Ice queen

Chico High School track star goes for Olympic glory in bobsledding

Bobsledding teammates and Olympic hopefuls Emily Azevedo (left) and Bree Schaaf pose on the ice track at the U.S. Women’s World Championships in Lake Placid, N.Y., last February.

Bobsledding teammates and Olympic hopefuls Emily Azevedo (left) and Bree Schaaf pose on the ice track at the U.S. Women’s World Championships in Lake Placid, N.Y., last February.

Photo courtesy of Emily Azevedo

In December 2005, Emily Azevedo graduated from UC Davis with a degree in exercise biology and was thinking about what to do next. Even though she had excelled at track and field at UC Davis (she held the college’s 100-meter high hurdles record until last year), the realization set in that she “didn’t have the raw talent” to make a career out of it.

“I had the work ethic,” offered Azevedo, who studied gymnastics throughout her childhood, “but you need the combination of [work ethic and raw talent] to succeed [in track] at the elite level.”

Then something amazing happened.

“I was sitting around with my roommates watching the [Winter] Olympics in 2006,” recalled Azevedo, a 2001 Chico High School graduate and track star (she held the record for 100-meter high hurdles until only recently, when her younger sister Chelsea broke it). “Bobsledding came on and I basically announced to my roommates that that’s what I wanted to do. They all laughed at me, of course.”

Azevedo—a muscular, poised, attractive 26-year-old with long brown hair who insists she is not a “natural athlete”—was telling the story of how she switched from track and field and working as a physical trainer at a Davis gym to securing a coveted position on the USA Women’s Bobsled Team.

If all goes as Azevedo hopes, she will be representing the United States in Vancouver in February 2010 as a member of the USA Olympic Bobsled Team—zooming down the twists and turns of the fastest bobsled track in the world at about 90 miles per hour.

All this from a young woman from sunny California, a state not exactly known for the sport of bobsledding.

She researched bobsledding on the Internet (at the same time as she was pushing an imaginary bobsled around her house, to the amusement of her roommates), submitted a résumé to the U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation in Lake Placid, N.Y., and was invited to come (self-funded) to a bobsled camp to see if she had the stuff to make the grade as a competitive bobsledder.

“They gave me a ‘five-item test,’ ” which included a 30-meter sprint, shot-put throwing and vertical jumping, checking for speed and strength, said Azevedo. “They said, ‘She’s got some speed,’ but I wasn’t very strong at that point.”

Nevertheless, Azevedo became an alternate on the U.S. Bobsled Team in October 2006, and traveled with the group to Europe for a month and a half. She came back to the States from that first bobsledding experience having placed eighth in the world with driver Erin Pac.

Azevedo is a “push athlete”/brakewoman, meaning she jumps into the back of the 500-pound sled, head tucked down behind the driver, after an explosive, running push from the starting line. She’s done so on the U.S. Bobsled Team for three years now, and has won a number of medals. This past January, she and Washington bobsled driver Bree Schaaf placed first at the USA Women’s Nationals in Lake Placid.

Her mom, Wendy, knows Azevedo’s determination better than anyone.

“She’s the kind of kid that, when she makes up her mind about something, she’s going to accomplish it,” she said. “The message to other kids out there … from someone like Emily is that they can do anything in life that they want to.”

Azevedo, who lives and trains (including lots of weight-lifting) much of the year at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., returned to her parents’ home in Chico this past Sunday from training at an “ice house”—or indoor bobsled track—in Calgary, Canada.

She will remain in Chico until the end of September, when she leaves for Lake Placid in anticipation of the start of bobsled season, which runs November through February or early March of each year. It is during this time that Azevedo will be “scrutinized—every push, every move” by coaches for consideration for the Olympic team.

A fundraiser will be held on Sunday (Sept. 27) to help finance her Olympic quest, in part because the tough economy has caused a number of corporations, such as Home Depot and Bank of America, to drop out as sponsors of the potential Olympians.

Azevedo said she saved a lot of money from working at Home Depot, in both Chico and Colorado Springs, as part of an agreement that U.S. Bobsled Team athletes had with the big-box store, whereby a 20-hour work week was paid, with benefits, as if it were a 40-hour week, thus enabling athletes to have time and energy to train the necessary eight hours a day. That program was scrapped in March.

The money Azevedo has saved, however, is going quickly, as bobsledding is a very expensive sport. Just the ice-house time alone in Calgary costs $270 an hour (there are no indoor bobsled tracks in the United States).

“This year is the Olympic year, and I want to spend every effort toward that goal,” she said.

Chico High School track coach Dale Edson—who recalled presenting Emily Azevedo with the award for 2001 Outstanding Track Athlete—praised both her athleticism and her grit.

“I tell you, she came to us with a great kinesthetic awareness,” Edson said. “When she was coached, she could respond quite easily because she had such a great gymnastics background. She could do what we asked of her. Her other biggest attribute—always—was her determination. She always had this look on her face when she was on the track like, ‘Get out of my way!’ ”

“Every kid dreams of being in the Olympics—the pride, the patriotism,” said Azevedo. “But it’s pretty crazy where I’m at now.

“It’s going to be a pretty big battle,” she added. “There are about five girls vying for about three spots. It’s going to be a fight, for sure.”