comprised of members with a shared desire to carry their skills beyond the track or field. Frye said Landis’ determination is invaluable and has allowed him to achieve greatness despite significant obstacles. A whole team with the same demeanor is every coach’s dream.

“He just wanted a new horizon,” Frye said. “At the end of the day, it’s such a rush for him to get good at something and to get a team there with him.”

Photo at top: Evan Weinstock uses the same mechanics to start a bobsled race as he would the 100-meter dash. (courtesy of Evan Weinstock)