ATLANTA—Working for state legislatures and competitive bobsledding may seem like two very different worlds, but Elana Meyers Taylor sees similarities.
Like the work of legislatures, “bobsled is all about creating, connecting and collaborating,” the Olympic bobsled pilot and most decorated Black athlete in Winter Olympic history told StaffHub ATL 2022.
Meyers Taylor says bobsledding might seem simple on the surface, but it’s actually a highly technical sport that employs a range of research, design and development to maximize speed on the track.
Like the work of legislatures, ‘bobsled is all about creating, connecting and collaborating.’ —Elana Meyers Taylor, U.S. Olympian
“For us, it’s very important that when you step to the line, you have a competitive piece of equipment,” she says. “Without that piece of equipment, without people creating new ideas, you would lose any advantage at the very start of the race.”
Collaboration is also key to success, as athletes depend not only on the engineers who design the sleds, but teammates, coaches and others, she adds.
“Yes, while we’re in the sled, there is no physical connection—we’re not touching each other, grabbing each other, holding each other, steering or anything like that,” she says. “But it’s very important to have a connection to make sure you’re all working together and going for the same goal, which in my profession is a gold medal.”
And winning or losing those medals, she said, often comes down to a matter of hundredths of a second, something Meyers Taylor is all too familiar with. In 2014, she lost out on gold by .1 of a second and, in 2018 by .07 of a second.
“So, as you can imagine, the margins are pretty close and that’s why it’s so important to do things like connect and collaborate,” she says. “Me and my brakeman have to be on point and aligned in order to get that sled going downhill as fast as possible.”
She shares three stories of how creating, connecting and collaborating have played key roles in her journey.
1 — Good Things Can Come From Failure
Growing up in Georgia, Meyers Taylor says she had long dreamt of being an Olympian, especially after being able to take in some of the events and pageantry of the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
She chose softball as her sport, playing in college and professionally, all with the intention of getting to the Olympics. But striking out badly during her first at-bat during a tryout for the 2008 Olympic team dashed her softball hopes.
“I had what you could legitimately call the worst tryout in the history of tryouts,” Meyers Taylor says. “It was bad, and I was devastated. I knew I was not going to make that Olympic softball team, and I thought my chances of making the Olympics were over.”
But instead of giving up, she heeded the advice of her father, who told her if she kept training and working hard good things would happen. Unsure what was next, she kept training and, after her parents saw a bobsled race on TV, they suggested she give the sport a try.
“At that point, I was like, ‘Sure, why not? What do I have to lose?’” Meyers Taylor says. “So, I simply Googled it, emailed the coach and got invited to the tryout. And I’ve been doing it now for 15 years, which has been incredible. But it’s all because I failed. All because softball didn’t work out. But also because I saw that failure and was able to continue to persevere.”
2 — Listen to Taylor Swift
Since bobsled started in the 1800s, it has largely been male-dominated—it wasn’t added to the women’s Olympic program until the 2002 Winter Games, and even then women were allowed to compete only in the two-woman competition, not the four-woman, giving them fewer chances to medal.
“This never made sense to me,” she says. “They’d give reasons like it’s too fast, it’s too dangerous, your ovaries will fall out. I assure you—they do not.”
While a four-woman bobsled event is still not a part of the Olympics, in 2014, after much pleading, begging and bargaining, the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation allowed mixed-gender crews to compete in the event.
But just months after winning silver at Sochi with partner Lauryn Williams, her abilities were still being tested as she searched in vain to form a team.
“I got asked questions, ‘Can you even drive a sled? Do you even know what you’re doing?’ And people would just flat-out refuse to get in my sled,” she says. “Women finally had the opportunity to compete, and I wasn’t even going to get off the starting line because I didn’t have a crew.”
Eventually, she did assemble her team, including her future husband, Nic Taylor, who warned her there were people who didn’t want her at the U.S. national team trials.
He was right. Before the race, she says, she encountered some of the most misogynistic, sexist and mean comments she’d ever heard. To combat them?
“I put in my earphones and literally blasted Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off,’” Meyers Taylor says. “When I went out on the starting line, I only had Taylor Swift in my head. I had a panel of women cheering and signs and posters just rooting for me and cheering me on. Being surrounded by these women and feeling empowered, not only did we have two successful runs, but I finished third in those championships, which made me the first woman to make the U.S. men’s national team.”
Sometimes in life, she adds, you may face racism, sexism and other forms of ignorance that you never saw coming. “When those moments happen,” she says, “I encourage you take a page from Taylor Swift and just shake it off.”
3 — Control What You Can Control
A week before the first COVID case hit Georgia, Meyers Taylor’s son, Nico, was born with Down syndrome and profound hearing loss. After figuring out how to keep her family safe, provide for her son’s special needs and train out of her garage, she felt the pieces were finally falling into place.
As she prepared for the 2022 Beijing Games, avoiding contracting COVID became even more important, as athletes were not allowed into China if they tested positive. After a series of negative tests, she, her husband, son and father arrived in China—only to test positive two days later. Isolated in a hotel, and kept in a separate room from her family, it was the first time she had spent any significant time away from her baby.
To make matters worse, the day she tested positive, she was told her peers had elected her to be the flag bearer for the U.S. team during the opening ceremony.
Meyers Taylor felt completely out of control but decided to find the areas she could control. She emailed and texted people she knew for track notes, watched videos and discussed lines. Her husband, also her strength coach, drew up training drills she could do in her 10-meter room. “I just focused day in and day out of getting back to competition.”
Eventually, Meyers Taylor was released from isolation, and she says because of her focus, she was able to win her third Olympic medal a few days later, and then her fourth. At the 2022 Beijing Games, she won silver in the monobob and bronze in the two-woman events, making her both the most decorated Black Winter Olympian of all time and the oldest American woman to win a Winter Olympic medal.
“So, I encourage you as you go through the rest of this conference, as you go through the rest of your careers, remember how important it is and how much you can really accomplish, when you create, connect and collaborate.”
Lesley Kennedy is a director in NCSL’s Communications Division.
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