Seven years ago, Sam Michener hoped to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in the sprints. After graduating from the University of Idaho in 2010, he devoted a year to training to meet the Trials standards for the 2012 summer games.
It didn’t quite happen.
However, an opportunity to take up a new sport did. And now, Michener, 30, has made the U.S. Olympic Team with a new goal: the medals stand.
USA Bobsled and Skeleton announced on Jan. 15 its team for the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, and Michener is the brakeman for USA2, one of three four-man bobsled crews from the U.S. to qualify. Four-man competition begins Feb. 24. The medal runs are the following day.
After taking delivery of its new sled in January, USA2 trained in Lake Placid, New York, learning to set it up for maximum performance. After a short break to make sponsorship appearances in Washington, D.C., the crew took part in a training camp in Calgary, Alberta, before flying to South Korea.
Michener’s crew has a decidedly Idaho character. Pushers Hakeem Abdul-Saboor and Christopher Kinney are flanked by Michener and pilot Nick Cunningham, 32, who ran track at Boise State several years before Michener competed for Idaho.
For a state without a sliding track, Idaho has a history with bobsled, albeit mostly involving the Caribbean. Former Vandals sprinter Chris Stokes pushed the sled for Jamaica, the famous Cool Runnings team that debuted in the 1988 Games in Calgary. And former Vandal Gregory Sun raced for Trinidad and Tobago in the 1994, 1998 and 2002 Winter Games. Sun was working for the UI as a sports psychologist when Michener’s dreams of making the Olympic Trials were fading, and Sun suggested to him, “Have you thought about pursuing an athletic career in bobsled?”
“I didn’t know what bobsled is,” Michener acknowledged. “But I figured I’d take a shot.”
He sent a resume to the U.S. federation and was invited to a combine. There he did well enough in sprinting, jumping and weightlifting to be invited to a camp at Lake Placid, where he first pushed a bobsled and learned he had the specific talents to move it. Sun had told Michener he saw “attributes” of a bobsledder in him: an impressive power-to-weight ratio and smarts.
“He was an awesome athlete. Pound for pound he was probably the strongest athlete I ever coached,” Wayne Phipps said.
Phipps is the director of track and field and cross country at Washington State University, but was the UI track coach when Michener competed for the Vandals from 2006 to 2010.
“Any sport that required explosive movement he would excel at,” Phipps said of Michener.
When he ran for the Vandals, Michener weighed about 175 pounds. He has put on an additional 30 pounds to try to hit a sweet spot where added muscle to drive the sled does not totally compromise his sprint speed.
Intuitively, bobsled looks like a purely physical endeavor for the three members behind the pilot. It’s not.
“(Michener) was always very much a student of his sport,” Phipps said. “He did watch a lot of video. He did want to understand why we do what we do.”
Executing the phases from blocks to finish line of a successful 100- or 200-meter race was rudimentary compared with what Michener does now. As a brakeman, he knows when to apply brakes in the constricted, harrowing quarters of a sled and crew totaling almost 1,400 pounds rocketing down a twisting, banked, icy track with approximately 20 bends over nearly a mile.
Sliders hit speeds of more than 80 mph and experience centrifugal forces up to five G’s. Once the crew gets the sled going with a 50-meter push at the top of the course and leaps aboard, all but the pilot have their heads down in an aerodynamic position. So how does Michener know where he is?
“I have the track memorized in my head. I can run through any track in the world,” he said.
Additionally, as the brakeman, “It is my responsibility to make sure everything is ready to go before we slide,” Michener said.
His work as an assistant track coach for the Vandals during the year he trained for the Olympic Trials developed leadership skills that help him now, he added.
“It was easy for him to tell people to work hard when he was working hard,” Phipps said.
Michener’s intense curiosity about the how and why of athletics is fed by his current sport.
“It’s a beautiful relationship between technology and athleticism,” he said. “It’s a whole other type of sport, really. We pay attention to what we are getting from the sled as much as our bodies.”
Michener first competed for the United States in international bobsled races during the 2012-2013 season.
His career highlights include an 11th-place finish in the 2017 world championships; a 15th-place finish in 2016, with Cunningham as the pilot; and a ninth-place finish in 2015 pushing for USA bobsled giant Steve Holcomb, who won an Olympic gold medal in 2010 and bronze in 2014. Holcomb was the face of USA bobsledding for more than a decade and a larger-than-life presence who completely embraced his identity as an Olympic athlete. Michener recounts how Holcomb would occasionally carry his gold medal with him: “We’d be out for a drink, and he’d pull it out of his pocket.”
Holcomb died unexpectedly in May. He had prescription sleeping pills and alcohol in his system when he was found dead last month in his bed at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, according to the Associated Press.
Holcomb’s presence still hovers over the team.
“The summer was tough,” Michener said. “Everything we do reminded us of him. His equipment, the sled built for his body was still here. May, June and July were real tough. But we accepted it, and now we’re focused on competing in his honor.”
The part about relishing the Olympic experience – possibly even as a medal winner – also carries over from Holcomb to Michener.
Growing up in Gresham, Oregon, “I was an athlete since grade school. Basketball, baseball, football, track. I did it all. Sports was my life,” Michener said.
Like every kid, he had big dreams: “It would be cool to be in the Olympics. Then I found bobsled.”