What I learned in Bobsled that changed my life

What I learned in the sport of Bobsled that changed my life – Part 1

By: Ben S. Fogel

Many of you probably were not aware that in a previous life (at the tender age of 23!) I tried out and made the US National Bobsled Team.  I went on to compete for 7 years in multiple World Cup races and even in World Championships in 2005 helping our team to a top 10 ranking in the world at that time.

Looking into the camera, Winterberg, Germany with Driver Steve Holcomb, WC, 2004

Recently, I started reading through a lot of my journal entries during my travels all over the world with the bobsled team, and I realized that so much of the success and failures that happened to me in that sport really put me on the fast track to where I am now.  So I wanted to share more of my story and what I learned almost 20 years ago which has helped me become a better husband, father, business owner, leader, teammate and friend. 

**SPOILER ALERT** This is longer than my normal read but I promise you’ll get some great takeaways which anyone could use and take action on.   

It was May 2003, I was just about to graduate from college and to be honest, I had NO IDEA what I wanted to do. I was in a place in my life where I was not ready to enter the “real world.”  My definition of the “real world” at the time was entering the workforce, or having a 9-5 job, and actual responsibilities.  To be candid, being a full time student-athlete had a ton of responsibilities but “showing up” every day to get better physically was easy for me, and I just wanted to do more of that.  I wanted to continue to compete as an athlete.  I also knew that continuing on that path could delay my “real world” responsibilities of a 9-5 job for a little bit longer, which at the time, I was ok with.

I had just come off competing for 5 seasons (gotta love that redshirt year!) in Track and Field in college, and also an injury and surgery to my elbow that left me unable to compete at a higher level after college in a sport that I loved – the javelin.  I know, super obscure, right?

(There I am with hair!)

What I did know for sure was that I didn’t want to stop competing at a high level, whatever the sport may have been.  I remember pretty clearly how I found my next athletic endeavor.  I was recovering from my elbow surgery, and since I couldn’t use my arm to throw things (my first true love) I started to use my legs a LOT more.  I started to train with a group of Decathletes at my college.  I distinctly remember that I loved to race the guys that were faster than me in practice.  And I LOVED the fact that I could beat them “off the line” and in about the first 40 meters of a footrace, but then their technique and years of sprinting would take over and they would ultimately win the race.  

This caught the eye of our Decathlete coach, and then one day he told me this: 

“Ben, you know if we had 4 more years with you, you could make a great Decathlete.  But if you take 6 months to train hard now, I am certain you would make a great Bobsledder.”  

I had no idea what the sport of Bobsled was.  Even with the 2002 Olympic Games just finishing up the prior year, I had never really paid much attention to what type of athletes excel in that sport.  But it was that ONE comment my coach made to me that set me on fire to learn how I could be an elite athlete in 6 months or less.  There were two things this coach did that lit me on fire with my motivation.  He gave me a timeline of how long it would take me to potentially be successful, and he believed that I could become something that I had no idea I could become.  

Lesson #1 – Having a coach or a mentor early in my life that spoke the truth to me, gave me the confidence to move in a direction I never thought possible changed my trajectory from “I think I can” to “I am absolutely certain I can.”   Make sure you have a mentor or a coach in your life that can push your limits – physically, mentally and emotionally.  


Good Timing

To my surprise, it was also a perfect time to become a Bobsledder, and to try out for the Bobsled team.  As it happens in life, much of the time you can look back and sometimes say “Right place, right time.”  Timing wasn’t the only thing that made things all fall into place though.  The 2002 Winter Olympic Games had just passed, with the United States just having their best results in over 46 years (a silver and bronze medal in the 4-man event). 

After the dust settled, many of those athletes retired and the US Bobsled team were looking for new athletes, new recruits.  They were holding an “Athlete Recruitment Tour” all over the country and at major colleges and universities, and they were about 6 weeks away from being on the west coast where I was.  

So myself and another Track athlete at my college made a bet – whoever could score the highest at the Bobsled Combine would win $100 – I know, this was a BIG bet!  It was enough for us to both train with each other over those 6 weeks and push each other and get faster and stronger than any other time in our college careers.  

Lesson #2 – Having someone I had to stay accountable to over a period of time, and having something I stood to “lose” if I didn’t hold up to my side of the bargain forced me to follow through and to complete all of my training sessions over those 6 weeks to the best of my ability.  This is the exact same as having an “accountability buddy” at the gym, or a training partner.  They are going to push you harder than you will push yourself, and you will see results faster than trying to do it on your own.  The other secret here was having something I stood to lose – A bet – which if I was going to bet on myself, I never wanted to lose.  

The weekend of the combine my training partner and I were both going into it all feeling fresh and ready to compete at a high level.  We even drove down a day early to ensure we could get settled in and prepare for our big Saturday Combine.  It would be the first time I would ever sprint through timing eyes, or to get my vertical measured on a “jump pad.”  The US National Team Head Coach was there, along with the late Steve Holcomb (Steve passed away in May, 2017 and ended up being one of the most decorated bobsledders of all time – winning the 2010 Olympic Games in the 4-man event).  

One thing I noticed right away when I arrived at the combine – almost every athlete that was at the combine was about the same size as me – at 6’2” and 230 pounds at the time, I always thought this was going to be an advantage for me, but not today.   The 4-item combine test consisted of sprinting 60 meters through timing eyes (the timers were placed at 15, 30, 45 and 60 meters to get all the split times to see how fast you were at the start, and especially from 30-60 meters, or your “fly” time).  It also consisted of a vertical jump, and a broad jump where you essentially had to jump 5 consecutive times and they measured that distance.  

Starting at the sprints, I was a bit tight and nervous on my first run and I remember after my first attempt Steve Holcomb came up to me and said:

 “You just need to relax and smile when you get to the line next time.”  

Relax and smile

Those 2 words made me smile back at him initially and I said “Thank you for that advice!”  Then, it actually made me turn my “anxiety and nervousness” dial down a couple notches, and it helped.  It was the exact advice I needed in that moment – and he knew it, too – because I remember my second run through those timing eyes being my fastest (and most relaxed).  

It was actually that one piece of advice he gave me that day that helped me do well enough to not only “pass” the combine test with a high enough point total to move on to the next phase, but also win that $100 bet from my college track buddy!  

As I look back, Steve barely knew me (actually he didn’t know who I was at all, who am I kidding!) and for him to come over to me and give me any advice or feedback at all was a gift. 

Lesson #3 – Always listen to the advice and feedback of those that have come before you.  Listening and implementing the advice from those that have “been there and done that” can fast track your ability to succeed at a high level.  Remember, feedback is a gift.

Steve Holcomb had been competing in the sport of Bobsled for 6 years up until that point, and I knew he was an up-and-coming driver in the sport.  The reason he was at the combine was to look for up-and-coming brakemen to push his sled, and I wanted to be that guy!

You are probably wondering what happened next in this journey for me.  I can’t wait to share it in part 2 of this blog coming soon!