Chicagoan Evans pushes herself for Olympic bobsled spot

Former track star at Illinois, Morgan Park is driven to earn a berth on U.S. team for Sochi Games

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Chicago Olympic bobsled hopeful Aja Evans trains at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park.

It was a steamy August morning, one of those tongue-dragging days when you can't stop imagining how good a mouthful of ice would feel.

Ice was part of Aja Evans' midsummer day's dream too. Evans was thinking about how good she wanted to feel when she got back on it, how the success she tasted in her rookie season as a bobsled pusher still sent chills of excitement through her mind.

So Evans had slogged her way through traffic from her mother's house in Homewood to get to EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park, a stop along the itinerary designed to get her to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

There was a greeting party when she arrived for another intense summer workout with 4-year-old niece Rihanna Reed in tow: a reporter and a photographer, whom Evans expected, and a surprise visitor from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

The USADA doping control officer had come from Milwaukee to take a urine sample from Evans. That showed just how far Evans had traveled in a year, because only top-ranked athletes in Olympic sports are in the pool for unannounced, out-of-competition controls.

With the bathroom formalities out of the way, Evans, 25, went into the gym to begin a workout with her EFT trainer, Jacob Ross. She was wearing a purple top, black tights, pale turquoise sneakers with purple shoelaces and a smile that flashed brightly when her face was not contorted by effort.

"Our goal is to make Aja (pronounced 'Asia;' she was named for the Steely Dan song) as strong and as powerful as she can be," Ross said, "so when she gets to bobsled technique training, she only has to worry about those skills."

In this session, there would be sets of box squats, in which she eventually lifted 365 pounds; sets of dead lifts up to 195; crouching carries of a 40-pound SandBell; repeat flips of a 400-pound tire; and, the most eye-catching, box jumps.

Box jumps involve springing forward from a seated position to a stack of pads about 2 feet in front of the seat. Evans launched her 5-foot-10, 175-pound body to the top of a stack that was 4 feet, 3 inches high.

Patrick Ward, a three-year starter at offensive tackle for Northwestern, was working out at the same time as Evans. He was, as usual, impressed by the striking combination of physical abilities that allowed her to be a Big Ten champion in the shot put for Illinois and finish fourth in the state-meet 100 meters for Morgan Park High School.

No wonder Evans talks of returning to track in the heptathlon after the Winter Olympics.

"Pound-for-pound, she is one of the best athletes I have ever seen," Ward said. "Some of the guys I train with don't want to run next to her because she can make guys who run for a living look bad. A lot of great athletes come through here, but very few — if any — can do what she can explosively."

Those athletes include her brother, Fred, 30, the Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle who introduced her to EFT, and several past and present Bears. She has done some workouts alongside Matt Forte.

"I've seen her do box jumps as high as my shoulder … no exaggeration," Forte said. "She is a natural athlete, and she works very hard."

Sports success is in her family's DNA. Her father, Fred, was an NAIA swimming champion for Chicago State — the first black swimmer to win a national collegiate title. Her uncle is longtime major league baseball player Gary Matthews, who spent four seasons as a fan favorite with the Cubs. Her cousin is 12-season major leaguer Gary Matthews Jr.

"But no one grows up bobsledding in their backyard," Ross said.

Especially if that backyard was in the south and west sides of Chicago.

'Built for bobsled'

Like many people, Aja Evans' knowledge of bobsled had consisted of what she saw in the film "Cool Runnings," which tells the story of the even more unlikely bobsledders from Jamaica.

That changed during the 2010 Winter Olympics, when her University of Illinois track coach, Mike Erb, decided to compare Evans' scores in sprinting, jumping and power to those used in combine tests for bobsled athletes he was watching on TV. Erb realized her combination of skills was ideal for a sled pusher and encouraged her to try the sport.

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