By Jeff Keeling
It’s been all downhill for East Tennessee State University’s Olympic Training Site since bobsled and skeleton became the fourth and fifth Olympic sport designations here last fall.
Over the past month, an ETSU doctoral student affiliated with the program, former college decathlete Alex Harrison, has traveled Europe competing for the U.S. national bobsled teams in the World Cup. After helping his sled to a seventh-place finish at the World Cup finals in Sochi, Russia Feb. 15, Harrison was tapped to be one of three pushers on a sled driven by two-time Olympian Nick Cunningham for the 2015 World Championships held over the coming two weekends in Winterberg, Germany.
“I would say Alex has met and gone beyond expectations as far as the coaching perspective,” said ETSU’s Dr. Brad DeWeese, a coach and sport scientist with ETSU’s Olympic Training Site who came to ETSU from the U.S Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y. “He’s got the speed and he’s got the work ethic to be an Olympian.”
Harrison’s first foray into the bobsled world came at a combine in Greenville, S.C. last spring. Next month, ETSU will host a similar combine for Olympic hopefuls, where DeWeese and others will put athletes through the paces gauging their strength, speed and explosiveness.
The March 21 combine is part of ETSU’s agreement with the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), training site director Meg Stone said.
“They asked us to host two combines over the next year,” Stone said. “Our agreement also requires us to provide scholarship support for two athletes in those events.”
DeWeese, familiar as he was with the USOC’s winter games nerve center in Lake Placid, had much to do with the inclusion of bobsled and skeleton to ETSU’s site, which was first designated for weightlifting in 2012. It also serves as a site for canoeing and kayaking, with more sports likely to be added in the future.
DeWeese said he’s hoping at least 30 to 40 people will turn out for the combine. They’re likely to come from college careers in track and field, though football, softball, volleyball and other sports have produced sled athletes as well. They will run 60 meter sprints with times recorded at the 15, 30, 45 and 60 meter marks; be measured in the standing broad jump; and complete a “shot toss” using an official weight shot used in men’s shot put. Athletes with impressive enough performances at such combines are invited – as was Harrison – to a more comprehensive tryout at Lake Placid.
“You find diamonds in the rough from a lot of different sports, but track is kind of the prototype,” DeWeese said. That’s because bobsled – a sport with a driver and three “pushers” in four-man, and a driver and a pusher in two-man – puts a premium on the right combination of size, strength, speed and explosiveness.
Learning just how well its athletes and prospective athletes meet those qualifications got easier for the national team when the U.S. Olympic Committee brought ETSU into the mix.
“Outside of Lake Placid, they have Park City, Utah for sliding, but we’re the only collegiate training site that provides them with the strength/conditioning, the scholarships and the sports science,” DeWeese said. Those attributes are the result of Meg Stone and her husband, Dr. Mike Stone, having brought together a team of top sport scientists at ETSU’s growing Center of Excellence in Sport Science and Coach Education.
Mike Stone, a renowned sport scientist, has assembled a top team of faculty as ETSU has grown its PhD program in the discipline. That array of expertise is why the bobsled and skeleton teams encourage their members to come to ETSU for training and mentoring, and why the USOC wants two sledding hopefuls attending ETSU on scholarship.
“We have a staff and a facility that’s trusted by the USOC. Being a training site kind of separates us from other private facilities.”
“Our staff is world class. Most of us have worked at the USOC at some point in our careers. We’ve all been to world championships and Olympic Games, so it’s not new to us to be in this atmosphere.”
The atmosphere is a bit new to Harrison, but the former Western Washington University track and field star is loving it, and doing quite well, DeWeese said. Harrison came to ETSU three years ago to pursue his doctorate in sport science and was racing toward a dissertation on the mechanics of sprinting when an Olympic dream intervened.
“He’s doing very well for a rookie, and he’s doing exactly what you’d expect from a rookie,” DeWeese added. “Sometimes he loads early, or he hits the bar wrong, but that’s what all rookies do.”
It’s highly unlikely that Harrison will be the last national bobsled or skeleton team member affiliated with ETSU.
Probably in the fall, ETSU’s enrollment will include two bobsled/skeleton athletes who will be on scholarship studying as either undergraduate or graduate students. They will have been tapped by the national organization for their potential to become Olympic athletes.
Those student-athletes will have top minds in sport science helping them to develop. They may even benefit from Harrison’s research, now that he has changed his dissertation topic.
“Alex was researching sprint momentum, but now he’s incorporating bobsledding into that,” DeWeese said. Bobsledders tend to be both fast and heavy, and he’s looking to see if there is a relationship between how fast they are in relationship to how heavy they are and their ability to push. We’re starting to see a high relationship between sprint momentum and their ability to push on a dry land track, and possibly where they could fit into the sled.
“Knowing that is going to help us with their training, and talent ID, and it’s going to be able to help us identify where they go as far as their position on the sled.”
ETSU’s Olympic Training Site offers tours of its facilities in the minidome, where Meg Stone and others explain what the program does for U.S. sports and the advancement of sport science. For information, call (423) 439-8477.