What I learned in the sport of Bobsled that changed my life – Part 2
By: Ben S. Fogel
In part one, I discussed a lot about the actions I took to make the obscure switch to the sport of Bobsled, and a few of the lessons I learned along the way (Find Part 1 of this blog here). In part 2, I am excited to share stories from “on and off the ice” and continue to share lessons learned where I transformed the most from over the course of my athletic and business career.
Ok, where was I? It was June, 2003 and I had just completed my first Bobsled combine. After the combine, they gave you a scoring sheet and you could chart your score and figure out your total based on the 600 point maximum score (6 scored criteria, 100 points each). I distinctly remember my score was 512 – An average of around 85 points per event. My friend and college track teammate scored a 486, so it was now official – I won that $100 bet! I remember the coaches said they would email or call us and notify us if we did good enough to make it to the next level and fly out to Lake Placid, NY to learn how to push a Bobsled.
About one month later, I got the call. It was the head coach inviting me to come out to Lake Placid for a 2 week Bobsled camp. I was literally just finishing up my degree at school with 2 internships, and I remember begging my instructor to be able to leave 1 week early so I could make this camp, and still graduate. The begging paid off, and I packed up to get ready to travel to New York for the first time.
The next 4 weeks of my life felt like they went in hyperspeed. I got to call the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York my new temporary home (mainly since I only bought a one-way ticket, I guess you could say I was pretty confident – or that was all the money I had!). The first week started with completing yet another combine like the one the month prior, and also learning how to push bobsleds on an outdoor track surface with actual bobsleds on wheels connected to a railroad track. Needless to say, there was a lot of testing and re-testing and what started as one month at the Olympic Training Center ended up being 3 months.
I remember a big part of the selection process at the time was based on how fast we could individually push the sled on wheels, and how fast we could do it in different pairs as teammates. I knew from doing my second combine there that I wasn’t the fastest guy out there, or the strongest, but I knew my main advantage was how hard I would work before and after practice on the technique of pushing the sled – that included getting the sled going with a great start, as well as loading into the sled – two points of major technical errors that could cost tenths of seconds in races. In the bobsled world, tenths of seconds equated to miles apart.
So, I would show up anywhere between 30-60 minutes before the training time actually occurred and I would also stay at least that long afterward to make sure what I learned and practiced was ingrained in my mind and body. These extra minutes over the course of a day turned into hours and hours over the few weeks I was there to “prove myself” as a viable candidate for the National Team. The extra time and hard work paid off. I was selected as an “alternate” team member for the US National Bobsled Team in 2003/2004.
Lesson – The habit of being the first one to show up, and the last one to leave is a good habit that rubs off in everything you do. I know at a certain point, the coaches started to notice because they would make comments like, “I guess we have to wait for Fogel until we can lock up the sleds.” This habit has stuck with me through my life, especially when I am needing to learn new skills in life. I may not have been the most natural or gifted athlete, but I made sure that I could look back and say that my cheat code to improve was giving myself more time to learn.
I actually want to share a story of when this habit really helped me. It was the 2004/05 season, and I made the National Team again, but this time not as an alternate. I made it on the “USA 2” sled of Steve Holcomb. Being one year prior to the Olympic year, it was a very competitive year and everyone wanted a chance to compete at the 2005 World Championships because if you did, you basically cemented your chances of making an Olympic team the following year.
This was the year of the “switch ups.” I think almost every World Cup race during the first half of the season, our 4-man team was switched up with a new push athlete because of one reason or another. The part that made it extra fun was that just about every switch up included me moving on and off the sled! I remember sliding one weekend in Winterberg, Germany, and our team capturing our first top 10 finish, and then at the start of the next week the coaches letting me know that I was not going to compete the following week in Altenberg, Germany because of my “riding position” being too high in the sled.
I was upset at first. My riding position? Why did I never hear about this before? I didn’t even have a chance to correct my technique (which would have been an easy fix). Why not just say, “Ben, we think you are the slowest guy on the sled, and we are going to try a new guy to see if we are faster next week.” Speed kills in the sport of bobsled, and that would have been an easier pill to swallow.
I could have sulked and been disappointed the entire next week, but as an “Alternate” I still had the opportunity to help out my team. I was the first one down to the sleds in the garage of the hotel sanding runners, I helped USA 1, 2 and 3 transport sleds. I remember telling each driver that I was available to take training runs if any other athletes needed to rest. I was the last one to leave the garage each night making sure everything was ready on each sled for the next day. I remember a teammate that was competing that week said to me, “why are you doing all of this, you aren’t even sliding this week?” Ah, he noticed. It didn’t matter if I was sliding or not, I acted this way each and every week whether I competed or not, and I felt confident that I could help the team even if I was not competing. I started to get nicknamed the “sled dog” by all of my teammates, and I kept telling them how much of a compliment that was!
