Adam Clark is a blue-collar Kentucky boy with Frankfort ties. To say that bobsledding never crossed the 28-year-old’s mind would be an understatement.
He played football on warm fall nights and ran track on even warmer spring afternoons at both Owen County High and Centre College.
Before 2010, he wasn’t used to sub-zero temperatures. He’d never even heard of ice burn. And hurtling down anything at 90 miles per hour – let alone a jacked up, frozen water slide with three other guys – was a crazy thought.
Now, as Adam prepares to compete on the U.S. bobsled in his first Olympic games, it’s his only thought.
Crouched and unmoving on his toes, Adam takes a breath, explodes forward and powers swiftly up a grassy slope in Louisville’s Cherokee Park.
It’s 75 degrees outside – far from the weather he competes in. A bobsledder living in the Bluegrass can’t be picky, though.
It’s been about two years since a friend suggested he submit an application to the USA Bobsled website, about one year since he made the squad.
As a full-time athlete with the national team, Adam’s days are made up of training, eating, training, training, training and then training other people at Derby City Crossfit.
He works a few hours a night at the Louisville gym, and that, combined with a small stipend from the national team, helps pay the bills.
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, he’s running hills with his wife of about a year, Ashley. She’s in between semesters at dental school and serves as a workout partner/timekeeper, gently prodding him when his rest time between runs is almost up.
“You’re keeping me on track today,” Adam says, wiping his forehead and finding his stance at the bottom of the hill again. “I need that.”
It’s not that Ashley’s motivation replaces a lack of drive. In fact, Adam’s probably got more drive than most.
As a standout football player/track star in high school and college, Adam knows how to push his body. And with two degrees, one in physics from Centre College and one in mechanical engineering from the University of Kentucky, he knows how to train his mind.
“He’s very quietly driven,” notes his mom, Frankfort resident Jane Barber. “He’s not obsessive. His drive is internal.”
But with a little less than two years left until his ultimate target, the 2014 winter games in Sochi, Russia, every encouragement, every push, every goal set and met – it all matters.
On the sled
At 6’3, 225 pounds, Adam looks every bit the part of an elite athlete.
Quickly asked to take part in national team tryouts after being accepted to rookie camp last year, he’s worked his way up in the four-man division of the sport.
“A lot of people have high expectations for me, for where I want to go,” he says.
From tryouts to callbacks to becoming part of USA-3 and now USA-2 (USA-1 won the gold medal in the 2010 Vancouver games), Adam’s combination of speed and power has made him a natural choice to push the sled from the second or third position.
Competitive start times are essential to a good run, Adam says.
All four members of the team enter the sled in about a 5-second span, and from then on, it’s all about the pilot finding the right line of travel.
“There’s a safe line that gets you to the bottom slowly and a there’s a fast line that may wreck you, but if it doesn’t, you’ll be really quick,” Adam says.
Pilots can’t see the track as they slide, and have to learn the timing of a particular run’s curves. Any miscalculation or wrong shift of weight can end in bumps, bruises and burns for the team – and Adam has already had his fair share.
Black scars mark both calves where Adam’s flailing legs took out a track light as he struggled to pull himself into the sled after a botched step.
And many recall the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, a 21-year-old men’s luger from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, who died during the 2010 winter games when his sled left the track during training.
While four-man bobsledding can be unpredictable, Adam says there’s little danger of his sled leaving the track.
“We get beat up, but we don’t see a lot of major injuries.”
Realizing a dream
For Adam and his family, an unexpected Olympic dream is now in reach.
“Not in our wildest dreams did we think he’d succeed the way he has,” Jane Barber said.
“But, in a way, all the things he’s done to this point have been stepping stones: Track, football, eating right, Crossfit – they’ve all been preparing him.”
A humbled Adam echoed his mother’s sentiments.
“It’s an opportunity that I never thought I’d have,” he said.
“It’s a blessing, totally out of the blue.”