RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
There is one sport in the Winter Olympics you can do with your eyes closed. To be precise, you have to do a few seconds of work, after which you can close your eyes and hope for a gold. I am referring to the brakeman in bobsled. That's the athlete who pushes the sled. Tonight, the woman's two-person bobsled starts in Sochi.
NPR's Robert Smith introduces us to the team.
ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Let's get this out of the way. The women call themselves brakemen. Not brake women or brake person.
It's a nod to the fact that this used to be an all-male sport until 2002. And even now, the women are only allowed to race two-man not four-man bobsleds.
ELANA MEYERS: It's still a man's world in our sport. Once we get four women, maybe they'll change it to brakewomen. But it's still that - four chicks.
SMITH: That's Elana Meyers, the number one driver on the U.S. team. But she started as a braker - no, that doesn't sound right either. Started as a brakeman. And you have two jobs as a brakeman: pulling the brakes at the end, pushing with all your might.
MEYERS: And you get five seconds, really. There's much glamour behind pulling the brakes at the end. So, you know, they need to use that opportunity to shine.
SMITH: At the top of a bobsled practice run, Aja Evans bushes the ice off the spikes on her shoes, grabs the back of the sled and just takes off.
(SOUNDBITE OF A BOBSLED)
SMITH: When women's bobsled became an Olympic sport, the U.S. team had a problem. There weren't a lot of women who had grown up driving and pushing bobsleds. But the U.S. led the world in track and field stars and they know how to run.
AJA EVANS: In this sport, you learn as you go along. It's not like you get a tutorial or something or you grow up doing bobsledding. No, you got to learn.
SMITH: Aja Evans was a shot-putter and sprinter at the University of Illinois. And she says sometimes, it feels just the same up here.
EVANS: I just think: Go. Like, explode off the blocks. I have a really, really powerful broad jump, so I just think of broad jumping off the block and really getting it, ripping that sled away.
SMITH: Then you need the gracefulness of a ballet dancer. Hopping into the sled without pulling it back, slowing it down. Then you can close your eyes.
EVANS: Once I load in the sled, I just try and stay relaxed and trust my driver. It's pretty much my job until she taps me and tells me to pull the brakes up.
SMITH: There is really no way to learn this slowly. The brakeman is often plucked off a land sport and plopped onto the ice the next day. Alana Meyers was a softball player at George Washington University. Then she went to try out for bobsled.
MEYERS: Then they just send you up to the top of the hill. And like, OK, get in and go down. And you're like what? No other warning. I think I need more information or something.
Like, no. Just go. And they push you off and you go. But after that first time, it was I got out. I didn't know what to expect. I was completely disoriented but I wanted to go again.
SMITH: Alana worked her way up to driver. Now she's the one recruiting track stars to the team, putting them into the sled without warning.
Team USA in bobsled features two summer Olympians as brakemen. Lauren Williams is a gold and silver medalist in the sprint. Lolo Jones did the hurdles in Beijing and London. And there's been some drama. Lolo Jones made the team at the last minute, and created some resentment in the brakemen that got passed over. But Jones says they're still working as a team. In track and field, she says, women can tear each other apart, but not here.
LOLO JONES: If there's two girls that don't get along in bobsled, they'll get along pretty soon because you can't move a bobsled by yourself. You are going to need help from the person you don't get along with.
SMITH: when you are in that little sled hurdling at 80 miles an hour, you got to work together.
Robert Smith, NPR News, Sochi.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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