- Three years from her first bobsled run to the Olympic medal stand. The story behind Aja Evans.
The two-woman bobsled, in woefully oversimplified terms, consists of two basic segments. The first is the push—one woman stands on the side of the sled, the other behind it. There is no gunshot to start the clock; the pair begins to push the 300-plus pound sled whenever they’re ready. Think of it like the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. There’s silence, mental preparation, and then when the athlete is ready to perform, she bends her knees and explodes from the legs. Big muscles are key to pushing a sled twice your weight.
Aja Evans was prepared for the push. Sure, she had never tried bobsledding before. And yes, she was about to make her debut at the Lake Placid Olympic Sports Complex, by all accounts one of the world’s most difficult tracks. But the zero-to-100 start? Nothing new. A five-time college All-American in the shot put and a sprinter at the University of Illinois, Evans was no stranger to an explosive start. In the shot put, all the power derives from the legs. The arm is merely a conductor for the force produced by the lower body. Sprinting calls upon those same muscles.
So when it was time for Evans to make her first ever practice run, in shivery upstate New York in the winter of 2011, she called on that same burst she had been trusting all her life.
On to the second portion of a bobsled run. This part begins five-ish seconds after the push off, when the competitors hop into the actual sled. The focus shifts from power to aerodynamics, from pushing to gliding. If Evans was ready for the push, she was anything but ready for the rush that comes with speeding through a snow-coated tube of concrete as fast as a car screaming down an interstate highway.
“I was fearing for my life on the way down,” Evans says with a laugh and a flash of her contagious smile. Evans is one of those people who rarely finds herself laughing alone. When she laughs, you can’t help but follow suit, no matter the topic.
“You’re nervous, you’re vulnerable. I was looking at my knees, because that was the little control I had.”
Somehow, the sled navigated the course disaster-free. Evans emerged on the other side, relieved to be finished but equally overwhelmed by the visceral roller coaster she’d just ridden. Just 22 at the time, Evans did what many her age would after an experience as terrifying as that first run. She snuck off to the bathroom and, while trying to hold back tears, she called her mother.
“I told her I didn’t know about this. She told me I better go right to the top of that hill—she called it a hill, which cracked me up—and go down again. And I did, and by the third day on the ice, we set a start record. So I was like ah, okay, I can stick around for a little bit.”
Just three years later, Evans found herself on the podium at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, a bronze medal draped around her neck.
If there’s one thing winter in Chicago doesn’t lack, it’s snow. But the Windy City is, by and large, devoid of any real topographic variation. So while a young Evans grew up in Chicago with Olympic dreams, those dreams featured her participating in track and field events rather than winter sports.
It wasn’t until her senior year at Illinois that she was first introduced to bobsledding by her college track and field coach. He had seen that bobsledders participate in the same NFL-combine-style tests that track and field athletes use as an offseason fitness metric. Because Evans had performed so well prior to her senior year in the broad jump and power-cleans, her coach felt she had serious crossover potential.
The extent or her bobsled knowledge before then began and ended with the movie Cool Runnings, the goofy 1993 comedy that’s loosely, loosely based on the 1988 Jamaican men’s bobsled team.
“No joke, that’s one of my top five movies,” she says.
Her coach's suggestion wasn’t enough to convince Evans to begin an entirely new endeavor, but she filed it away in the back of her mind. Eventually the idea was summoned again by a competitive itch that hadn’t expired when her track career ended shortly after she graduated in 2010. Evans was working as a sports performance trainer and coach when she realized she’d rather be the one preparing for competition than the one coaching the competitors.
“I was helping all these kids and adult clients accomplish all these dreams and goals they set for themselves, and it was killing me inside because I felt like I didn’t give myself that same opportunity. So that’s when bobsled came into play.”
She stayed up until 4 a.m. that night researching “everything.” Watching YouTube videos, learning who the best sledders in the world were, and, of course, re-watching Cool Runnings.
After the nervy debut in Lake Placid, it wouldn’t take long for Evans to tailor her innate athleticism to bobsled. She earned a spot in the 2014 Olympics with a strong performance in the 2013-14 World Cup season, and teamed up with Jamie Greubel to capture bronze in the two-woman event in Sochi.
This circuitous path to the Olympics is starkly different from the prototypical Olympian’s training story. Evans went from someone who had never ridden a bobsled to an Olympic medal winner in roughly three years. In an era when youth athletes are specializing earlier and earlier, so many Olympic hopefuls—figure skaters, skiers, hockey players and others—focus on their sport from the moment they can skate or carry ski poles. With bobsled, it’s like that in a few places—Germany being one—but the American teams have largely been characterized by women like Evans, who excelled in other sports and switched to bobsled later in their athletic careers. Of the six women on the U.S. bobsled team in Sochi, each played a non-winter sport in college. Five ran track, including Summer Olympians Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams, while Elana Meyers played softball.
The diversity of athletic backgrounds for bobsledders results in a diversity of athletes that is simply unparalleled in the overwhelmingly white world of American winter sports. Of the 103 women on Team USA for the 2014 games in Sochi, five were black. All five were bobsledders. Three of the six women on the bobsled podium in Sochi were black: Evans, Meyers and Williams, the latter of whom took up bobsledding roughly six months before the Olympics.
“I think the biggest thing for me is we had the perfect example set in 2002, with [Vanetta] Flowers,” says Meyers, who teamed with Evans to win the bronze in 2014. Flowers became the first black person ever to win Winter Olympic gold in 2002, the first year women’s bobsled was in the Olympics, despite the fact that women have been sledding competitively since at least the 1930s.
“To have the first African-American to win a gold medal be a bobsledder. She was one of one. She set that example and showed us it was possible. Without her, I don’t know if I’d be there in 2010.”
Just as Meyers drew inspiration from seeing Flowers on the podium, Evans recalls having a picture of Meyers on an inspirational vision board shortly after the 2010 games. Seeing a proud black woman on the podium who played college softball made Evans believe that despite her upbringing in the south side of Chicago, despite her lack of experience, despite a winter sports landscape with a flagrant dearth of color, her Olympic dream was alive and well.
After Evans earned herself a spot on the podium with the bronze in 2014, she received Facebook messages from women of color across the country. They told her that seeing her success as a black woman in a winter sport gave them the strength to keep fighting, to push just a bit harder in their workplace. Perhaps most importantly, it gave them the knowledge that it just does not matter what you look like, or what the people you’re competing against look like.
While Evans was recently named to the nine-woman bobsled national team for the 2017-18 season, which includes the Olympics, she isn’t guaranteed a spot on Team USA in PyeongChang. She’s one of six American brakemen who will compete in the World Cup season—brakemen sit in the back of the sled, while the pilot directs from the front—and the top three finishers will likely be paired with a pilot and compete in South Korea. In this, her second Olympic cycle, Evans has a greater understanding of what she represents, which is something larger than just elite athletic performance.
“My mom always taught me to be fierce and go at things full-force, so at first it didn’t occur to me that I was going in wearing this title as a woman of color. But once we started getting media attention, I realized we stand for something more. Going into this Olympic games, we’re owning it. It’s big for us.”