KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — While traveling the track-and-field circuit around Europe, Summer Olympians Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams bumped into each at the Rome Airport. And they talked bobsled, not sprinting. Jones thought the fast, powerful Williams would be a perfect bobsled brakeman.
Fast-forward six months.
Paired with pilot Elana Meyers, Williams pushed USA-1 to a silver medal in women’s bobsled Wednesday. They twice set the Sanki Sliding Center start record for the event. USA-2, with pilot Jamie Greubel and brakeman Aja Evans, finished with bronze. Neither sled could match the smooth driving of Canada’s Kaillie Humphries down the technical track. Canada-1 won gold by one-10th of a second, overtaking USA-1 on its fourth and final run.
When asked if it was hard to see the gold slip away after entering Wednesday’s runs with a .23-second lead, Meyers said, “Any time you’re that close and you can taste it and you don’t come down with the result, it hurts a little.
“But at the end of the day, I’m super-elated for this medal. Kaillie beat me and I have to deal with that.”
Meyers also gave credit to Jones for recruiting Williams and making the silver possible.
“Lolo has been a trouper the whole time,” said Meyers. “She recruited Lauyrn. To be in her situation and recruit such a strong athlete and have the confidence to say, ‘You’re going to compete against me for a spot, but I’m going to introduce you to the sport anyway.’ That speaks loads about Lolo’s character and I don’t think she got enough credit for how hard she worked and how dedicated she is to performing for team USA because she truly is.”
While Humphries was smooth through the turns, Meyers struggled coming out of Turn 2 and lost considerable speed as USA-1 hit the walls on a few occasions. While a bumpy last ride cost Meyers and Williams the gold, the wild ride that brought Williams to the Sochi Olympics still made second place seem like a triumph.
“This has been the most exciting experience of my life,” said Williams. “I am so happy to have fallen into bobsled. Who would have thought six months ago I would be bobsledding, let alone on the podium at the Olympics?”
Indeed, who would have thought? Until Wednesday, the brakeman getting the most attention was Jones. Although she joined the US bobsled team in the fall of 2012, Jones became the controversial face of the sport this past year. Her selection to the Olympic squad made headlines and drew criticism, some fans and pundits wondering whether she truly earned her spot.
On Wednesday, Jones and pilot Jazmine Fenlator placed 11th in USA-3, trailing the winners by 3.36 seconds.
After completing their run and going through a gauntlet of broadcast interviews, Jones and Fenlator rushed to the finish area to cheer on the top two USA sleds. Following the silver and bronze performances of her teammates, Jones became teary-eyed as she talked about her experience on the Olympic team and her pride in what Williams accomplished.
“I’m so pumped,” said Jones. “Everybody fought hard. I feel like I’m in the presence of Jesse Owens when I looked at Lauryn Williams come out of that sled. I was so emotionally choked up.
“I couldn’t be prouder of Jaz. She got a little bit discouraged when she got out of that sled. It was hard on me because I was like, ‘You can’t be discouraged. My first Olympics was a nightmare.’
“I think we’re good teammates because I can lift her up and tell her it’s not the end. I’m just thrilled that this was a good day for USA bobsled. I just want to go celebrate with them.”
In her Olympic debut at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, Jones reached the final of the 100-meter hurdles as the gold-medal favorite. But she stumbled over the ninth hurdle and lost out on a medal. She also narrowly missed the podium in the same event at the 2012 London Games and hoped she would take home some hardware from Sochi.
Meanwhile, though far from the Owens category, Williams has an impressive Olympic medal haul: silver in the 100-meter dash in 2004, gold in the 4 x 100 relay in 2012 for her role as alternate running the qualifying rounds, and now a silver in bobsled. She was the fifth athlete to win a medal in both the Winter and Summer Olympics.
And Williams narrowly missed out on a bigger historical accomplishment Wednesday. If she had won gold, Williams would have become the first woman and only the second athlete to earn gold medals in the Winter and Summer Olympics. American Eddie Eagan is the only athlete to accomplish the feat, in boxing at the 1920 Antwerp Games and in bobsled in the 1932 Lake Placid Games.
“I didn’t come here to make history,” said Williams. “I came here to help Team USA. I feel I did the best I could to help Team USA.
“I knew it was going to take fast pushes, and [Elana] was counting on me for fast pushes. I gave her everything I had on each of the runs.”
It’s uncertain whether Jones and Williams will be back for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. Fenlator told Jones she could take a break from bobsled and focus on the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, but the pilot of USA-3 promised to “reel her back in for Pyeongchang.” Going from international competition in track to international competition in bobsled has given Jones roughly 10 days off since she committed to bobsled.
Williams said there was a “33 percent chance” she would return to bobsled. While the 31-year-old Jones wants to keep competing in track, the 30-year-old Williams is thinking about the end of her professional sports career.
But Williams acknowledged she enjoyed the close-knit team in bobsled and that the sport rekindled her competitive spirit.
“[In bobsled], a feeling came back that I haven’t had in two or three years in track and field,” said Williams. “That’s what helped me get to the podium. It’s an intensity that burns inside of you, like a fire.”
Given what Williams accomplished in such a short time, Meyers and other members of USA Bobsled certainly hope the fire for bobsled lasts another four years.Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.