When Valerie Smith, a 2006 Roosevelt High School graduate, took her first bobsled ride, she was the second “newbie” to try it and it was her 23rd birthday. She compares the sensation to the scene in Finding Nemo when Nemo the fish is in a plastic bag and Darla shakes it.
Now a bobsledder since March 2011, Smith loves the adrenalin rush that comes with hurtling down a track at 70 mph to 80 mph. It’s a sport she wants to excel in, and she hopes to reach the 2014 or 2018 Olympics, she said.
Smith is competing for USA this year in the America’s Cup circuit with teammate Brittany Reinbolt. She and Reinbolt are still rookies, and their competitions will be in North America. Smith leaves for Park City, UT later this month for training. The World Cup is the next level up from the America’s Cup circuit.
To be an efficient bobsledder, an athlete needs to be able to lift quite a lot of weight and sprint very fast, she said. As the brakeman of her two-person team, she waits until Reinbolt is in the sled before she sprints 30 meters, pushes off and jumps in.
“You are the power behind the sled,” she said.
When she’s in the sled, she stays low and holds on; pulling the brakes after the bobsled crosses the finish line. Bobsledders become accustomed to where the finish line is on different tracks, Smith said.
It’s a physically demanding sport. A football player told her that at first, bobsledding is like playing two football games in a row. The Whistler Sliding Centre in British Columbia where the last Olympics took place is the fastest track in the world. Its bobsled speeds can reach 90 mph with more G-forces on a bobsledder’s body than an astronaut going into outer space, she said. The force can reach 6-7 G’s on a bobsledder’s back, depending on the run.
“It’s pretty taxing on your body,” Smith said.
Smith is well-suited to bobsledding because she enjoys weightlifting and likes sprinting, but doesn’t care much for running long distances, she said. She can squat 315 pounds three times, do a 188-pound clean and jerk and bench press 150 pounds once.
A volleyball player for Wyandotte's Roosevelt High School, she got into weightlifting after tearing her ACL in 2004, she said. High school trainer Anna Napolitano did “an awesome job with my recovery,” Smith said.
“I love being in the weight room,” she said.
As a college volleyball player, she continued to lift heavy with her team. Now a professional strength and conditioning coach, she attended Adrian College for her undergraduate work and Central Michigan University for graduate school. Smith loves smaller university settings and she’d like to get her Ph.D. and teach in one after her bobsledding career.
Her goal is to improve strength and conditioning programs at smaller schools, and as a professor, would relate strength and conditioning in the classroom to the weight room, Smith said.
She discovered bobsledding when she was in Indianapolis to present research from a college study at the Midwest College of Sports Medicine.
“At that point in time, I didn’t even know what a bobsled was,” Smith said.
She met another student, who ended up being her roommate, and they talked about weightlifting. Her roommate said she’d be good at bobsledding because Smith could lift a lot of weight.
“I’ve always had this dream of being in she said.
She decided to finish graduate school and then pursue bobsledding. Smith is getting started with a couple of races under her belt from last year. In one race, a woman on another team was learning how to drive and couldn’t get down the track twice safely so the race didn’t count for full points, she said. And in another race, they lost to an older veteran team. But Smith was able to compete in her chosen sport, so she enjoyed it.
“It’s pretty intense,” Smith said. “It’s a very cool sport to be involved in.”