Editor’s Note: This story was updated after the 2018 Olympic team was announced.
NEW YORK — It’s 100 days from the start of the 2018 PyeongChang Games and Elana Meyers Taylor is sitting in a chair on a stage in Times Square, a white, knit Team USA scarf draped around her neck.
The two-time Olympic bobsledding medalist is joined on stage by four fellow Olympians for a question and answer session, with some 35 more standing behind them on mini-risers, all here for this glitzy United States Olympic Committee event.
Meyers Taylor is asked by a moderator how bobsledding can inspire kids to pursue their Olympic dreams, and the pilot delivers a polished 141-word spiel.
She explains that everyone has slid or rolled down a hill at some point in life, trying to go fast. She says that is the essence of bobsledding: get down the hill as fast as you can.
And then the face of US women’s bobsledding with aspirations to one day run the USOC makes a pitch meant for the former college athlete unsure of her next move.
“But more importantly, bobsledders convert from a variety of sports,” she says. “I converted from softball. We’ve got volleyball, we’ve got track and field. Athletes come from anywhere and then convert into bobsled.”
She closes with the promise of brilliance in the sport on a global stage, three of her teammates — Aja Evans, Jamie Greubel Poser, and Lolo Jones — behind her as proof.
“So we really try and encourage kids to be active in a multitude of sports when they’re growing up and then come to us after college and we’ll convert you into the best bobsledders in the world,” Meyers Taylor says.
Women’s bobsledding made its Olympic debut in 2002, with Americans Vonetta Flowers and Jill Bakken claiming the gold medal, making Flowers the first black athlete to win gold at a Winter Games.
When Meyers Taylor, who has made the 2018 US Olympic team, began competing with the national team five years later, she was the only woman of color.
“Being in the field where you’re one of one in this whole field of faces that don’t look like you, it was really important to me to make sure that kids around the world — regardless of what they look like, regardless of where they come from — were able to see opportunities in this sport because there is opportunity for everyone,” she said.
In an October interview with MadameNoire magazine, Meyers Taylor called the “explosion of African-Americans and women of color” competing in bobsledding “extraordinary.” For the US, seven of the nine athletes on the women’s bobsledding team this season are women of color. And Nigeria is sending a three-woman bobsledding team to PyeongChang, the first athletes to represent the country at a Winter Olympics.
“I think Elana being a big advocate for women of color in the sport is really good because we don’t have that avenue a lot of times,” said Kehri Jones, a national team member whom Meyers Taylor recruited in 2014. “We don’t know about these sports that we could be really extraordinary in, and by her bringing us in one at a time and taking us under her wing and teaching us everything that we need to know, I think she’s basically accomplishing the mission that she’s setting out to do, and I really appreciate her for that.”
Evans, a Chicago native and a former five-time All-American shot putter for the University of Illinois, was introduced to bobsledding by her college coach and went on to win a bronze medal with pilot Greubel Poser at the 2014 Sochi Games, just two years after her first season with Team USA. This summer, Evans broke Meyers Taylor’s record en route to winning the push title at the USA Bobsled National Push Championships in Calgary, Alberta. This season, Evans has won a pair of World Cup silves with Greubel Poser.
“Now we’re not just women coming into this sport or representing our country, we’re representing black women, we’re representing where we’re from, and it’s so many different things we stand for now as we compete and as we accomplish all these goals, so it’s really empowering for me,” said the 29-year-old Evans. “It helps me to continue to stay strong when it gets tough and when it’s like, ‘Do I really want to do this?’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, I have so many people rooting for me and following my story and believing in me that don’t even know me.’ It continues to help me strive for more.”
No stone unturned
Meyers Taylor, 33, from Douglasville, Ga., began heavily recruiting when she became a pilot in 2010, helping bring in three of the nine athletes on this season’s team. She knows what kind of athletes she wants to recruit and where to watch them compete. She watches as much collegiate competition as she can: lacrosse, softball, volleyball, and especially track and field.
“Most people watch a game because they’re excited about it; I’ll sit there and watch lacrosse championships to try to find a female who could be a bobsledder,” Meyers Taylor said in November.
