Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Writing was on the wall’: Former Idaho track and field standout Andrew Blaser reset his dreams and found his way onto U.S. Olympic skeleton team

By Peter Harriman For The Spokesman-Review

MOSCOW, Idaho – In a different world, maybe Andrew Blaser would have been introduced to sliding sports while using a lunch tray from the dining hall on the snow-covered hills of the University of Idaho Golf Course.

In fact, the story is more mundane, but it does wind through UI.

Blaser is the lone male representative on the U.S. Olympic skeleton team in the 2022 Olympics.

A decade ago, he was a track and field standout for the Vandals who had come to realize his path to the Summer Games was blocked by the accomplishments of two-time Olympic decathlon champion Ashton Easton.

“The writing was on the wall. I knew there was no career for me in track and field besides coaching,” Blaser said.

A lifelong passion for competing in the Olympics, however, coupled with his sister’s joke that he should try bobsledding because “that’s what all track athletes did” set Blaser on a new course.

Come Feb. 10 in suburban Beijing, Blaser should be looking down on the 16 curves of an Olympic skeleton course that should see him reach speeds of 90 mph over nearly 1.2 miles in less time than it takes many high school kids to run 400 meters on a track.

A headlong, serendipitous unfolding of events not unlike the rush of a skeleton run brought Blaser to this point.

Blaser went from high school in southern Idaho to the University of Louisville to begin a track career. After a year, he had planned to transfer to a junior college for a season and return to another Division I program, but a friend whose roommate was getting married and needed a replacement for a semester convinced Blaser to transfer to Idaho, where he walked on for the Vandals.

“It was a weird, kismet moment,” Blaser said.

“I loved the UI and my experience there. To this day, Angela Whyte (three-time Canadian Olympian, member of the UI Hall of Fame and Blaser’s sprint coach at Idaho) is one of my dearest friends.

“The Palouse is magical. I fell in love with the wheat fields, the environment and how much life revolves around the university.

“Before the UI, I was trying to figure out how to grow up. I didn’t realize I already had.”

Any Idaho decathlete will be asked if he knows Dan O’Brien. Blaser has met the Vandals alum, 1996 Olympic decathlon gold medalist and former world record holder on several occasions. Blaser was competing for Idaho in 2012 when the university dedicated its refurbished track to O’Brien and visited with him then.

A couple of years earlier, Blaser was at the NCAA championships at the University of Oregon. O’Brien was doing TV commentary. After a day’s competition, Blaser, a friend and O’Brien were walking out of Hayward Field at the same time. Blaser’s friend yelled, “Hey, Dan!”

O’Brien turned, expecting to see someone he knew, and Blaser’s friend said, “Let me introduce you to another Idaho decathlete.”

“He was totally down with sitting down and sharing his experiences of when he was on the Idaho team,” Blaser said of O’Brien

In Idaho’s track and field record book, Blaser is in fifth place with 7,069 points in a 2012 decathlon, looking up to O’Brien, still the school record holder with a 7,988 mark from 1989. O’Brien and Blaser were also outstanding hurdlers in college. O’Brien still owns the fifth-best time for the Vandals in the 110-meter hurdles at 14.06 seconds – one spot below Blaser’s 13.98.

After graduating from Idaho and concluding he would never be O’Brien’s successor as decathlon champion, Blaser, goaded by his sister’s joke, decided to investigate a future in bobsledding.

He went to Park City, Utah, home of one of the two U.S. sliding tracks. The other is at Lake Placid, New York.

U.S. national team coaches put him through a workout. The ideal speed-power profile for world class bobsledders, pushing two-man and four-man sleds between 300 and 400 pounds, trends toward speedy linebackers and big tailbacks. If the Tennessee Titans’ Derrick Henry ever wants to push a sled, the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation would like to have a word with him.

Blaser, however, was judged to be about 25 pounds too light. The coaches steered him toward skeleton, where he would sprint with a 70-pound metal-framed sled covered with carbon fiber, flop down head first on it and go for the ride of his life. For his first run, Blaser started low on the Park City track.

“I kind of held on and screamed,” he said. “I was probably going 40 mph. But it felt way faster. You have so little idea what you’re doing.”

Skeleton would seem to be an adrenaline junkie’s dream, but Blaser said that’s not his personality.

“Some people are just very good at sliding,” Blaser said. “They can just take a sled and go fast. But they can’t tell you how they did it.

“It took me a couple of years to settle in. … There are a lot of days when I still wonder why I am doing this.”

Blaser moved between skeleton and bobsled. It took several years before he committed to skeleton, which he has pursued full time for six seasons.

There are 19 sliding tracks in the world, loosely differentiated by those with wide, sweeping turns and those with tight, technical ones. Blaser said he has the skills to handle both, but his preference is for the former, a glider’s track.

“Get a good push and let it run, not have to fight to get it off the corners,” he said.

“China looks like a glider’s track, from what I have seen on a YouTube video. It looks like it has good flow.”

Blaser was not among the group of U.S. men’s sliders that was taken to China last year to practice on the Olympic track. He is the only one, however, who has accumulated the points in competitions this year to qualify for the Olympics.

His introduction to the track will be when he arrives in China this week. All told, he figures he will have about 10 minutes of sliding on the track in practice before he has to compete.

Scrambling in such manner, though, is just the life Blaser has chosen to live to pursue this dream. He works half a year so he can spend October to March as a glorified vagabond traveling around the world competing.

He left home in Boise on Oct. 27 and hasn’t been back since. He also has the broad perspective to chase a dollar anywhere. Blaser is a volleyball and track coach at Capital High School in Boise. He is a member of the Starbucks Elite Athlete Program and receives a stipend from Starbucks and works at Starbucks during the sliding off-season. In addition, he works part time for a brother who founded a company servicing commercial air compressors.

“He has many talents, and he will figure out how to create work for me,” Blaser said of his brother.

“It’s a balancing act. I’ve gotten good at it. It gets to be a matter of priorities. I have to choose between going to work to pay for my life and going to my training.”

Blaser crashed at the World Championships and suffered a concussion, from which he still has lingering effects.

“I have memory issues,” he said. “Things don’t function as well as they did.

“I am cautious about the health of my brain. You only have one brain.”

Even the day-to-day rigors of the sport can be hard. Although sliders wear helmets, they are nearly in contact with the unforgiving ice.

“We’re driving head-first across the ice. If you hit a bump, your head gets rattled,” Blaser said.

In his first Olympic Games, Blaser said he plans to “immerse myself” in the experience.

He couldn’t get to this point without being competitive, but he is also realistic enough to accept he’s competing with sliders who have been at this a decade or more longer than he has, on teams with more financial resources, who may have access to better sled technology.

But on any given day in the orld of Olympic competition, especially at 90 mph an inch above the ice, strange things can happen.

Blaser is going to get his shot. Maybe it didn’t begin with a lunch tray on Idaho’s golf course, but Blaser’s Olympic dream was propelled at Idaho.

As his former coach and three-time Olympian Whyte texted him recently: “You made it.”