A Big Tigers Fan With Olympic Dreams Begins Training in Utah

PARK CITY, Utah – It was the old English “D” on my husband’s hat that started the conversation.

“Hey, are you from Detroit?” asked the muscular young woman waiting her turn to push a bobsled out of a training start.

We were at the Utah Olympic Park, high up in the Wasatch Mountains, and the site of ski jumping, bobsledding, luge and skeleton competitions during the 2002 Games. The park’s 389 acres are now year-round training facilities for Olympic hopefuls.

On that unseasonably warm November day we went through the two museums at the site and then stretched our legs. We found athletes practicing bobsled starts in a specially designed track segment at the bottom of the hill.

That’s when Valerie Smith called out to us, and over the next two days we watched her Olympic dreams begin on an icy mountain track.

Smith, a Wyandotte native and huge Tigers fan, left Michigan just after watching her team beat the Yankees in the ALCS. She moved to Utah where she’s learning to be a brakeman for bobsled driver Brittany Reinbolt.

“You have to go for your dream. You only live once and this has already been the trip of a lifetime,” says the 24-year-old Smith. “This opportunity only comes around once.”

Smith grew up playing sports and was on the volleyball team at Adrian College until she graduated in 2010. She went to graduate school at Central Michigan, earning a master’s in exercise physiology earlier this year.

Nearly two years ago, she met Michelle Rzepka at an academic conference. Rzepka, a Novi native, was on the U.S. bobsledding team and competed in the 2010 Olympics, finishing sixth in the two-woman event.

Smith and Rzepka talked sports. “She was telling me how anybody could try bobsledding,” Smith says.

Rzepka also shared what it took to be successful: explosive running, power and a willingness to learn. “My lifting numbers were the same,” Smith says. “I can squat around 300 pounds.”

Smith found a recruiting page on the USA Bobsled website and within a couple weeks was in contact with one of the coaches.

She went to a “rookie” bobsled camp in Lake Placid, New York, in March 2011 where she met Reinbolt. She instantly loved the sport’s speed, power and technique, but knew she had to finish school before entertaining any serious sledding thoughts.

Reinbolt, meanwhile, was teaching physical education and coaching high school in her native Arkansas. She also played professional women’s football, winning a world championship in 2010.

But the 28-year-old has always had her Olympic dreams.

“I remember being in high school watching the 2002 Olympics my senior year. That was the first year women’s bobsledding was in the Olympics and I thought, ‘I want to do that.’ I did some research but I never thought it was going to happen,” she says.

Then she saw an Internet posting about how Team USA was desperate for brakemen, women, actually. That’s when she learned of the rookie camp where she met Smith. She made a few trips back to the Lake Placid camps and in October 2011 got the invite to join the national team.

Last year she competed in Europe as a brakeman but always wanted to be the driver. She made that commitment last summer, asking Smith to join her in Park City to train this year.

The women are part of the bobsled development team, and are using this season to learn. Smith is brand new to the sport, and Reinbolt has never driven. They train alongside teams from around the world with Olympic-caliber coaches.

“This year is the big learning year, learning everything there is, training really hard,” Smith says. “There are only so many months you can slide. The more runs we get in, the better we can be for next season."

They’ll race in North America on the America’s Cup circuit, with competitions planned in Calgary, Lake Placid and Park City. Training continues alongside the national team, with track star Lolo Jones arriving in Utah recently. (Reinbolt jokes that giving up her brakeman spot made room for Jones.)

We met Smith and Reinbolt on a Saturday, and they invited us to watch training runs the next day. Not being bobsledding experts, we did a bit of Internet surfing to learn about the sport and found their Twitter handles: @Valerie_Georgia and @BReinbolt.

“Thanks for following us,” Reinbolt said at the track before her runs. “We feel so professional.”

The women are self-funded for this year, so far, with part-time work helping pay the training and living expenses. Smith’s sister is selling T-shirts, and family and friends have helped out. They’re cheaply renting a room from another bobsledder who has a house in Park City.

While the financial struggles are tough, both women have degrees and teaching experience to rely on for future employment, and they’re not worried. The Olympic spirit carries them along with their natural competitive drive, motivation to succeed and visions of medals and glory with Team USA.

Watching the sleds speed by at up to 80 miles an hour, it’s hard to not get caught up in their enthusiasm.

The women realize the 2014 games in Russia might be coming too fast for them to have a shot at the team, but 2018 in Korea is a realistic goal.

Then what happens?

“Maybe,” Smith says. “I can throw out the first pitch at a Tigers game.”

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