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American Magazine


Another Miracle on Ice?

By Mike Unger

Savannah Graybill on bobsled track

Savannah Graybill has sped down Lake Placid’s Olympic bobsled track, on which she’s currently walking, faster than any woman in the history of skeleton. She’s pointing out the curves, embankments, straightaways, and chicanes she navigates at speeds that can reach more than 80 miles per hour. It’s a bright, warm June day in upstate New York, and the run, which will be iced by October and routinely traversed by some of the best bobsled, luge, and skeleton athletes in the world, is quiet and peaceful. A bevy of colorful butterflies relax on the concrete floor, fluttering their wings while soaking up the sun.

“Out of curve three, we always hit the wall,” says Graybill, SOC/BA ’10, who’s wearing sneakers, shorts, and a tank top, instead of the aerodynamic, skintight suit and helmet she races in. “It’s not hard, and it doesn’t hurt, but it’s the fastest [route]. In curve four, you have more speed, and you’re actually suctioned to the wall. This is where the track starts to get fun.”

Graybill’s idea of fun is probably different from yours or mine. A former field hockey player at AU, she’s living her second athletic act as an Olympic hopeful in skeleton, a sliding sport in which an athlete rides a small sled—with no brakes—down a frozen track at a dizzying pace while lying on their stomach. She’s not alone in her quest for gold: three other AU athletes—including her former field hockey teammate and fellow member of the US women’s skeleton national team, Megan Henry, SPA/BA ’09—also are working toward Rio de Janeiro and PyeongChang, South Korea (site of the 2018 winter games).

They have endured not days, weeks, or months of sweat and setbacks in pursuit of their goal, but years. Years of missed holiday and birthday celebrations; years of doing just one more lap, one extra rep, all with an eye toward achieving greatness in a sport that’s not likely to bring them fortune or fame.

“You have to be a big dreamer if you think you’re going to make any kind of money, at least in running,” says Kerri Gallagher, CAS/MS ’15, who’s attempting to qualify for the US Olympic track and field team in the 1,500 meters. “But [competing in the Olympics] is one of those things that you grow up dreaming about. It would be great for me personally, but it would also validate all the work my coaches did with me along the way.”

Her sentiments could have come from the mouth of any of AU’s potential Olympians. When the summer games begin in August in Brazil, Caylee Watson, SPA/BA ’17, will be competing as the lone female swimmer for the US Virgin Islands, an American territory with its own flag, national anthem, and Olympic team.

“I want to be realistic and make sure I’m prepared for everything,” she says. “I’m always happy with personal improvement. I don’t want to let my country down, that’s for sure.”

Graybill’s path to skeleton had as many twists and turns as the track she’s strolling down on this Friday morning. A native of small, rural Denver, Pennsylvania, in high school she ran track, and played field hockey and basketball. Field hockey brought her to AU, and she hoped one day it would be her ticket to the Olympics.

“While I was doing some of the right things, at the end of the day it wasn’t going to happen,” she says. “I had given up that dream, and a week later I got this email.”

Elana Meyers, a bronze medalist in bobsled at the 2010 games in Vancouver, was contacting college strength coaches looking for athletes to try her sport. Graybill, relatively strong and fast, fit the prototype, and went to Lake Placid after she graduated for a tryout. She fared well at the combine, but the coaches felt her smaller body size was better suited to skeleton, so she enrolled in sliding school and began hurling herself down tracks at speeds faster than many people drive their cars. Although her first ride was “slightly terrifying,” she quickly was hooked.

“I’ve always loved things that get me a little amped up,” she says. “When you’re sliding and you get in the zone, you don’t think of anything else. My first ride I was like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but I need to do this again.’”

Graybill started a bit late to seriously contend for the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia, but displayed enough potential to earn a spot on the national team and become a United States Olympic Committee-sponsored athlete, which allows her to live and train at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center during the summers. A typical day starts early and includes weight lifting, speed and agility work, and drills at the facility’s push track, a rubberized straightway at which she can practice her starts (skeleton athletes begin their runs by pushing their sleds) and loads (the term for mounting the sled).

It’s no vacation. Although Graybill’s room and board are paid for (also, she receives a small stipend), she has to fund the rest of her living and travel expenses, which are significant. In the winters, she competes in events throughout Europe and North America. She’s waited tables in the past, but found eight-hour shifts too physically taxing after five-hour workouts. This summer she’s working at Dick’s Sporting Goods and pursuing an MBA online.

Lake Placid, which hosted the Winter Olympics in 1932 and 1980, is a quaint town in the bucolic Adirondack mountains. Tourists flock to it in summer, but it can feel isolated and confining to the twentysomethings who train there. Graybill, 28, has sacrificed much, but regrets little.

“The hardest part about competing and doing this after college is that my peers are all getting jobs and starting families, and I live out of a suitcase six months a year, I live in a dorm five, and one month I live at home with my parents,” she says. “I still have bills to pay. I can’t work year round, and finding work that pays well is hard. But I’m sledding for a living. It’s so worth it. It’s always been my dream to compete in the Olympics, and to find a sport like this that feels like nothing else, is awesome.”

Graybill’s career trajectory was progressing nicely until a poor run in Park City, Utah, in January left her off the World Cup team. It was a devastating setback, but Graybill was determined not to allow it to become a fatal one.

