PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – It looked for all the world like Elana Meyers Taylor had done it.
She piloted the second-to-last bobsled of the women’s competition at the 2018 Winter Olympics, with Lauren Gibbs on the brake. She nailed the trickiest turns, 2 and 9, and hugged every line she needed to hug. At the bottom of the route, media and friends and fellow competitors watched the splits come in. She and Gibbs were way ahead of every other sled. They crossed the finish line and Meyers Taylor leapt out of her seat in elation, throwing her fists into the frigid night. All that was left to do was watch the final sled – the Germans, Mariama Jamanka and Lisa Buckwitz.
As the last sled rushed along the course, the early splits were slow. Maybe this would be a rout for the U.S. The German team made up a little bit of time as it wound around the curves, then a little more, then a little more. It was still behind, but not by much. It would be close.
Even at the sliding venue, very few people watch the actual finish line. The television monitors are where it’s at, because that’s where the moment of truth appears. When the Germans crossed that line, there would either be a green shaded number or a red number. If it was green, the Germans would have gold. If red, Meyers Taylor would have that long-sought Olympic championship.
It’s been quite a four years for Meyers Taylor. Back in Sochi, she took off on her last run with the lead. She had a bronze from Vancouver and that gold was a whisper away. Looking back on that moment, she felt she played not to lose. She was too tentative – not herself. After it was over, she blogged about her anguish: “Every night I’m haunted by that last run; I haven’t slept much since it happened. I replay the skids so vividly in my head that any thoughts of the other corners are reduced to a mere hazy memory. So how does it feel to feel like you choked in front of the whole world? How does it feel to have your lifelong dream slip away literally from your fingertips? It sucks.”
Next time, she promised herself, she would “throw down.” But would next time ever come?
She found a new teammate, as Lauryn Williams left the sport. She recruited Gibbs out of a rugby practice of all places. Gibbs didn’t know a thing about bobsled, didn’t watch any of the Sochi races. She went to Brown, played volleyball, and blitzed right into the corporate world. She was really good at sales, able to hawk even hazardous waste products with aplomb. Meyers Taylor got wind of her strength at rugby, though, and sent her a text to introduce herself. She would recruit her hard.
Maybe there was something missing from Gibbs’ life. She had a six-figure salary, rocketing up the corporate ladder, but in her own words, “I didn’t work this hard to feel this way.” She went along with it, just to try it, figuring at least she’d come away with a funny story. Soon, though, she was hooked.
Meyers Taylor has that kind of power. She’s a ferocious worker and a lively, affable spirit. She not only smiles easily, but it seems the act of smiling makes her smile even more. Her laugh is thunderous, throwing her prominent chin in the air.
There were times, however, when that light faded. A concussion nearly ended her career in 2015. Then, less than a year ago, Steven Holcomb, the equally lovable leader on the men’s side, died in his room in Lake Placid, New York. It wrecked the entire U.S. bobsled community. Holcomb, much like Meyers Taylor, was an institution in the sport. He was the papa bear, the confidante, the cajoler-in-chief. Bobsled is not like golf, where you can lose yourself in the competition for hours. The runs are less than a minute long, so the rest of your life is about the people around you. One of the central people in that life was gone. Meyers Taylor didn’t want to face the sport without Steven. Nobody did.
Yet here were the Olympics, right around the corner, and boy would Steven be upset if his teammates didn’t give it everything. That helped Meyers Taylor back to this point where she was, at the top of the run on Wednesday, vowing that she would absolutely “throw down” and make the Germans take it from her.
She stood at the bottom of the run and watched. The Germans raced across the finish line.
The number was green.
Meyers Taylor and Gibbs had missed the top of the podium by 0.07 seconds. Four years before, Meyers Taylor and Williams had missed the top of the podium by 0.10 seconds. She was 0.17 seconds away from two gold medals.
Some friends welled up with tears. Four long years from last run to last run, and the result is the same: silver. It’s a preposterously small margin, way too small to rationally examine. What made the difference? One more modicum of force applied to the start? One fraction of a millimeter on a turn? One imperceptible rut in the ice? Maybe it was something with the sled? How on Earth are you supposed to live with 0.07 seconds?
Bobsled is rude that way. It jolts you, throws you around, hurtles you, and leaves you with no real answers. Aja Evans and Jamie Greubel Poser won bronze in Sochi and finished fifth here. Evans shed tears after she got out of the sled, and then more tears as she went through interviews with reporters. She said after the race she wanted to find her mom in the crowd, and to hear from her it would be OK.
As Meyers Taylor came around for interviews, though, there was that smile. There wasn’t a trace of sadness, or loss. Maybe pain would arrive later, but on this night only laughter did. “What I wanted to do is throw down races and throw down races I could be proud of,” she said. “And I really felt we did that.”
The German pilot had won, stolen that top prize, but “We made her go get it.”
There was no need to look back this time. There will be no blog post. She knew when she got out of that sled and leapt for joy that she had outdone herself. She had erased that memory of Sochi, the way she wanted to. That was her reward.
“I am so proud of this medal,” she said. “All you can ask of yourself is to go out there and give your best and I truly believe I gave my best. We won a silver medal. In Sochi I felt I lost the gold. Here, we won a silver.”
It looked for all the world that Elana Meyers Taylor had done it.
Turns out she had.
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