Lolo Jones moves from track to ice; Noelle Pikus-Pace back in the game
Olympians Lolo Jones, Tianna Madison were selected to the U.S. bobsled team
Steve Holcomb achieved almost everything in bobsled, except a title on U.S. soil
Noelle Pikus-Pace, Jon Montgomery will be aiming for Sochi Games in skeleton
The World Cup seasons for Winter Olympic sports bobsled and skeleton open this weekend in Lake Placid, N.Y., the first of nine international tour stops plus the 2013 world championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland (Jan. 21-Feb. 3). Here are four key storylines to follow as the one-year-out date from the 2014 Sochi Olympics approaches ...
1. Lolo on ice.
Take nothing away from a rising U.S. women's bobsled team, but the story of the bobsled season, at least to start, will be about a woman who had never competed on ice until this fall. Hurdler Lolo Jones, perhaps the most polarizing figure of the 2012 Summer Olympics, is the latest track and field athlete to give bobsled a try.
She spent three weeks at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center enduring combine testing (much like in the NFL), push-start championships (not on ice) and selection races (on ice). Jones and another Olympian, 4x100-meter relay gold medalist Tianna Madison, were among six women chosen to the U.S. team as push athletes. From those six, Jones and Madison were two of the three picked to suit up in the World Cup opener beginning Friday. Their job is simple -- help their pilot accelerate the sled for about five seconds at the start, jump in and enjoy the ride to the bottom.
So, what's been the toughest part?
"Texting people when my hands are numb from the cold," Jones joked in an e-mail.
"Truth: The maintenance of a 400 pound sled. This thing is like a mini copper [sic] with no engine. I always thought that there was a team that takes care of the sled for us. I've seen the Winter Olympics and seen the bobsled at the start line. I just never knew that team that takes care of the sled is the actual athletes. We are in charge of everything from the maintenance to loading and unloading to and from the track. Even have to wash and wax it. I don't even wash or wax my own car.
"This would be like if they asked me to set up all my hurdles when I got to the start line for a race...that would never happen in track."
Jones and Madison aren't the first track and field athletes, or athletes from any sport for that matter, to switch over. The top U.S. pilot, world silver medalist Elana Meyers, played softball in college. Jones' pilot this weekend, Jazmine Fenlator, threw the discus, shot put and hammer at Rider University.
The most notable male sports stars to convert supported Jones and Madison in unison, the news conjuring memories from two decades ago:
Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker -- "She has proven she's a competitor."
Former 110-meter world-record holder Renaldo Nehemiah -- "Any additional exposure track and field lends to another sport, that's good."
Super Bowl champion Willie Gault -- "It's so cold. East Germany, 15 below zero, it becomes difficult to concentrate."
Olympic hurdles champion Edwin Moses -- "The first impression is that it's a glamour sport, which I don't think it is."
Out of all of those men, Walker was the only athlete to compete in a Winter Games (in 1992). The women do not have a four-person event, just a two, meaning a maximum of three push athletes will make the Olympic team. So, can Jones and Madison succeed and make it all the way to the 2014 Olympics?
"I can't imagine them putting in this amount of time and energy without somewhere in the back of their mind wanting to go to Sochi," U.S. coach Todd Hays said. "They're going to have to fight for it. They know how hard it's going to be."
For the U.S. women as a whole, it's a building year. Meyers is the only national team pilot with Olympic experience (and that was as a push athlete in 2010). Another top push athlete, Aja Evans, is also converting from collegiate track and field. The results won't be as important as building momentum for 2014, Meyers said.
"We've got some great athletes, but a lot of inexperience, even from a drivers' perspective," she said. "The biggest thing we've talked about is to go into Sochi to sweep the podium."
2. What's left for the Night Train to accomplish?
There isn't much room left in Steve Holcomb's trophy case. He's the pilot of the Night Train, the reigning four-man Olympic bobsled champion, and two- and four-man world champion.
"My ultimate goal for the season is to win a world championship title on foreign soil," Holcomb said. "My three world championships [including one in 2009] came on U.S. soil."
If there's any international site an American man can drive a sled to victory, it's St. Moritz. It's the oldest track in the world and the home of U.S. Olympic triumphs in 1924 and 1948, the last gold before Holcomb ended the drought in 2010.
"St. Moritz is kind of a celebrated, storied European track, the last all-natural track," U.S. Olympic coach Todd Hays said. "It's one of the premier tracks in the world and would certainly be a great addition to the résumé of somebody like Steve."
Holcomb's crew has already navigated the retirement of Steve Mesler after the Olympics, replacing him with Steve Langton. But the two-time Olympian believes they can be better, even after sweeping the 2012 world championships.
"It takes time to make sure we're working together as a team, to have the best push start," Holcomb said. "In Vancouver, one of the reasons we were so strong and so fast was we had one of the top stats. If we can get back to that state, we can be money again. It's not like we're terrible; we're the world champions, but there's always room for improvement."
The biggest competition is likely to come from Germans, as usual, and Russian Alexsandr Zubkov, the reigning World Cup season champion. Holcomb-Zubkov could make for the biggest U.S.-Russia duel at the Olympics.