“You either let it affect you and you get super bummed out, or you react in a way that motivates you and makes you better. I chose the latter,” she says. “Even though this year was my dip year, my coaches were pleased with my results. I won races, my world ranking is higher, so I feel like I’m back on the path up.”

Graybill currently is ranked fourth on the national team. With only two or three spots available for American sliders at the Olympics, she has some work to do before the final selections are made in January 2018. But AU field hockey coach Steve Jennings believes Graybill has both the physical and mental makeup to succeed.

“Savannah is a tremendous athlete who before coming to AU had a very well rounded sports background,” he says. “I believe this versatility allows her to have an amazing kinesthetic awareness and facilitates rapid skill acquisition. This is essential in all sports but particularly in skeleton where the slightest body error can have huge ramifications in terms of both safety and result. Mentally, Savannah was always tough whether it was a brutal track workout, playing through injury, or competing against the top teams in the country. I think the challenge of being a student-athlete and some of the things she experienced with field hockey helped her learn over time that she could do more than she ever thought she could. Once this becomes your default mind set, discovering and realizing your true potential becomes a passion-filled pursuit for greatness.”

All elite athletes harbor enormous confidence, and Graybill is no exception. As she explains the technical nuances of the nearly mile-long track on which she holds the record (55.04 seconds), it’s clear that she believes she is the best equipped skeleton athlete to master them.

In order to achieve maximum speed, she straddles the line between control and chaos. “You always want to be to the point where, if you miss a steer, things could go really wrong,” she says. Somewhat remarkably, she’s endured only one serious crash. During a race in Latvia, she flipped over and landed on her back—and her sled landed on her. Luckily, she suffered only a misaligned spine.

The 5-foot-6 Graybill extends her left arm over her head and points to a spot where the sliders whip around the track at practically a 90-degree angle. This stretch is called the highway, and even Graybill admits that watching people come through here can be “a little scary.” She smiles as she says this.

“Sometimes you blackout when you slide, because you are so focused and in the moment you’re not thinking about anything, you’re just letting your body do what it’s supposed to do,” she says. “That whole [record-setting] run I only remember two things that I could have done a little better. Had I not had the one issue that I had, I would have had that 54. And I wanted it.”

Maybe in South Korea, she’ll get it.

Kerri Gallagher on field

In high school, Kerri Gallagher loved basketball, but basketball didn’t love her.  

“I wasn’t very good,” she says. “I think the only reason I was any good at any sport was because I was pretty quick.”

Today, she’s ever faster. In the four-plus years she’s been training with AU track coach Matt Centrowitz, Gallagher has transformed herself from a solid runner into a world-class one. In June, she finished third in the women’s 1,500 at the USATF Outdoor Championships, solidifying her status as a serious Olympic contender.

After a decorated career at Fordham University, Gallagher took a job at Morgan Stanley and settled into a standard nine-to-five life (with a soul-sucking three-hour daily commute). But something kept gnawing at her.

“Some people finish their collegiate careers and they know they’ve reached their potential, or they feel like they’ve given all they can to the sport,” she says. “But I felt like I had a lot more to give and a lot more to get.”

So her high school coach introduced her to Centrowitz, himself a former Olympian, who hired her first as a volunteer, then as a part-time, and ultimately as a full-time assistant coach. As her times fell her notoriety rose, and now she’s sponsored by Nike and training vigorously for the US Olympic trials in July. In April she suffered a setback when her appendix was removed, sidelining her for four weeks. For a runner who averages 10 to 12 miles a day, sedentary is not a comfortable state.

Even if Gallagher, 27, falls short at the trials, she’s not ready to hang up her swooshes and return to the corporate world just yet.

“As long as I feel like I’m still getting better and competing on a national, and hopefully international, level I plan to keep going for the next four years or so,” she says. “Things really broke wide open last summer when I made the World [Championships] team. Very few people were expecting that, but I knew it was possible.”

Caylee Watson in the pool

Caylee Watson, 21, is a newcomer to the world stage. She grew up on St. Croix, an experience she says was “just as great as you would think it would be.” She started swimming competitively at age 12, but didn’t realize how much better she could become until she arrived at AU in 2014. During her freshman year, she dropped four seconds on her time in the 100-meter backstroke, the event she’ll compete in at the Olympics.

“In high school I was not nearly as fast as I am today,” she says. “I’ve gotten stronger; I’ve put in more practices; I’m in the weight room; I have more technique instruction. Being part of a team really changes things. When I graduated I was the only girl in my class who was a swimmer. It’s hard not having people to compete with.”

Watson was named to the Virgin Islands team by its swimming federation. Because of its size and status as an insular area of the United States, it is afforded a “universality spot” by the International Olympic Committee. Watson, who’s training at AU with Eagles swimming coach Mark Davin this summer, isn’t taking an I’m-just-happy-to-be-there approach to her upcoming meet in Rio.

“I expect to set a significant best time,” she says. “Every athlete’s dream is the Olympics, regardless of how realistic it is. It’s exciting that mine’s coming true.”

Savannah Graybill, Megan Henry, and Kerri Gallagher are still working, with the hope that theirs will too.