By Dave Ongie
All was quiet in the weight room on the west side of the MiniDome on the morning of Jan. 24.
Dr. Brad DeWeese, an associate professor of sport, exercise, recreation and kinesiology at ETSU, stood in his Team U.S.A. jacket soaking in the solitude, which is a rare commodity in his line of work.
For DeWeese, this was the calm before the storm.
Six athletes trained by DeWeese at the Olympic Training Site on the campus of ETSU will be participating in the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea over the next two weeks. The phone calls and texts that routinely draw DeWesse out of bed by 5:30 a.m. every morning will be rolling in at all hours once the Games begin this weekend.
“We may have to adjust our schedules more because they need coaching in that moment, or just advice for the first-timers,” DeWeese said. “It really is a 24-hour a day job.”
In many ways, DeWeese has the best of both worlds. He teaches the latest theories in exercise science and kinesiology to ETSU students, but he also gets to put those theories into practice while training world-class athletes. Athletes training under DeWeese have combined to win seven world titles in three different sports and have also collected 20 Olympic and World Championship medals.
Two years of hard work culminated in a rush of excitement recently when the U.S. Olympic team was named and six athletes who trained in Johnson City with DeWeese during this cycle made the cut. Chris Kinney, a graduate student at ETSU, made the U.S. Men’s Bobsled team along with Hakeem Abdul-Saboor and Steve Langton. John Daly will return to the USA Skelton team while Chris Mazdzer made the USA Luge team.
Seun Adigun of Nigeria trained at ETSU and will drive for her country’s inaugural three-woman bobsled team.
As exciting as it is to have athletes selected to compete on the biggest stage in the world, DeWeese said this particular Olympic cycle has been bittersweet. The untimely passing of Steven Holcomb – who trained with DeWeese in Johnson City and helped the U.S. earn its first four-man bobsledding gold medal in over 60 years during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver – was certainly the lowest of lows. But helping a pair of veterans come out of retirement and return to Olympic form, guiding two local athletes to their first Olympic Games and facilitating a historic trip to South Korea by the Nigerian bobsledding team was satisfying for DeWeese.
“This has been a unique year to say the least with Holcomb passing to start the season and then for two athletes to come out of retirement, and that wasn’t easy for them to have to keep up with the rest of the world,” DeWeese said. “For them to be named to the team, and then to work with a country like Nigeria – who started a bobsled program from scratch – to see them make it, and then to have two homegrown athletes make the team, it’s remarkable.
“This has been the culmination of probably the most emotional Olympic year I’ve been a part of.”
Every athlete who qualified for this year’s Olympic Games shares a common destination – Pyeongchang, South Korea. But they all took a different road to get there. That is certainly evident among the athletes DeWeese trained.
Kinney came to ETSU about two years ago and enrolled as a graduate student after wrapping up his track and field career at Georgetown. DeWeese said Kinney was about as low as you can go on the developmental pole two years ago, but after putting on nearly 20 pounds of muscle and learning the finer points of pushing a bobsled, he’ll be in the USA2 bobsled along with Hakeem Abdul-Saboor.
Abdul-Saboor – who attended UVA-Wise in Southwest Virginia – was on the opposite end of the developmental spectrum when he came to ETSU’s training site to participate in a combine.
“The story I like to tell was that halfway through the combine, Hakeem was so nervous that he threw up,” DeWeese said with a laugh. “But the funny part was that he scored 100 points on each event the first time trying, so we knew we had a really special athlete and person in Hakeem.”
Instead of building up Abdul-Saboor’s physique, DeWeese focused instead on teaching the young athlete how to maintain his physical gifts by properly fueling his body and training like a professional athlete.
“That’s just a really special story to see them make it, and they’re actually going to be on the same sled at the Olympics,” DeWeese said. “That’s pretty phenomenal.”
While the two local guys will be making their Olympic debuts, Steve Langton and John Daly are back in the saddle after brief retirements. Getting both guys back into form was a tall order for DeWeese.
Langton has a pair of Olympic medals under his belt and retired as the best brakeman in the history of the U.S. team. When he decided to make a comeback, DeWeese said he had to help Langton adjust his expectations initially as they worked to get him back into top form.
“That was a reality check for us both,” said DeWeese. “Through his hard work and dedication, he’s able to still be the top push athlete on the team. It’s almost like he didn’t lose a step.”
The degree of difficulty may have been steeper for Daly, who was away from the Skeleton team for two and a half years after competing in three Olympics. During his comeback, Daly kept his full-time job in medical sales and still managed to qualify for the 2018 games.
“For him to be where he’s at while also being a fully-functional adult, those are some really awesome stories compared to the stories of those athletes that train full-time and that’s all they know,” DeWeese said.