Team USA Bobsledder Josh Williamson Talks G-Forces

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Elite American athlete Josh Williamson is gearing up for a slot on the Team USA Olympic Bobsled team. Very few bobsledders come from the state of Florida, but the line of questioning about a snowless kid pursuing a winter sport has grown tiresome for Williamson. He’s ready to talk about much more. Known for being a methodical tactician with a giant work ethic, Williamson spoke with Men’s Journal from his apartment at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, NY, on the eve of his departure for Europe and pre-Olympic competition.

Men’s Journal: How are you feeling today with so much big competition approaching—and so many years of training distilled down to hundredths of a second?

Josh Williamson: Yes! Faster than the blink of an eye. You can win or lose by just that. I feel really good. I’m anxious and excited, but mainly just ready to go. We’ve put a lot of work in this summer. It’s pretty exciting.

Are there any rituals you stick to during your “off days” of training?

Every day I try to do some kind of activity, even if it’s just a low-intensity, 10-minute bike ride. I make sure I get enough sleep—sleep in if I have to—eat a ton, drink lots of water, and be as low stress as I can. I try to pack [in advance] to make sure I’m not stressfully scrambling around before travel. I like to keep the nervous system cool and calm to get as recovered as possible.

With bobsledding being such a short burst, high-intensity, sprint-like sport, it requires heavy weightlifting movements—so it’s really important my nervous system stays healthy when I’m burning that candle. If I’m stressed in my life, whether it’s with a relationship or family or anything like that, I’m burning the candle at both ends—so sometimes the best thing to do is just rest to feel fresh when it’s time to really get after it, whether it’s on a race day or on those hard training days.

How would you describe your road to the Olympic Games so far? Have there been any twists, turns, or surprises?

One of the biggest surprises for me is finding ways outside of training and competition to cool down. Mental health is key. I played sports my entire life—and was always the tall, lanky kid. Another twist, early in high school, was finding the weight room. Eventually I got a strength and conditioning coach who really made me love it, and I started to see results from consistently showing up. It put me in a strong, positive position for bobsled.

As far as training, I love sprinting, weightlifting, and jumping. Anything that requires explosive, short-burst movement is something I really enjoy doing. Motivation to train has never been an issue for me—not even the monotony of it, surprisingly enough. It’s actually something I enthusiastically embrace. I’m a big routine guy—y’know, the disciplined, methodical guy who lays his clothes out for the next day.

Sometimes I’d say I have to pull back on the reins a little bit. I’ll stay up too late at night watching videos of my training instead of getting enough sleep. I can stress myself out over perfection and that stress to the body isn’t good.

What do you like to do in your free time?

It’s the little things that keep me happy. I love drinking coffee. That’s not very unique, but I really enjoy it. I love getting outside. Up here in the Adirondacks it’s so beautiful. I never grew up around mountains. In Florida, I spent almost every day in a lake, river, or the ocean. I love that too, but up here it’s just a completely different environment and beautiful in another way. I limit time on my phone and computer, which really improves my mood. I have a lot of great friends here at the Olympic Training Center, but it’s almost like dorm living. I tend to be a pretty introverted person, so that down time to stay balanced and energized is pretty vital to me even as part of a team.

Can it be challenging to achieve that vital balance given the degree of focus and dedication required for your sport?

I’ve been an athlete for so long that I just identify as one. But it’s just as important to step back from that a little bit. I’m much more than an athlete and my father reminds me to hold onto that broader perspective. Honestly, I’d love to train and race every second of the day, but that’s just not good for longevity or even high performance. Singular obsessiveness has proven itself to be an unhealthy way to go.

When athletes retire, many of them get lost. I’ve learned wholeheartedly that balance is really what allows me to perform at a high level. The best performers I’ve seen seem to be some of the most balanced people. They attack training so hard because they also know how to step away. When I take healthy breaks and days off, I’m that much more excited to get back in the gym or on the ice and do it again.

Is sustaining high-performance in bobsledding challenging at such an elite level?

This is such a high-performance environment for everyone. There’s the mental side, but those tangible numbers matter as well. There are daily—even hourly—goals to chase to achieve personal bests. We see training percentage points go up or down with lots of seconds, numbers, and data. In four-man, I’ve noticed successful teams are often the ones who’ve been together for a long time. Measurement, metrics, input, output. Being the best is about math and the longer you ride with your team the better.

Have you noticed any differences in the U.S. approach to training versus other countries?

There are differences. Germany is a great example. Their bobsledding program contracts each pilot to a four-man team with their own personal coaches. So collectively they’re Team Germany, but each of their sleds is more autonomous in that way. With Team USA, we have a large pool of athletes with the coaches making decisions about who’s on what sled, naming the team just one month before the Games. I think there are benefits and costs either way. On the one hand, our system gives everybody a fair shake to make the team and ensure we have the best athletes representing our country. On the other, there can be a real benefit to having that long-term cohesiveness. Some of the best teams in the world and the best teams historically are ones that have been together for years..

Most likely Hunter Church will be in the pilot saddle?