That weekend was a super successful one for our team. Todd Hayes, USA 1 ended up winning the 4-man race on the home turf of the Germans (something that is SUPER rare!) on one of the most technical tracks in the world. After the race, the whole team went out to dinner to celebrate the win. The first place “trophy” was a beautiful glass blown bowl, and each athlete on Todds team received this for winning. During dinner, Todd stood up and made an announcement. He said, “Everyone here deserves to be celebrated for this huge win today. Also, if it wasn’t for Fogel being the sled dog during the entire week and helping us with all the little things on and off the ice, we probably would not have won today. Because of that, I want to give this trophy to you!”
This was one of those moments that really cemented the reason of WHY it was so important to me to continue to show up, even when things were not going my way. I was in control of my actions when I got pulled off that sled, and I chose to stay positive and to help my team in every other way that I could.
After that race in Altenberg, we came back to the US for Christmas break. I remember this break really well, because usually the coaching staff and managers call you about 1 week prior to departure back to Europe with flight details, but I never got a call. When I finally called the manager, he said “Didn’t the coaches tell you, they did not select you to come out and slide with the National Team for the second half of the season.” Wait, what? This was one of the most difficult weeks for me in my Bobsled career. Telling my family I am staying home, and not competing in a pre-Olympic year. What ended up feeling like a curse though, was a blessing in disguise.
John Napier, an up-and-coming bobsled pilot, got word that I would be sitting out for the second half of the season, and he asked me to slide with him in the “America’s Cup” North American Circuit. I took the opportunity to continue to get better and to still compete. What happened next was pretty amazing. We won. Not just one race, but multiple races. We won every race we entered into. Our 4-man team became the “America’s Cup” Champions, and that did not go unnoticed by the coaching staff out in Europe.
By the time the National Team came back to the US, they had not fared very well, and were looking for different solutions. The strength coach told the coaching staff how well my team was pushing in the races we competed in, and they chose me to come back onto “USA 2” in the last World Cup race prior to the World Championships in Calgary, Alberta.
Our team ended up taking 4th place and was hundredths of seconds from medaling. I thought that would have been good enough to have proven myself and been able to stay on the sled for the World Championships in 2 weeks. But I was wrong. What it turned into was a huge raceoff to find the fastest guy to take my spot.
Fast forward one week, and we are all up in Calgary, Alberta preparing for the big race. I remember the coaches kept telling me I was the “incumbent” and it was my spot to lose. Every day, it felt like they flew up another past Olympian (that didn’t even compete all year!) to race off against me.
I remember the day clearly. I was well rested. I knew what was going to happen. We were at the Indoor Icehouse at Calgary Olympic Park where there was a 50 meter ice track that replicated the start of a bobsled track. It was the coaches job to find the perfect combination of push athletes for the USA 2 sled, and to be as competitive as possible in the race. It was my job to beat every athlete that raced off against me.
I remember taking about 15-20 runs that morning (normally a session would consist of 5-7 runs max) and I remember being so tired by the end. Every time, you are hitting maximum velocity and pushing a 400+ lb sled for 30 meters. I knew with the race off I was going to push a lot, and I was prepared for that. I also remember beating each combination they tried against me – over and over again. When it was all said and done, I felt I did everything in my power to keep my spot on the sled and to really “earn it” this time.
That afternoon, I got a call from Steve Holcomb, the driver – not even the coaches. I remember the call so well. He summed up that morning pretty well by telling me “Ben, looks like you proved today that you belong on my sled. Don’t do anything this weekend that shows that I made the wrong decision.” I remember telling him he made the right choice, and I knew in the end it was the driver’s decision of who he felt most comfortable on the sled. But I also knew that I had the chance that morning to PROVE I was the fastest, and had the most grit to compete and keep my spot.
That week we took 8th place in the world – at the time the best finish for Steve Holcomb – and we had top 10 start times in the field as well.
Lesson – Don’t Quit. No matter how long the road looks, or how many times you get knocked down or out, don’t quit. When I was a young kid, I remember my father told me, “No one can make you quit at something, except for you.” Remembering that, and knowing that only I had the power to quit, to give up was a very powerful thing. Now, I do know there are times when we have to “pivot” in life and try a new path. That is different. What I have learned in life is no matter your circumstance, you have the power to make the change.