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USA Bobsled athletes on to World Cup

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Josh Williamson first learned about the sport of bobsled through following two-time Olympic medalist Steven Langton on social media.

Williamson saw how much weight Langton could lift and how powerful he was when pushing a bobsled before jumping into it and sliding down an icy track at 90 miles per hour.

But when Williamson, a former lacrosse player from Lake Mary, Florida, applied for a U.S. Olympic Committee program called Scouting Camp: The Next Olympic Hopeful last year, he didn’t have high expectations.

“I knew I was a good athlete after competing in college, but I really didn’t know what I’d be good at,” said Williamson, who went to his local 24 Hour Fitness for a “combine” test and submitted his Next Olympic Hopeful application. At scouting camp, “They kind of tell you what they think you have the build for, they tell you what athletically you might be successful in. Coming from Florida, I didn’t really know bobsled was an option.”

Now a year after winning Season 1 of The Next Olympic Hopeful (NOH), Williamson is headed to Europe to compete as part of the USA Bobsled national team. He’s one of three athletes who were scouted through the NOH program in Colorado Springs, where the USOC is based, to land a spot on the bobsled team.

Eight winners from Season 2 of Scouting Camp: The Next Olympic Hopeful were announced Sunday on NBC’s two-hour finale. They will receive financial support to train in eight Olympic sports, which range from boxing to rowing. Nearly 3,500 athletes applied online or attended tryouts at 24 Hour Fitness clubs for the chance to participate in the program.

Since taking his first trip in a bobsled in Lake Placid, N.Y., in fall 2017, Williamson has had a fairy-tale rise in the sport. Williamson, 22, who played Division I lacrosse at Mercer University in Georgia, won five medals competing as a brakeman on the North American Cup circuit and placed sixth with pilot Hunter Church at the junior world championships in Switzerland in January.

“I’ve been in the sport for 29 years. I’ve never seen a guy push a sled this early in his career and look like he’s been doing it for 10 years the way Josh has,” says USA Bobsled national team head coach Mike Kohn. “In terms of athletic ability, he’s 100 percent pure natural talent. He’s got the mindset to go with it. We’re looking forward to him taking a leadership role in the future. He’s got potential to be the face of the program at some point.”

USA Bobsled has long had success recruiting athletes from other sports and developing their talent on the ice. Herschel Walker was a running back for the Minnesota Vikings when he competed in bobsled at age 29 in the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. More recently Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams have taken up the sport after careers in track and field, with both competing at the 2014 Olympics and Williams pairing with pilot Elana Meyers Taylor to win a silver medal in Sochi.

The year following an Olympics provides an opportunity for rookies to come in and learn, says Kohn, because the program loses athletes through attrition.

One of those athletes taking advantage of the opportunity is Sylvia Hoffman, who also made the national team after being scouted in NOH. The former LSU-Shreveport basketball player was working in Colorado Springs and training in weightlifting when she decided to apply for NOH.

After impressing coaches at the scouting camp, the 29-year-old who grew up in Arlington, Texas, was invited to a rookie camp for bobsled. Then she won the national push championships in Lake Placid on Sept. 28 before taking her first trip in a sled on ice a couple weeks later.

“It was a little bumpy, but I didn’t fear it,” Hoffman says of her first bobsled run as a brakewoman. “I was like OK, this is just something new to me. I think the second day I learned the track a little bit better and it really helped as far as being in the back of the sled. I was able to be prepared for certain turns and really try to stay focused and be loose and fluid.”

Hoffman and Williamson say they never would have found their new sport without NOH.

“Opportunities are out there; athletes just don’t know much about them,” says Scott Riewald, USOC’s senior director of high performance. He uses the example of NCAA athletes who graduate and don’t want to give up sport but who don’t have an avenue to continue competing.

“We have such a depth of talent in the United States that it makes complete sense for us to be working in this space and looking for ways to open up doors for some of those athletes to transition into Olympic sport if they have the physical, physiological, mental and emotional skills needed to make that transition. I believe there are some out there that do,” Riewald says.

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