The state of Georgia, with its scorching summers, may not seem like a hotbed of the bobsled.
And yet, in the past five years, the Peach State has produced two of America’s best.
Getting to know them has been a fascinating part of my Olympics journey.
I met Elana Meyers in 2009, months before she won the bronze medal in bobsled in the 2010 Winter Games. I followed her through the journey, from training in Lake Placid through her post-medal celebration in Vancouver. I interviewed family members and learned a great deal about her path to Olympic success.
But in the past four years, I have received a fuller picture.
Meyers is an active presence on Twitter and in the blogosphere. In fact, so are many of her teammates and fellow Olympians. And these athletes, unlike those in the major American sports, use their online platform to go into great detail about their lives.
And the lives of winter sports athletes are extremely atypical — and, some might say, full of contradictions.
First, consider this: Athletes like Meyers are professionals and among the best in the world at their sports. They shine on the world’s largest stage every four years; they receive access to some of the most advanced sporting equipment and technology; and they get to travel the world annually during their sports’ seasons.
Now, consider this: Athletes like Meyers often have to work part-time jobs to raise money for extra gear. They have a six-month off-season in which many study at online universities for their degrees. They rarely receive endorsements, have to hunt for sponsors, and, except for the Olympics, toil in anonymity despite their elite level of competition.
Perhaps that’s why athletes like Meyers put themselves out there online. They offer a window to anyone who is interested into their truly unique existences.
In my case, I had a much greater understanding of Meyers by the time I saw her again this past fall. This time we discussed her engagement to fellow bobsledder Nic Taylor and her ability to plan a wedding while preparing for the Olympics. I did a story about it that got a positive response.
This past week, I did a different type of story: about a local bobsledder who won’t be going to Sochi.
Megan Hill is from Woodstock, Ga. and started racing shortly after Meyers’ success in Vancouver. She became a bobsled pilot — meaning, the driver of the sled as opposed to the brakeman in back — in 2012 and was ranked 5th in the country heading into the 2013 season. (The top three drivers go to Sochi.)
But disaster arrived in the form of a major crash on her sled. Hill flipped over during a training run in Utah; for a full minute, she says, her helmet was “dragging on the ice, the sled completely out of control, upside-down, flying down the curves.”
Hill wound up with a concussion. One year later, she still cannot shake its symptoms, and thus she cannot compete. She will watch the 2014 Olympics from home.
“I see floaters; I see bright flashes,” Hill told me. “There’s a lot they don’t know about the brain; everyone reacts differently, and they don’t know how long it takes.”
But Hill’s story, among sled athletes, is far too common. I have heard from various athletes in the luge, bobsled, and skeleton about the regularity with which they receive concussions. Most sports enthusiasts have likely followed the controversy over concussions in football; they probably know little about concussions in sliding.
“When you’re watching the [Olympic] Games,” Hill said, “those athletes have all been through crashes. It happens.”
And often, when you crash on a sled, your head hits a wall. At 80-90 miles an hour.
But Hill had no hesitation about telling me her story. In fact, she believed in the importance of getting it out there, as a glimpse into how athletes both struggle and persevere. Hill writes a blog just like Meyers, and she is as forthcoming there as she was with me.
The Olympics has become such a popular event, particularly on television, because of the human dramas that surround them. The NBC broadcast team seeks out the most poignant stories and tells them with no restraint, and the athletes lay bare their own desires and journeys while going for the gold. I have covered numerous sports in my young career, but I have always found Olympic athletes particularly compelling, mainly because they maintain such unusual lives that few fans truly understand. Every time I interview an athlete, I always learn a new nugget about the athletic experience.
Some of the most profound nuggets have come from those two athletes from the Peach State.
FOR MORE ON MY OLYMPICS JOURNEY: Preparing for Sochi, remembering Vancouver
FOR MORE SPORTS COVERAGE: The search for Evan Gattis
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Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.