Snubbed Olympic hopeful faces tough decision

Snubbed Olympic hopeful faces tough decision
Snubbed Olympic hopeful faces tough decision

It wasn't simply that she lost a shot at competing in the Sochi Olympics. It was the way she lost that shot.

In January, Katie Eberling sat in a room with all the other American bobsled hopefuls and listened as the names for Team USA were called. Hers wasn't among them.

"I was completely, absolutely gutted," Eberling said by phone on Tuesday from her home in suburban Chicago. "Indescribably emotional. A very low place to be in."

What made headlines was one of the names that was called: Lolo Jones, a selection many viewed as a publicity stunt – a ratings move. For Eberling, three times a World Cup medalist this season, hearing Jones' name and not hers was just a crushing reality.

"It was extremely hard," she said. "I knew going into the selection meeting that I was on the bubble. I had a few poor results down the stretch. Hearing it had a different effect."

All three women in line for the final spot were qualified. Jones did earn a silver medal at a World Cup event in November, while Eberling won three bronzes this season. But it was Jones who got the shot.

Nobody would have blamed her if she quit the sport on the spot. She didn't.

Nobody would blame her now if she moves on to some other career. She isn't. At least not yet.

Eberling is spending this week deciding if she wants to go for another run at the Games in 2018. If she does try for Pyeongchang, she will not do so as a brakesman. She would likely train as a pilot instead. The thought has even crossed her mind to switch to skeleton. But the fact that she's even pondering another four years is Olympian in itself.

Despite not gaining a spot on the 2014 team, Eberling was pegged as an alternate. That meant she could go to the Games without actually going. She wouldn't get to stay in the Athletes' Village or eat with her teammates. She wouldn't go to the sliding center to race, but to help haul and maintain the sleds. She would be a cheerleader for Jones and everyone else on Team USA.

She didn't have to go, and her parents didn't want her to, but she went anyway.

"Initially I didn't accept it," she said. "I didn't want to be there and be miserable and take away from [my teammates'] Olympic experience. I wanted to make sure it was right for everyone."

That's right: she turned it down at first because she was worried about other peoples' feelings.

"I still felt like I was part of it – that I deserved to be there," she said. "My teammates said, 'We want you there. You're still a part of this as well.' I still had a responsibility to carry out. I realized it's who I am. I didn't want to walk away just because I didn't get my dreams accomplished."

Eberling stayed in a small apartment complex and hung out with the family of skeleton silver medalist Noelle Pikus-Pace. She cried when she saw the Opening Ceremony – on TV – but looking back now she calls the fortnight "an awesome experience."

As for Jones? The former hurdler did not medal – she and driver Jazmine Fenlator finished 11th – and her mediocre performance quickly brought out comments from one former Olympic bobsledder who said Eberling should have gotten the final spot.

Eberling said nothing during the Games to add to the controversy and cheered dutifully. She could be seen at the top of Sanki Sliding Center, rooting for Jones and everyone in red, white and blue.

"We kept it completely professional," Eberling said of Jones. "We're teammates in that time. I was there for her and that's the most important thing. We weren't going to let ourselves get in our own way."

After weeks of upheaval, Eberling came home to the Midwest, saw her parents and now faces a deadline: She has to decide by Friday if she wants to go to a three-week training camp in March to learn to be a driver. Otherwise she can retire at 25 and pursue her other dream of working as a child life specialist in a hospital.

"Whether you're an Olympic medalist or someone who missed making the team, everyone coming out of Sochi, at one time or another, is going to face their 'what's next' moment," Eberling said. "And that's where I am now."

She knows most people will tell her to go for it. She's entering the prime of her athletic life – her late 20s – and she will have the support of both friends and strangers who want her to have a happy ending. (On a more cynical level, let's face it: NBC would eat this story up.)

The problem with four more years is just that: it's a long-term investment with no guarantee for reward. She could miss out again, meaning a sacrifice of eight years without a spot in the Olympics. Money will be hard to come by and in 2018 she'll be 30. Does she want to be just starting her career when most of her college friends already have a decade's worth of experience?

"It comes down to deciding if my Sochi Olympic experience was enough," Eberling said. "It can't be just about achieving a title for me. Through all of this, I have realized that being an Olympian or an Olympic medalist doesn't automatically make you a better or happier person. So my reasons for continuing on have to stretch beyond my desire for a title or piece of hardware. I have to do it because I am passionate about my sport and dreams."

It's the same decision she faced when Elana Meyers recruited her in 2011. Back then, Eberling was a member of Western Michigan's volleyball team with no bobsled plans. Meyers found her on a strength-and-conditioning All-American list, sent her a Facebook message and soon Eberling had a new sport. She made the national team that year.

"It all happened really, really fast," she said.

Now it's happening again: an Olympic hopeful facing a choice.

Eberling said her upbeat attitude, even in some wretched moments, has come from her time in volleyball, her family and, most importantly, her faith.

Now she has to figure out how much faith is left.