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Justin Olsen, second from left, with his 2010 "Nighttrain" teammates in Vancouver.  Photo: US ARMY, Tim Hipps
Justin Olsen, second from left, with his 2010 "Nighttrain" teammates in Vancouver. Photo: US ARMY, Tim Hipps

Bobsledder Justin Olsen fights to recapture Olympic gold

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In the build-up to the Winter Olympics in Russia, North Country Public Radio will be profiling some of the athletes who live and train in northern New York.

For many hopeful Olympians, the final hundred days before the opening ceremony is a nervous time. They're struggling to bring their bodies to peak performance, while also fighting to win a place on the US team.

This morning, Brian Mann talks with Justin Olsen, an Army soldier and gold medal bobsled racer who spends much of each year in Lake Placid.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Justin Olsen training at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid.  Photo: Brian Mann
Justin Olsen training at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid. Photo: Brian Mann
In a gleaming weight room at the Olympic Training Center here, bobsledder Justin Olsen from San Antonio Texas is loading thick metal discs onto a bar.  "You’ve built up all this strength and now you’re going to direct it and you become explosive," he says.

In a single motion, he jerks the loaded barbell above his head and hurls it to the floor.  The idea, Olsen says, is to train his body to be a kind of quick-start engine, capable of launching a bobsled weighing more than a thousand pounds down that icy, winding track.

"The first two steps, you’re going from standing still to trying to crank it up to 20-plus miles an hour."

Four years ago, Olsen, who tried bobsled racing on a whim, shocked everyone by winning a place on America’s top four-man team known as “Night Train.” With his help, that crew dominated the Europeans at the Winter Games in Vancouver with lightning fast start times.

"Night Train" made history, capturing the first US Olympic gold in the 4-man bobsled since 1948.



Everybody's fighting for a spot. Everybody wants to do well. And the only route is to not pace yourself--go hard every day
Olsen says that moment, standing on that podium was crazy and beautiful.  But here’s the thing.  Even with that gold medal hanging on his wall, he’s not guaranteed a spot on this year’s team.

"It’s just going to be competitive," he says, talking about these final months before the team is named.  "Everybody’s fighting for a spot; everybody wants to do well.  And the only route is to not pace yourself—go hard every day."

Nancie Battaglia is a sports photographer and journalist from Lake Placid who’s been covering the winter Olympics and the build-up to the games since the 1970s.  "This Olypics will be my 11th Olympics – and my 9th winter Olympics," she says.

Battaglia says people don’t realize how much uncertainty there is for these young athletes.  Four years of training between Olympic games and many like Olsen will be chewing their nails right up to the last minute.

"Right now I think they’re jockeying for position both on their team and in their mind.  I’m sure they all have willies in their stomach, wondering if they’re really going to make it."

Justin Olsen has struggled since that big win back in Vancouver, trying to heal a nagging muscle injury in his leg. He’s also an active-duty member of the US Army, which means he had to take time off from sledding to complete his basic training. Then, this fall, the partial government shutdown meant weeks of uncertainty for the Army’s federally-funded soldier-athlete program.

The clock is ticking down to the opening ceremonies in Sochi, Russia.  Photo: Brian Mann
The clock is ticking down to the opening ceremonies in Sochi, Russia. Photo: Brian Mann
"It kind of happened right before we supposed to go to Utah, so it made us a little worried.  I want to make the Olympic team, so I’m going to find a way even if things in Washington are having trouble."

Olsen says he’s made up a lot that lost training time.  He says he's healthy and focused. Now he has a hundred days of time trials and races to prove to his coaches that he’s the guy who can help take the USA to that medal podium in Russia.

"Some people might be at the peak right now, but now doesn’t matter.  It’s February—it’s the guys who can peak in February."

Olsen says all the down-to-the-wire uncertainty can make you crazy. But he also says it keeps athletes pushing hard, fighting to shave tiny fractions of seconds off those explosive starts.

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