I have never been a diehard Olympics fan, but this year is different.
I counted the days to Sochi and even followed the run-up events of a sport I once scarcely knew existed: women’s bobsled. I want the USA to dominate to an almost irrational degree.
This has nothing to do with Lolo Jones and her earlier Olympic heartbreaks. This has to do with a completely different kind of heartbreak.
Twenty-seven years ago, my best friend, Melinda, took her own life after suffering from severe postpartum depression. Two years before Prozac hit the market and in the days when few would admit to any kind of depression, Melinda hoped to beat her “baby blues” without drugs. Her extended untreated depression turned fatal. At 28, she left a husband, a 3-year-old daughter, and an 8-month-old son.
That 3-year-old daughter, Jamie Greubel, is now the No. 2 driver for the US women’s bobsled team.
After Jamie’s dad, also a childhood friend, remarried and we both got busy raising our families — 280 miles apart — we lost touch. I hadn’t heard anything about the kids until Jamie’s aunt contacted me about six years ago. She asked if I’d be willing to share my memories with Jamie, who wanted to know more about her mom. I sent Jamie a letter and an article I’d written about Melinda but never heard back. Her aunt had said it might take awhile. Jamie was training in Lake Placid for a new goal of hers: to make the Olympic bobsled team.
I knew Jamie had been a track star at Cornell, a heptathlete. I did not know that other track stars had transitioned to the bobsled or that Jamie had always been hypercompetitive. All I knew was that Jamie’s devoting herself to a bobsled made perfect sense.
As a teenager in the 1970s, my main interests were smoking cigarettes and sneaking into bars, but Melinda always insisted we do something constructive. She taught me to embroider and play guitar. She nudged me onto a tennis court and into a gymnastics studio. But every single winter when the snow began to fall, her real crusade began.
Melinda owned an old-fashioned toboggan that she was inordinately fond of, a slatted wooden thing, curling in front, heavy to lift, flush to the snow. We lived in urban New Jersey, not scenic countryside. Recruitment wasn’t easy; she needed four to fill the sled. She’d coerce someone, usually Pete, the man she would marry, to strap the toboggan to the car and drive us to the local mountain. The fun was wiping out. Cold wind in our faces, hot chocolate afterward.
Jamie says she has a couple memories of her mom, but she isn’t sure if she has made them up. She doesn’t remember most of her childhood. Playing sports was a way to lose herself, but not a means to fill the void. She had a loving, supportive family, she says, “but there is part of me that’s always going to be missing — a part no one else can fill.”
I wish I could give Jamie the Melinda I knew, the friend who dragged me up and down mountains. The mother who would have picked up her daughter from sports camps, attended every track meet, and flown to bobsled World Cup races, celebrating every fraction of a second Jamie shaved from her time.
I can only give her my memories and follow the US women’s bobsled team. I like to imagine Melinda there, at the finish line, cold wind in her face. As Team Greubel begins each heat, starting on Tuesday, I’ll think of how awed she’d be, and how honored she is, by the strength and poise of her daughter. And I’ll cheer like hell.
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