She looks for speed. She watches how the athletes move and how they adapt. She also researches coachability.
“You look for those athletes who coaches rave about, about how great they are for the team because it really takes a certain leadership, attributes to be a bobsledder and to come on a sport that late,” Meyers Taylor said. “You have to be kind of humble.”
And if an athlete catches her eye, she will find a way to make contact, via social media or through a coach.
“I get laughed at a lot, but it still doesn’t stop me because I’m going to find the athletes I need to find,” Meyers Taylor said.
Kehri Jones and Lauren Gibbs were two of those athletes Meyers Taylor wanted to find, and along with pilot Brittany Reinbolt, they make up the trio on the national team that Meyers Taylor is responsible in some way for recruiting.
Gibbs, a Denver native who played volleyball at Brown, was put onto bobsledding through a friend who also knows Meyers Taylor. Jill Potter, a 2016 rugby Olympian, informed Gibbs of an open tryout in 2014 and suggested she work with Meyers Taylor to get a feel for the sport. Gibbs did not think she had a legitimate shot at making the team.
“I was 30 years old, finishing my executive MBA at Pepperdine and working in corporate America,” Gibbs wrote in an e-mail. “I wasn’t in any kind of shape to even dream about going to the Olympics. I went into the tryout with no expectations other than to have a cool story to tell my friends on Monday.”
Four years later, Gibbs, a brakeman making her Olympic debut in PyeongChang, has 11 top-three World Cup finishes to her name, including two seconds this season with Meyers Taylor as her pilot.
“She’s known for a long time that she wants to win a gold medal, and to do that she needs a strong push [athlete], so she has gone out there herself to try and find it, which I really admire about her,” Gibbs, 33, wrote. “In the process, she has made the whole women’s program better and more competitive.”
Jones, 24, watched Lauryn Williams, a three-time Olympic medalist as a sprinter, and Meyers Taylor capture the silver medal in the two-woman bobsled at the 2014 Sochi Games.
Soon after those Games, Jones’s strength and conditioning coach at Baylor received an inquiry about the two-time All-Big 12 sprinter. It was an e-mail from Meyers Taylor.
“I was like, ‘Oh, shoot, I just seen her on TV racing in the bobsled and she want to talk to me?!’ ” Jones said with a big smile. “It was really just so exciting that somebody of her stature wanted me. Like, little ol’ me?”
Eventually, Jones and Meyers Taylor captured the 2017 IBSF world championship, the second US world title in women’s bobsledding and the fifth straight year Meyers Taylor medaled at Worlds.
“It’s been really good,” said Jones, who is from Killeen, Texas. “It’s been a great experience.”
Rookies do not forget their first time down the bobsled run in Lake Placid, N.Y., Team USA’s home track.
“There’s a sequence of about five curves specifically in the track that is called the Devil’s Highway,” Jones said. “And it is named perfectly. Like, you’re in the back of this sled and you are just getting shaken up.”
You don’t know what to expect. The transitions are fast. You hang on for dear life. You pray.
“My first run was absolutely terrifying,” Jones said. “It was almost the worst experience of my life.”
Evans remembers the camera phones in her face when she finished her first run. She remembers thinking the sport was crazy. She remembers calling her mother, Sequocoria Mallory, questioning if bobsledding was right for her. Mallory promptly told her daughter to get back to the top of the hill and go again.
“My third day ever on the ice after that,” Evans said, “we kind of won team trials and set the start record, and I was like, ‘Oh, OK, we’re going to be winning and [there are] records involved, I’ll stick around. I think I can deal with it.’ ”
Now, Jones has six top-three World Cup finishes since 2015. And Evans on Saturday was named to her second straight Olympic team with 13 top-three World Cup finishes since 2012, including four golds.
“I’m sitting here as a black girl from the South Side and I went into a predominantly white European sport and kind of had amazing success and I continue to pursue those dreams and goals,” Evans said. “That’s the way you kind of get to where you want to go is by your heart and fighting for what you believe.”Rachel G. Bowers can be reached at rachel.bowers