Chicagoan Evans pushes herself for Olympic bobsled spot

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

After her departure from Illinois and a six-month internship at EFT to complete her degree in sports management in December 2010, she thought of becoming a professional track athlete until coaches wanted her to bulk up by 20 or 30 pounds. She eventually took a part-time job as a trainer at EFT while sorting out her plans.

After about a year, bobsled came back into them when Evans realized she still wanted to be a competitive athlete. An online search told her about upcoming bobsled combine tests in the summer of 2012. She went, got the highest score (794 of 800), then stunned everyone by winning the dry-land push trials.

U.S. women's coach Todd Hays, an Olympic silver medal sled driver, salivated over Evans' potential. "By this time next year, Aja will set an entirely new standard for women's bobsled," Hays said last fall.

Three months after the combine tests, Evans found herself on ice at the Olympic bobsled track in Lake Placid, N.Y., about to plunge into the unknown: sitting in the back of a 375-pound sled for about 50 seconds at speeds beyond 70 mph.

"The ground shakes when a bobsled goes by," three-time Olympic luger Bonny Warner once said. "They steer with the finesse of an overloaded Mack truck, sound like a locomotive in a tunnel and are as smooth and graceful as a drunken elephant."

Experienced bobsledders tried to prepare Evans for what her first run would be like — the noise, the bumps, the shaking, the G-force in the curves. It was all of that and more for a person who hates the pit in the stomach you get from abrupt drops on roller coasters.

After the first practice run, which made her feel more awkward than frightened, Evans wondered what she was doing there. The next run was an hour away. She called her mother, Sequocoria Mallory, and asked, "Have I told too many people I was going to do this for me to stop now?"

With her mother's encouragement, Evans decided if she made it through that second run, she would stick with it. The whole way down, she was thinking, "It's worth it, it's worth it, it's worth it."

Two days later, in the second of four runs of the national team trials for the 2012-13 season, Evans and driver Jamie Greubel set a start record for the Lake Placid track. "I don't know what I'm doing," Evans said to herself, "but I'm doing pretty good."

By the end of the season, she would be USA Bobsled's rookie of the year, win two World Cup medals and set start records on tracks in Park City, Utah; Koenigsee, Germany; and the 2014 Olympic venue in Sochi, where she and the top U.S. driver, Elana Meyers, also would win a World Cup silver medal.

"Being a great athlete is the first step," Hays said last week, "but a lot of great athletes haven't pushed well. I'm glad it has turned out as well for Aja as we thought it could."

She is competing with two other great track athletes — world indoor champion hurdler Lolo Jones and Olympic silver medal 100-meter runner Lauryn Williams — as well as world bobsled silver and bronze medalist Katie Eberling of Palos Hills for push spots on what likely will be three U.S. sleds in Sochi. The team will be named in late January.

"Very few times do you find someone who is built for bobsled, and Aja is one of them," Meyers said.

The driver, pusher and sled must weigh an aggregate 748 pounds. Anything less means adding weight to the sled, which makes it harder to push. Evans and Meyers weigh enough together that is not necessary.

"And Aja is so strong and powerful at her weight," Meyers said.

She proved that again last summer with a perfect score at the combine and a second straight push title. That meant Evans would spend most of the preseason working with Meyers, and they likely will race together when the World Cup season opens Saturday in Calgary.

It means Evans has, as it were, the driver's seat for an Olympic push position.

'Inspiring' effort

The push phase of a bobsled race lasts 50 meters of a track that is about 30 times that long. The driver and pusher, also known as pilot and brakeman, push for 20 or 30 meters, then jump into the sled, where the pusher sits with her head down and tries not to move her upper body, which could move the sled off the line the driver is steering.

Evans never has seen any part of a race after loading into the sled. She also never has crashed, despite being told you can't be a real bobsledder without looking like a scene from "Cool Runnings."

"I saw the start and figured, how hard could this sport be when all I have to do is run 20 meters?" Evans said. "But you have to do everything you can to keep up the velocity. And sliding is just part of it. It definitely wasn't as easy as I thought."

Bobsledders are their own pit crews. They work on the sled runners, move sleds around the track and help drive them from track to track. That makes winning a World Cup medal even more attractive: athletes headed for an awards ceremony get out of moving a sled after the race.

The silver medal Evans won in February in her season finale in Sochi was special for a reason that made her eyes misty when she recounted it six months later. It is also what convinced Meyers her brakeman was willing to fight through any adversity in the sport.

"It was pretty inspiring," Meyers said.

Evans' maternal grandfather and constant supporter, Lemorse Mallory, died at 95 six days before the race, and she wanted to be back with her family in Chicago. Evans' mother persuaded her to stay, that her grandfather would have wanted her to compete.

"Battling all those emotions and doing as well as I did made me so much more excited to return this season," Evans said. "I feel like I have gotten through the hard part, and now it's like a victory lap."

She has taken them in track. All summer, as she drove herself both to the gym and in it, Aja Evans was imagining what it would be like to take one with her soles on ice.

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil

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