In a rural town 80 miles west of Omaha, pulling a sled behind a three-wheeler is the closest thing to a traditional winter sport. Nobody would mistake the rolling hills north of town—even when covered with ice and snow—as an Olympics training center.
Yet one of Shelby’s native sons, engineering graduate student Curt Tomasevicz, became a member of the U.S. Olympic Bobsled Team after only two years of formal training in the sport. He was the lone Nebraskan at the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy.
Like generations of men before him, Tomasevicz, 25, spent his teen years playing eight-man football under the harsh glow of florescent stadium lights at Shelby High School. He was one of the lucky ones who had enough talent to play football at what many Nebraskans consider the ultimate level.
College was a blur of going to classes, lifting weights and surviving the Cornhuskers’ preseason training camps. As his senior season ended and graduation neared, Tomasevicz realized he wasn’t ready to let go. He enjoyed the thrill of competition too much. A finalist for the 2002 Lifter of the Year Award, Tomasevicz also didn’t want to lose the strength he’d gained from years of training.
During a routine workout in the spring of 2004, former University of Nebraska–Lincoln track and field athlete Amanda Moreley overheard Tomasevicz discussing his future with one of the Huskers’strength and conditioning coaches. You should try out for the Olympic bobsledding team, Moreley told him.
Tomasevicz recalled watching the 1998 Winter Olympics with his friends. He joked about how easy it would be to make the Olympic team pushing a sled. Six years later, Tomasevicz found himself asking Moreley, who was training for the women’s bobsled team, for her coach’s phone number.
Tomasevicz and Moreley spent the summer preparing for September tryouts in Calgary. Coaches spent one week evaluating Tomasevicz’s skills in sprinting, weightlifting and the vertical jump. After Tomasevicz proved that he met the conditioning requirements, coaches tested how fast he could run on ice and push the sled.
Bobsled drivers spend years training for their position, but most of the athletes who push the sled down the first 10 to 15 yards of the course are former track and field athletes. Driver Steve Holcomb selected Tomasevicz from a pool of 30 athletes to be one of his push men.
Tomasevicz took his first run on an official bobsled course a few weeks after his tryout. “You watch bobsledding on TV and you think you know what to expect, but it’s more violent than it looks,” he said. “It’s rough and shakes you up because the G-forces are so strong. All the guys told me horror stories (about crashing).”
The total weight of a four-man sled, plus the crew, cannot exceed 1,386 pounds. A sled’s average speed during a race ranges from 80 to 90 mph.
At 6’1” and 220 pounds, Tomasevicz knew he could withstand the physical demands of bobsledding, but he was hesitant to postpone classes for two years. He was pursuing a master’s degree in electrical engineering and was in the midst of writing his thesis and completing an independent study project.
After the tryouts, he briefly returned to Nebraska and sought advice from his adviser, Sohrab Asgarpoor, an associate professor of electrical engineering.
Being a little awestruck by the Olympic games and recognizing Tomasevicz’s potential, Asgarpoor told his pupil to go.
“When he asked me if he should do it, I told him it was the chance of a lifetime,” Asgarpoor said.
Tomasevicz entered 14 bobsledding competitions between November 2004 and February 2005. His team’s best finish was fourth place at an international competition in Igls, Austria.
He fit studying between training and traveling to Europe for competition. “I lugged books everywhere we traveled,” Tomasevicz said. “After four to six hours of practice, you don’t want to crack open a book, but you don’t have a choice. You have to finish it and not put it off.”
That’s a lesson he learned playing football. His ability to carefully balance school and sports helped him make the 2003 Academic All- Big 12 team.
Tomasevicz is writing his master’s thesis on the impact of distributive generation on the reliability of power systems. His diligence doesn’t surprise Asgarpoor, who describes Tomasevicz as mature and dedicated. “Anything you want a student to be, Curt is,” Asgarpoor said.
Unlike most Olympics sports, the bobsled team doesn’t hold official tryouts to determine who to send to the Games. The drivers are team captains and pick their teammates. Usually, Tomasevicz said, drivers choose their teammates from the previous season.
“I had a good idea I’d be going,” Tomasevicz said. “But the night we found out, there were 15 of us in a room and they announced which nine were going. We felt bad for the guys that didn’t make it, so there wasn’t much celebrating right away. When I started getting a bunch of e-mails congratulating me, that’s when it started to sink in.”
His team, USA-2, placed sixth. Their total time was 3:41.36, just .53 seconds shy of medal contention. Tomasevicz said competing at the Olympics was an incredible experience, despite not winning a medal. Some of the highlights included attending the opening ceremonies and appearing in a skit with comedian Tom Green on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
He’ll continue training for the 2006-07 season, but school is Tomasevicz’s focus for now. He said he wants to graduate in December, “even though there’s not a big need for electrical engineering in bobsledding.”
Tomasevicz may train for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. “I was leaning toward not doing it again, but after being there it’s hard not to want to do it again,” he said.
If he does, Shelby’s 690 residents will rally behind him again. The town held benefits to raise money for his training costs, and before the Olympics, someone designed a billboard in his honor. His elementary school declared the day of his race red, white and blue day. Even his Olympics diary appears on the town’s official Web site. “
At first, I think my community thought it was just one of my adventures,” Tomasevicz said. “But once people started seeing me on TV, they jumped on board and gave me their full support.”
Maybe among those hometown fans is another young boy who goes sledding north of town, dreaming of the Olympics.