Hunter Church is one of the best pilots in the world and he deserves to go into turn one with a fighting chance. It’s my job to give him an extremely competitive push. He’s not only my teammate but my friend, and I want him to do well because he deserves it. Same goes for my other teammates. We’re all pulling and pushing for each other. That’s something our coaches talk about often. A lot of them are former Olympic medalists and they talk about when you get on that line, when it’s just you and those three other guys, they’re who you want to push for and win it for. Those are the people who know how hard we’ve all worked to get there and we’re the only people who can do it at that moment—together.

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Who would you say are your top competitors this year?

Germany is consistently dominant. Latvia is very good. Canada has been great recently. Russia and Switzerland are always good, too.

Sounds like it’s anyone’s game.

Whoever’s the fastest in China during those two days of racing in February are the medalists. No matter how good you’ve been the rest of your career, that’s racing. That’s part of why I love it. I’ve played lacrosse and football and a lot of team sports, and those are long games. There’s a lot of giving and taking in those sports. In racing, it’s just us against that clock.

How far is the sprint at the beginning of the race?

It’s 60 meters. When the time actually starts, it’s 15 meters away from the block, so it’s what we like to call a “fly-in.” I weigh about 228 pounds. My teammates are generally anywhere from 210 to 235. It’s a bit of a push. You got guys squatting 500-plus pounds. You gotta be pretty tall to carry that weight as well, so you’re looking at six foot-plus for most guys, 220-plus pounds, fast, and powerful.

Fans can’t get a real sense of how many Gs you’re pulling down on those turns because the camera is moving with you. Can you describe for the rest of us what it all feels like?

It’s a rush like no other. The race looks very smooth, but we’re rattling the whole way down at over 90 miles per hour. The sound is deafening coming down the ice with over 1,000 pounds—like the roar of a freight train—while our pilot is navigating the gravity and forces of the turns. If you try to fight at the end of a turn to get off of it or build pressure, the track is gonna spit you out at the end. You don’t know where you’re at. You’re hitting walls while your helmet’s hitting the sides of the sled and you’re dancing with those millimeters. You’re in control while also being out of control. That’s the best way I can describe it.

What are you thinking while your head is tucked down during the race and you’re trusting your pilot at that speed?

Mainly about optimal body position, which we memorize. This summer we went to the wind tunnel down in North Carolina, sat in the sled, and found the most aerodynamic position with the least amount of drag. For example, I’m tight in this part of my abdomen and my hands are positioned a certain way. I memorize all that, then I try to hold that position as well as I can going down the track while also moving with the sled. I wanna feel like I’m one with the sled—not like I’m slapping my head left when we need to go right because any little force or energy going in a different direction can really change the ride. Again, we’re talking hundredths of a second and inches. There’s no better feeling in the world than seeing your teammates giving you the number one finger at the end of the run.

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Do pilots like Hunter Church and Cody Bascue have a different psychology or different attitude than the other athletes in bobsledding? Are they like quarterbacks or volleyball setters with a very unique kind of leadership mentality?

It’s a unique leadership role. The pilot is pushing too, so you need him to be a great athlete. But then he’s gotta get in and go to complete zen, like a race car driver. I’m thinking the same thing in the back, but I’m not the one driving. Cody and Hunter have both have been driving since they were kids. It’s now just in their blood.

What have been the most important ways you’ve overcome adversity? Any sage advice for future Olympic bobsledders?

I think you have to be accountable to yourself—and also to others. I love what I do. I love training and racing, but the relationships and friendships I’ve built are the only reason I am where I am at this moment. There’s this big misconception that being a man is about going it alone and the need to bury your feelings. We hear a lot about “being tough.” That’s just so backwards. The only times I’ve done anything remarkable in my life have been because people, friends, teammates, coaches, and family members have helped me get there or figure something out. My achievements are all a byproduct of so many people investing in me. That’s a huge driving force. There are things you definitely have to do for yourself, but nothing worth doing is achieved alone. So my advice is to lean into your friends and ask for help when you need it. It’s okay to not be okay sometimes. I’m the one racing. I’m the one who shows up and does the work, but I’m also mature and humble enough to know I didn’t do any of this by myself.

Who are the most important mentors or influencers in your life?

My grandfather (mother’s father). He was a great athlete. He’s taught me so many valuable lessons about sport and life. My father. I’ve watched the way he’s lived, the way he operates, and the way he works—and I can see myself in him a lot. My dad also always reminds me to not be so hard on myself—keeps that perspective and balance. “If you were to stop bobsledding tomorrow,” he tells me, “there’s so much more to you than the sport—and there’s so much more to you than any sport you’ve ever done.” That’s a great reminder.

Quick speed round?

Bring it.

Favorite band?

I love Outkast, ACDC, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Eagles, The Allman Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tom Petty.

Favorite food while training?

We were joking today that the cafeteria here is giving us our last meal for lunch today. We’re having steak, Texas Toast, and peanut butter cookies as a sendoff. That’s some serious American diesel food before heading over to Europe.

Favorite Olympic sport besides bobsledding?

Track and field and weightlifting are huge for me. There are some incredible athletes who do raw speed, power, jumping, and strength. It’s so pure to me—just this beautiful expression of raw ability.

 

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