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In his third Olympics, New York Soldier embraces new role

By Joe Lacdan | Army News Service | Feb. 26, 2018

FORT MEADE, Md. - Justin Olsen had reached a crossroads in his bobsled career following the 2014 World Cup season.

After winning a gold medal in the four-man event in the 2010 Olympics, an injury forced him to take a break from training and he subsequently gained 20 pounds in 2014. Then in April 2015, he lost his father, Brad, who died at only 56 years old.

Olsen, who is a sergeant in the New York Army National Guard, had dedicated his life to the sport of bobsled since leaving the Air Force Academy as a freshman. Now he was being forced to re-evaluate his athletic career.

"To be honest, I was quite lost with what was going on with the sport," said Olsen, who competed in four-man bobsled in PyeongChang this past weekend. "I had probably my least successful season. I just wasn't really having much fun. Then my dad passed away. I started to question if maybe I need to just move on. I spent seven years away from my family. Now my dad's gone. I had a lot of regret for moving away and just feeling selfish."

Then the USA bobsled coaches told him that he would have to transition to driver for the first time in his bobsled career. And if that wasn't enough, Olsen would then lose an important mentor in his life.

Steven Holcomb, the face of USA Bobsled and winner of three Olympic medals and 10 World Cup championships, passed away last spring. Olsen previously won Olympic gold as a pusher on Holcomb's 2010 four-man team in Vancouver. During Olsen's turbulent 2014 season, he lost his spot on Holcomb's lead team. At the 2014 Games in Sochi, Olsen still managed to finish 12th in the four-man with fellow World Class Athlete Nick Cunningham.

While Olsen admits he was initially apprehensive, he soon embraced his new role both as a leader on the sled and as an Olympic veteran.

At 6-feet-2 inches, and 230 pounds, Olsen made a name for himself internationally as a top pusher. The former Air Force football player attacked his training harder, eventually flourishing in his new role as pilot. Along with first-time Olympian, Sgt. 1st Class Nate Weber, a Green Beret, Olsen was hopeful going into the competition this past weekend. Even though the team didn't make the podium, the experience competing in the Olympics was just as much of a success for Olsen and his team.

"I knew it was an uphill battle when they selected me to be the driver," Olsen said. "All the veterans and the coaches said 'Put your sights on Beijing (2022 Games), don't put your sights on PyeongChang.' But my competitive spirit said I'm going to the next Games, I don't know how. I'm going to improve rapidly. What an honor it is basically just to readmit myself in the sport. I'm very excited about my crew. I'm very excited about being a little bit of the underdog."

Shortly after arriving in PyeongChang earlier this month, Olsen experienced a familiar abdominal pain. He had been plagued by similar pain at different stages of his bobsled career. Finally he had an emergency appendectomy, but returned to Olympic practice only 10 days later.

Olsen and his four-man teammates Weber, Army Capt. Chris Fogt and Carlo Valdes, received a new sled at the end of October that is designed to be sleeker, yet more comfortable for larger athletes. Olsen said the added comfort was helpful for their runs in in PyeongChang.

"Really, the goal was a larger sled, updated technology," Olsen said. "It's the first time in my driving career I feel really comfortable in the four-man. It's pretty hard to drive 85 miles an hour when your entire body is in discomfort going out."

Olsen is competing in only his second season driving the four-man sled, and said it can be challenging to get competitive bobsledders the crucial experience needed due to a limited amounts of training runs. Olsen said during some races he is limited to four practice runs.

Olsen said his confidence in piloting a four-man sled comes from the bond he has formed with Weber, a fellow Soldier. Weber told Olsen that he had confidence in Olsen's abilities as a driver from the start and supported him with words of encouragement.

"He didn't know if I was going to be a good driver or not," Olsen said. "I didn't know either. But he was invested."

Weber, a Green Beret, is not a member of the World Class Athlete Program like Olsen, but rather continued to train while deployed overseas. Fogt, an intelligence officer from Fort Hood, Texas, also brought veteran Olympic experience to the team in PyeongChang.

Olsen said he and his Army teammates grew close not only on the track but away from it. They train together nearly year round, have meals together and lift weights together. Olsen is roommates with Fogt in their Lake Placid residence.

"I know that I can count on everybody on my team," Olsen said. "Especially because they're Soldiers. Chris and Nate are extremely more accomplished in their military career than I am. So whether they look up to me in the sport, I look up to them for what they've done off the ice.

"One thing that I recognized since the very start 11 years ago, was you can't even hope to get on the podium if you don't have each other's backs," Olsen continued. "You've got to believe that the guy on your left or right is capable of winning a medal. You can't single-handedly win it yourself. We have a ton of respect for each other."

Olsen credits USA Bobsled assistant coach Mike Kohn, a captain in the National Guard and WCAP team member, for pushing him to become a better driver.

"I really don't think I would be here if it wasn't for him," Olsen said.

Olsen added that he trusts Kohn and USA head coach Brian Shimer with matchup planning and creating the best team combinations for success on the ice.

"I really feel like I've just been kind of a student of the process," Olsen said. "My coaches ... I trust that they have a good plan for me."