2:58 PM PDT, October 27, 2012
It was no surprise all the initial stories about Thursday's selection of the U.S. women's bobsled team for this season focused on Lolo Jones, even if the high-profile Olympic hurdler had been distinctly discreet while starting her attempt to make the 2014 Winter Games as a sled pusher.
In an oh-by-the-way manner, those stories also noted another 2012 track Olympian, world-record sprint relay gold medalist Tianna Madison, had earned one of the six pusher spots.
There was no attention paid to the woman who got a record score in bobsled's combine tests, who won this year's wheeled push track title, set a track record for the push start in just her third day on ice and then helped driver Jamie Greubel's sled win both sets of races in the team trials at Lake Placid, N.Y.
Hello, Aja Evans.
"Her upside is tremendous," said U.S. women's national team Todd Hays, a 2002 Olympic silver medalist. "By this time next year, Aja will set an entirely new standard for women's bobsled."
How often do you find an athlete with the speed, strength and explosiveness to finish fourth in the 100 meters and seventh in the shot put in a high school state meet as Evans did for Morgan Park High School? At Illinois, she won three Big Ten shot put titles and ran the 60 in a respectable 7.63 seconds.
"She is a world-class winter Olympic athlete who threw the shot for a while," Illini field events coach Mike Erb said. "This is what she really was meant to do. Her natural abilities are like nobody I'd ever seen."
Watching the 2010 Olympics prompted Erb to compare Evans' scores in combine-style testing as an Illini senior to the standards for bobsled. When he saw she "just blew them away," Erb planted the idea of bobsled in her.
She forgot about it while taking a break from sports for about a year after her 2010 graduation. Then Evans, whose older brother, Fred, is a Vikings' defensive tackle, realized last March she had unfinished business as an athlete.
"Bobsled instantly jumped to the front of my mind," she said.
An online search told her USA Bobsled was doing combine testing in July. Evans, 24, began training at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park, where she had done an internship for her degree.
Evans' workout partners occasionally included Bears' running back Matt Forte and ex-Bears Nathan Vasher, Jason McKie and Tommy Harris as well as her brother. The 5-foot-10, 165-pound woman was not overmatched.
"She could do a lower-body-strength day with an NFL athlete," said Jacob Ross, who supervised Evans' training at EFT. "Pound for pound, she is as athletic as anyone who ever came through our doors."
EFT owner Elias Karras gave her a job training younger athletes, lined up sponsors to help defray Evans' expenses and threw in some money himself to cover the cost of her trip to Lake Placid for the July combine.
Having researched Evans on the Internet, Hays made it a point to be on hand for her tests. Before the lifting phase, he told Evans to stop because she was warming up with weight above the maximum point standard.
"I killed it," Evans said.
When she retested in September, Evans had a record 794 of a possible 800. Madison scored 761 and Jones, 757.
"Aja is the most physically gifted (of the three) for bobsled," Hays said. "She had the whole package right off the bus. The other girls are extremely fast and powerful, but they don't have the size or strength yet."
Evans, whose first name (pronounced Asia) comes from the eponymous Steely Dan song, joins another Chicago-area athlete who also caught on fast, Katie Eberling of Palos Hills, on the national team. In her first season, Eberling pushed Elana Meyers' sled to a bronze medal at last year's worlds. They had a bye at the trials.
"Aja is one of the best female athletes I have ever worked beside," Eberling said.
All six pushers will go on the nine-meet World Cup circuit, which begins Nov. 9 in Lake Placid. The U.S. can enter three sleds in each race, and Hays plans to rotate the push athletes on an every-other-meet basis to keep them fresh.
Evans found going down a track the first time more nerve-racking in the anticipation than the execution, even if what she described as "crazy G forces" left her neck and back sore.
"It felt weird, but I knew I could be good if I kept trying," she said. "You don't grow up doing bobsled, so I'm intrigued by everything."
Her potential included.
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