Redeeming Dreams after Mistakes with Olympic Bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor
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About This Episode
Hardly any kids grow up bobsledding regularly or even dreaming of reaching an elite level in the sport. The same was true for Elana Meyers Taylor. As a kid she played all sorts of sports before focusing on softball, which she went on to play for George Washington University. Throughout college it was her goal to play with the Olympic team, but tryouts did not go as she hoped. “I literally had the worst tryout ever,” Elana recalls. She swung over balls, misthrew relays, and bumbled catches, all of which solidified the disappointing end of her softball career.
Hanging up her cleats didn’t just signify the end of softball, it felt like letting go of her Olympic dreams. In the midst of the post-graduation listlessness, her parents saw bobsled on television and encouraged her to check it out. A quick google search and an email to the coach of the US National Team landed Elana an invitation to give bobsled a try. After a few shorts months on the track, she attended the Olympic Trials for the 2010 games in Vancouver and a selection committee chose her for the position of brakeman for a two woman team. In light of the immense pressure to simply make the American team, the actual Olympics were like a dream. She took time to be present, enjoying the celebration of diversity, athletics, and sportsmanship. With her bobsled partner she took bronze and will forever remember the bliss of her amatuer games.
But now that she had one Olympics and one medal under her belt, the pressure was on to go for gold. She increased her training and the frequency of competition. She took silver at the 2013 World Championships, but didn’t just head home with her medal, she walked away with a ring as well. Her boyfriend and fellow bobsledder, Nic Taylor, popped the question in front of her friends, family, and fans as she got down from the podium and broadcast their love story around the world.
Elana stepped into 2014 prepping for the Sochi Olympics and for her April wedding; a welcome distraction in the midst of such rigorous training. These games felt different, however. In Vancouver she was there to experience the Olympics, soak in the culture, and participate in the celebration of nations — in Sochi she was there for gold. Rather than being selected for the role of brakeman, she earned a spot as the driver. Focused and competing well, they held onto their gold medal standing through three of the four cumulative heats. But a mental mistake early in the final heat cost them the gold. “We almost lost some of the fun of it because it was all about the medal, and maybe that’s why we didn’t get it,” Elana says. She walked away devastated and disappointed, truly more upset over not competing to her full potential than missing out on a gold medal.
Post Sochi she took a much needed reprieve from bobsled. She got married in April, and that summer trained in California at the same facility as the US Women’s Rugby Team which, like bobsled, is also known for attracting crossover athletes. Elana was invited to practice with the team and went on to play in two tournaments with the National Women’s Rugby Sevens team. “I found a community of really enthusiastic, encouraging women,” says Elana. It was the perfect change of pace after a disappointing Olympics, but she knew that her heart was still with bobsled. She returned to the track that fall, albeit in a slightly different scenario. 2014 marked the end of a 75 year ban on women in four-man bobsled competition. With the right to drive secured Elana was immediately keen to give it a try, but she was having trouble getting anyone behind her in the sled. Her husband, Nic, was the first to volunteer to compete with her and his presence encouraged several more athletes to join. She became the first woman to compete in international mixed gender competition for the United States.
In 2018 both Elana and her husband represented Team USA in bobsled at the Olympics in PyeongChang. She was enlisted as a driver, while her husband was selected to the men’s team as an alternate. He may have been disappointed for a minute, “but he is the most positive person that I know,” says Elana. They were looking forward to experiencing the games together that year, but a week before competition Elana partially tore her achilles in a training exercise. Determined to compete, she arrived in PyeongChang in a wheelchair and had to radically alter her pre-race training to account for the injury. Oscillating between training as much as possible to be sharp, but as little as possible to recover, she needed to manage the pain and try to not do further damage. Her husband jumped on board with the trainers to quicken her recovery. He pushed her around the games in a wheelchair to cut back on walking and even refashioned her shoes to alleviate pressure on her ankle. She went on to win a silver medal that year, but wasn’t dampened by the disappointment she felt with the previous second place finish. Focused more on the experience and her efforts, rather than the outcome, left Elana feeling proud of what she offered and the medal she got to bring back with her. “I wanted it to be fun for the people, and for the games,” Elana recalls.
Through the ups and downs of competition and injury, it’s her faith and her family that keep her grounded. Her father was a professional athlete and she credits him with instilling in her the importance of having other hobbies and passions. Even in her marriage the presence of sport is limited. “We have to ask permission to use the ‘b-word’ at home,” jokes Elana. With two professional bobsledders in the house, it would be easy to allow critiques of training, debates on strategy, or stress about upcoming races overshadow their relationship. “I have always managed to work or volunteer outside of my sport to make sure I don’t get too inundated with bobsled. ” she says. Most notably for Elana is her recent work with the Women’s Sports Foundation. The Foundation aims to encourage and advance the lives of girls and women through sports. Started by tennis legend Billie Jean King, the organization encourages professional athletes to be ambassadors to their communities, supports programs that involve young girls in a variety of sports, and advocates for sports equality for all. In 2018, Elana was named President of the Women’s Sports Foundation and awarded an honorary doctorate in Public Service from George Washington University.
Through it all she continues to train and fully intends to race in Beijing, but her regimen looks different now. Accounting for her injury and her age, she’s no longer pounding out intense workouts or testing her strength in the weight room. Her experience, self-awareness, and confidence allow her to craft a program that works for her and gives space in her life for things that matter more than another medal: service and family. Elana continues to be recognized for the inspiring woman that she is, so be sure to follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and at the Women’s Sports Foundation as she looks ahead to the 2022 Olympics and advocates for uplifting work around the world.