Lauren Gibbs thought she’d hit the peak of her athletic career at Brown University, where she was a four-year member of the volleyball team. She was the team captain, with more than 1,000 career kills, and her awards included All-Ivy League Academic and Second Team All-Ivy League.
But then, in 2014, USA Rugby national team member Jillion Potter mentioned Gibbs’ powerlifting numbers to two-time Olympic bobsled medalist Elana Meyers Taylor, who suggested Gibbs give the sliding track a try.
Gibbs, a three-sport athlete back in high school — soccer, volleyball and track and field — attempted to make the rare switch from volleyball to bobsled. Previously, Bree Schaaf and Katie Eberling were the only two notable names to successfully make the switch between those two sports, with Eberling having also been approached by Meyers Taylor.
Two weeks after impressing coaches at a combine test — where Gibbs said she shocked even herself with her performance — she went to a weeklong push camp in Lake Placid, New York.
There, she learned how to push — and how not to push — the sled, and she spent a lot of time just hoping and praying she’d make it down the track in one piece.
“It’s like if you fall asleep in an airplane and hit really bad turbulence,” Gibbs said of a bobsled run. “Imagine it’s like that for a minute.”
After her first run, Gibbs, who claimed she’s not the most coordinated person in the world, said she’d never do it again.
But that thought was quickly eradicated by those around her.
In no time, she was back at the top, fretfully awaiting another trip down the track.
And again after that.
She couldn’t stop.
That adrenaline snowballed to the point where she became hooked.
“I thought I’d go to the push camp and just have a cool story to tell about being at the training center for a week,” Gibbs said. “But now, it’s turned into just another day at the office for me.”
Gibbs performed well enough in her new job, per say, that she finished second at the 2014 U.S. National Bobsled Push Championship behind Lauryn Williams, an Olympic silver medalist with Meyers Taylor in 2014 and the only U.S. woman to medal at both a summer and winter Olympics.
The Southern California native, now living in Denver, then earned a spot on the world cup team in her first season in the sport, pushing pilot Jamie Greubel Poser to two bronze medals, including one on the Sochi 2014 Olympic track.
She and Greubel Poser also finished fifth at the world championships.
A curveball was thrown all of the athletes’ ways during the offseason, when the IBSF – bobsled and skeleton’s international federation – reduced the maximum sled weight for two-woman events this season to 325 kg. (717 pounds) from 340 kg. (750 pounds) in an attempt to level the competition among nations. The minimum sled weight is now 165 kg. (364 pounds), while the combined weight of the two women must not exceed 160 kg. (353 pounds).
It’s hoped that the new weight restrictions will increase the participation of women from a wider range of body types and draw more athletes from the smaller Eastern European countries.
Further weight reductions will be made for the 2016-17 season, dropping the minimum sled weight to 160 kg. (353 pounds) and the maximum weight of the two-woman crew to 150 kg. (331 pounds).
Because of this, Gibbs lost 15 pounds during the offseason and has already been working to shred more weight before next season begins.
“I don’t really care about having to lose the weight,” Gibbs said. “I think it’s great.”
What she’s been more concerned about is maintaining her strength while losing that weight, and also working to increase her speed.
But so far, she hasn’t had to worry too much.
In September, while still nursing a hamstring injury, Gibbs won the USA National Bobsled Push Championships as a second-year competitor, edging out rookie Kehri Jones by a mere hundredth of a second for the title with a two-run push time of 9.53.
Teaming up with Greubel Poser once again in November for the first world cup of this season in Altenberg, Germany, the pair took bronze as the only U.S. athletes to medal in either bobsled or skeleton at the event.
Gibbs did not compete in last weekend’s world cup event in Winterberg, Germany, but she will partake in the world cup this weekend at Koenigssee, Germany, as well as January’s world cup events in the United States, which include stops in Lake Placid (Jan. 4-9) and Park City, Utah (Jan. 11-16).
The world championships are then slated for Feb. 8-21 in Igls, Austria.
Gibbs, always looking ahead, has already raised more than $10,000 on her GoFundMe.com page, which she started last year to fund her way to her ultimate goal, the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
But will she have enough experience by then to make it there?
“Absolutely,” she said, with leaps and bounds more confidence than she had nearly two years ago, after her first trip down the track.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.