After a fifth place finish at the 2010 Winter Olympics in bobsled, Bree Schaaf was determined to slide again for the U.S. in Sochi. Today, she is in Russia — but as a commentator for NBC. She’ll make her Olympic debut as an analyst for skeleton, the sport that launched her sliding career, when competition gets underway Feb. 13. Below, she writes about what that transition has taught her — which resonates whether or not you “speak crazy.”
By: Bree Schaaf
You can’t bobsled forever, but as anyone who meets me knows — you can talk about bobsled forever. That factor seems to have seamlessly transitioned me into another role — one I anticipate involving significantly less bruising. I am headed to Sochi in an extremely unique position — to act as Bobsled team alternate as well as the skeleton analyst for NBC.
I spent the first five years of my 12-year sliding career competing in skeleton before transitioning to the pilot seat of a bobsled. Twelve years of professional sleigh riding? Sounds like a Christmas movie starring the Lawrence brothers! But the few who have had the chance to give bobsled or skeleton a try just for “fun,” soon realize that it’s far too hardcore for made-for-TV movies. That is unless your brand of “fun” involves climbing into a washing machine, setting it on spin, getting pushed off a hill and slamming into boulders the whole way down. It is an almost violent 60 seconds, and something most people rarely want to repeat.
And then there are those athletes among us that not only seek it out, but choose to repeat that cycle day in and day out in the quest for Olympic glory as they try to hog-tie physics, gravity, speed, and ice all at once. It is a rare breed of athlete that is attracted to sliding sports, and for those that speak crazy — it gets in your blood and never leaves.
After finishing 5th in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the sport that I loved so much became an obsession. I was hell-bent on uncovering and quantifying those four places that stood between awesome (the gold) and just shy of awesome (5th). As it turns out, you push the universe and it pushes back. My effort to force learning how to win actually led me down a path of self-destruction that resulted in major injuries and illness. But somehow that, in turn, led me to mastery of a different sort — letting go of the illusion that I can control everything.
I missed a second shot at gold by the narrowest of margins, an amount of time that could torture someone the rest of their life. Yet somehow I can say in total truth, that I wouldn’t trade a second of the immense struggle that was the last four years for winning. Sure, winning is why we compete, but losing is where you learn. Losing forces you to reassess who you are and your approach to everything you do. I wouldn’t trade the physical, mental, and spiritual growth of the last four years for anything. Really. No really.
Learning to just bury myself in good old-fashioned hard work, and then sitting back and allowing the pieces to fall into place has been a golden lesson for life to come. After the dust settled from Olympic Trials, I sat down and started writing a stream of consciousness that listed everything I’ve learned, and everything I’m proud of from this icy adventure. And through that gratitude, I started to find peace.
I’ve been warned by many athletes that though joining Team NBC is an exciting and new opportunity, this first moment of transition will still be one of the most difficult things I ever do. I will not be warming up, I will not be sanding my runners until they shine, and I will not be donning my Team USA uniform to lay it on the line in front of the world. But I am slowly seeing the sparks of light that excite me for life post-sport. I don’t have to train through pain. I don’t need to emasculate men at a public gym by out-squatting them. Now, instead of pushing myself physically, I push myself personally. So long as I allow the sadness, which lessens every day as I permit myself to see new and exciting opportunities, and I get to focus on feeling good and showcase a sport and a group of people dear to my heart.
Things have come beautifully full circle, as I’m excited to share this crazy sport of skeleton that has opened up so many doors for me, and announce for all of the friends and teammates that I started with. Skeleton athletes are a most delightful cast of characters, a unique and loveable breed with endless wit, albeit just another brand of crazy at the Winter Olympics.
Old habits die hard, however, and as I prepare for a new kind of peak performance, I do so in the way I’ve spent years honing. I’ve made an entire checked bag’s worth of healthy organic food to help stay “in the zone.” And announcing gets full game day race prep — the perfect balance of caffeine and protein shakes. But now it’s all to sit in a cozy little booth with play-by-play Leigh Diffey and do what I do best — talk about the intricacies of sliding.