BEIJING (AP) — There was an unofficial men’s bobsled training session at the Beijing Olympics earlier this month. It was an opportunity for most drivers to pay and take a couple of extra trips down the track, just to start getting a feel for the place before the main events started.
Everybody who showed up that day chose to drive their two-man sleds.
Well, almost everybody.
Hunter Church, making his Olympic debut as a pilot for USA Bobsled, was the exception. And he is not in any way apologetic about believing he was meant to drive four-man sleds. To him, two-man racing may as well be something to pass the time between four-man events.
The big sled is what he drives best, which is why he’s entering this weekend’s final sliding competition at the Beijing Games — four-man starts Saturday and ends Sunday, a few hours before the closing ceremony — believing he might have a chance to find his way to the medal stand.
“I was just born to be a four-man pilot,” Church said. “My great-uncles were four-man pilots. My dad was training, he was an Olympic hopeful, in four-man. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just in my DNA.”
Church — whose sled will be pushed this weekend by Josh Williamson, Kris Horn and Charlie Volker — has consistently been in the top 10 in official four-man training in recent days, even after sputtering to a 27th-place finish in the two-man event earlier this week. That group grabbed a bronze medal in a World Cup event at Winterberg, Germany, last month, the only four-man medal for the U.S. in the last two years.
Those who know Church best, and know the U.S. team best, saw this coming.
“With Hunter, the person you see in front of the camera is the person you get all the time,” said Greg Claus, who was Church’s 12th-grade government and economics teacher at Saranac Central in upstate New York. “He’s kind, confident and compassionate. He was the athlete who’d go out of his way to be kind to the marginalized kid. I saw it plenty of times. He’s one of the most fundamentally decent students I’ve ever taught. He’s been laser-focused on this goal for a long time.”
There was a night last summer that U.S. coach Mike Kohn, a longtime driver and Olympic veteran before he became a coach, was sitting in the kitchen of his Lake Placid, New York, home talking about the coming season. And over a dinner of pizza and beer, Kohn made a prediction.
“By the end of this season,” Kohn said, “Hunter is going to be a threat in four-man. Just watch.”
Over the first six races of the season, Church’s average four-man World Cup finish was 11th. And then came Winterberg, when Church began jumping around like a madman when he realized that he had just won a bronze medal.
Kohn was right. Toward the end of the season, Church was becoming a threat.
It took a while, in large part because Church dropped a weight on his foot in a preseason workout, causing serious damage to his left big toe — open fracture, bone exposed, nail bed destroyed. He needed immediate surgery. He had decided to lift barefoot that day, which wasn’t a great move. But he also got lucky, because if that weight had bounced an inch higher and damaged more than his toe, his season probably would have been over right there.
“It’s like there was a plan for this season,” Church said. “That result in Winterberg was a reminder that hey, it is possible. It’s a really important reminder that you’ve got to believe. If you really believe in yourself and your equipment and your team, anything can happen.”
Church will return to Lake Placid after the Olympics for a few more weeks of training, as long as the ice holds up. He desperately wants to get better at two-man, so that will be the focus of his work this spring.
The four-man, though, will remain his first sledding love.
He almost retired in the fall of 2018 when USA Bobsled wound up taking away Church’s sled — the one that used to be driven by his hero, Steven Holcomb — and issued it to another driver. The bills were piling up; the mornings of loading up on chicken, rice and a couple of eggs and trying to get through the day on a nonexistent food budget weren’t fun anymore.
But Church was also the only driver willing to take a four-man sled down from the top of the track in Lake Placid that fall, and that eagerness earned him a surprise World Cup spot.
Retirement hasn’t been thought of since. It won’t be anytime soon, either. These are his first Olympics, and he has no designs on them being his last. He thinks he can become one of the best four-man drivers in the world, and it’s that confidence that prompted him to bring out the big sled for that unofficial training day in Beijing earlier this month.
Standing in the finish area on that afternoon, someone noticed his four-man sled and asked anyone who happened to be listening this question: “Who brings his four-man sled to the first day of training at an Olympics?”
Hunter Church heard the question.
“Hunter Church does,” he said.
This weekend, he hopes to show the world why.
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