Column: Lauren Gibbs put the brakes on a corporate career to chase bobsled glory in the Winter Olympics
Lauren Gibbs figures most of her Pepperdine MBA classmates are running companies and wearing stylish outfits while they work in comfortable offices. For Gibbs, work means wearing a skintight, aerodynamically designed racing suit and running along frozen bobsled tracks to push a 365-pound sled before jumping in and hurtling through steep curves and icy straightaways at speeds that can approach 95 mph.
Her former classmates and coworkers are trying to rule the corporate world, and Gibbs might rejoin them someday. But first, the 33-year-old Los Angeles native hopes to rule the women’s Olympic bobsled world as the brakeman for pilot and two-time U.S. Olympic medalist Elana Meyers Taylor at the Pyeongchang Winter Games.
Meyers Taylor is No. 2 in the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation standings, and she and Gibbs set a start record before they won a bronze medal at the final World Cup race of the season last week in Koenigssee, Germany. They have a solid chance to become Olympic champions in a sport Gibbs didn’t know existed less than four years ago, before a chance meeting with a friend diverted her far off the executive track.
“That was the path I expected to be on, but a path I’m glad I’m not on,” said Gibbs, who played soccer and volleyball and competed in the long jump and triple jump at all-girls Westridge School in Pasadena before a standout volleyball career at Brown. “I had a corporate job and wore a suit to work every day, and I just kind of felt like I wasn’t living my authentic self or doing what I was passionate about.”
Gibbs was living in Denver, working as a sales manager for an online retailer and doing CrossFit and lifting weights when she encountered friend and rugby player Jillion Potter one day at the gym. Potter saw Gibbs dead-lifting and squatting and asked how much she lifted; when Potter then asked whether Gibbs had been a sprinter, Gibbs became curious about where the questions were leading.
Potter, who had played on the U.S. rugby team with Meyers Taylor, saw that Gibbs had the strength, speed and power to be a brakeman for Meyers Taylor and urged Gibbs to try out for the U.S. team. Gibbs’ immediate response was to laugh. “I’m like, ‘No one bobsleds. That’s not something people do,’ ” Gibbs said in a telephone interview. “She said, ‘No, it’s in the Olympics.’ ”
After doing some research, Gibbs went to Colorado Springs to learn more, and she was sent to a training camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. Her first time down a track, with Meyers Taylor at the controls, became an adventure as her body absorbed five Gs — five times her weight — and her head wondered what was going on.
“She already had two Olympic medals, so I knew I was going to be OK,” Gibbs said of Meyers Taylor, who had won bronze in 2010 and silver in 2014. “I just didn’t know what to expect. I think that was the scariest part about bobsled, is when you just don’t know what’s happening, you don’t know where you are on the track, you don’t know when it’s going to be over and you don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like. So you’re going down and it’s like, ‘Is it supposed to be this loud? Are we supposed to hit that wall? Is my head supposed to hit my knee?’ It was a new sensation, but now it’s just a normal day at the office.”
Gibbs, who will have about a dozen friends and relatives supporting her in Pyeongchang, is familiar with the Olympic track at the Alpensia Sliding Center after competing in a World Cup race there last season, though with a different pilot. The U.S. was allotted two women’s sleds at Pyeongchang, and Meyers Taylor and Jamie Greubel Poser earned the pilot spots; Gibbs and 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Aja Evans — an All-America shot putter in college — were chosen for the brakeman spots. “There are a few corners on that track that are unlike any corners of any track in the world, so that will be for Elana to conquer,” Gibbs said. “My job is just to push as hard as I can, jump in straight, and then hang out in the back and let her do her magic. I get chauffeured down the track.”
There’s more to it than that, but Gibbs has enjoyed every step of this unlikely journey. She still gets teary-eyed when she realizes she is an Olympian.
“I can’t believe where life has taken me. It’s just such an honor and such a privilege, and I don’t take it lightly,” she said. “There’s been a lot of people who have helped me get to where I am today and a lot of people in the same position of brakeman that aren’t going to be able to go to the Olympics this time around. It doesn’t mean they didn’t work as hard. It doesn’t mean I deserved it over them by any means. And so I take this privilege very seriously and while I am excited, I know there’s a lot of work to be done in order to achieve the goal that we’re trying to achieve.”
Her bobsled experiences have changed her previous ideas about becoming a CEO. “I’ve always loved public speaking, and that’s something I definitely will pursue after the Olympics,” she said. “I think I have an interesting story and it’s a valuable story, especially where we are in the world, with women trying to move feminism forward. I think it’s important for young girls and boys to hear different stories about success and what success looks like in different facets of life. I can be successful in the business world but I can also be successful in sport, and if you really carve out what you want to do for yourself, if you’re willing to give it everything you have and put forth the effort and make a plan, that’s an important story for everybody to hear.”
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen
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