Former HBCU athlete Adrian Adams is one race away from 2018 Winter Olympics
North Carolina A&T football alum looks to make U.S. bobsled team while balancing training and working at Dick’s Sporting Goods
Training for bobsledding is normally more expensive than the more glamorous Olympic sports, from self-funded travel across the country to training spikes that can cost hundreds of dollars.
But, thanks to Dick’s Sporting Goods, U.S. bobsled athlete Adrian Adams has found a financial opportunity that is crucial for athletes who aren’t compensated for making it to the Olympics and don’t make nearly the amount of money from endorsements as track and field athletes, swimmers or basketball players do.
On a given day, Adams gets out of bed at about 7 a.m. and eats a hearty, protein-rich breakfast of eggs and oatmeal, or cereal if he feels like switching it up. If he’s in the mood for a light breakfast, he’ll stick with just a protein shake and a banana.
Later that day, noon at the latest, he makes his way to the Lake Placid Olympic Sports Complex in Lake Placid, New York, to train with his Team USA teammates. For the next two to three hours, in between sliding down the track with a 500-pound sled, Adams hits the weight room for a wide variety of “explosive” workouts: from power cleans to jump squats, jerks to pushups, or medicine ball throws mixed in with bench presses (his max is 420 pounds) and his favorite exercise, dead lifts.
It’s not all about the heavy weights though. The 6-foot, 215-pounder (“But I look so much bigger”) also mixes in some sprints, as is necessary for a bobsled athlete.
If he’s feeling a little hungry, he’ll eat his daily snack, spinach. Adams and his teammates eat the leafy vegetable like a bag of Lay’s potato chips. “We don’t eat potato chips, we eat spinach chips,” he said. After the workout, he heads to recovery, consisting of a mixture of ice baths, hot saunas and lots of stretching. When he gets home, for dinner he eats salmon that’s either baked or pan-seared, but “definitely not fried.”
“I’m from the South,” the Reidsville, North Carolina, native said, “but I try to do right for the most part. I might have fried every blue moon.”
When he’s done eating, he’s normally in bed no later than 10 p.m., as his coaches are strict about getting eight hours of sleep a night for recovery.
That’s an “easy” day for the 31-year-old. The type of day when he only has to train like a professional athlete, pushing his body further than 99 percent of the rest of the country can on their best day. Those are the types of days when he doesn’t have to go to work.
When he’s not preparing for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Adams is at Dick’s.
In partnership with the U.S. Olympic Committee, Dick’s sponsors 41 Winter Olympic and Paralympic athletes through its Contenders program, which provides employment for the athletes at the sports retailer’s stores across the country, along with “flexible work schedules and competitive compensation, allowing them to devote the necessary time for training.” The Contenders program sponsors 111 athletes across the Summer and Winter Olympics, including national champion figure skater Ashley Wagner and former NCAA national champion hockey goalie Alex Rigsby.
Adams, a push athlete, will compete in the men’s four-man bobsled trials this week for a spot on the Olympic roster. He also works as a footwear sales associate at the Dick’s location in Burlington, Vermont.
A Lake Placid resident, he travels 60 miles, including a ferry ride across Lake Champlain, to Vermont each time he has a shift. Even when he’s training 20 hours a week, he works as many as 30-35 hours a week at the store — the perfect pitchman for athletic shoes and gear as a world-class athlete.
“I’m not trying to pat myself on the back,” Adams said. “But obviously someone like myself brings a lot of money into the stores because customers are interested in a bobsledder and getting insight from myself and repeat customers.”
Some bobsledders receive monthly stipends, but “even with that, it’s tough being in a sport like bobsled,” Adams said. By comparison, Olympic gold medalists Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps have made at least $42 million combined in endorsements the past couple of years.
Former U.S. Olympic pilot Jazmine Fenlator once estimated that it costs bobsled athletes $80,000 a year to compete. In June 2016, Adams created a GoFundMe to help with the costs, writing that “life as a professional athlete is not all that it may seem.”
In 2012, when Adams was first transitioning to the sport, he had to work two jobs (GNC and Dick’s, unrelated to the current program) back at home in North Carolina just to make ends meet while training.
“It’s just not easy having the pressure of worrying about working and trying to balance that with training and being tired all the time, like supertired,” he said. “Some people will have more help than others as far as financing. It was a big challenge for me. I made up in my mind that I’m literally going to do everything possible to make myself able to finance this, to make it to the different camps that were required of us to qualify and make the national team.”
Adams made the men’s bobsled national team during the 2014-15 season, after the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and has held that position ever since. Over the past three years he’s won gold at the North America Cup in the two- and four-man event and placed fourth in the four-man at the 2016 World Cup. To make the Olympic roster as a push athlete, Adams — with teammates Nic Taylor, who is also black, Brent Fogt and pilot Geoff Gadbois — will be judged not only on his performance during trials (a top-three finish is ideal) but also on past performances at combine testings, national push championships and other competitions over the past few years.
“How you start or how the team is named initially … matters, but doesn’t matter because you still have to compete throughout the season against the other countries and qualify with points,” Adams said. “We’re very confident going into trials.”
Before beginning his training in bobsled five years ago, Adams was actually set on playing football. He was a two-star athlete at Reidsville High School before playing four years of collegiate football at historically black North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Tech. After leaving school, he played with the Huntington Hammer in the Ultimate Indoor Football League.
“I had that dream of going to the NFL, but it just doesn’t work out for everybody,” he told the Greensboro News & Record in 2016. “But everybody can find that niche to find something that they love in life.”
With the move from football, Adams joins a rare, prestigious group of black former professional athletes who have transitioned to bobsled. Birmingham, Alabama, native Vonetta Flowers switched from competing in the U.S. track and field trials in the 1990s to bobsled after the 2000 Summer Olympic trials, eventually winning gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics, the first time an African-American won gold in the Winter Games’ 78-year history. Ten years earlier, Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics, placing seventh in the two-man bobsled. Lauryn Williams, silver medalist in the 100-meter sprint at the 2012 Olympics, also placed second in the two-woman sled at the 2014 Winter Olympics, while Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones won the 2013 world championship in the combined bobsled-skeleton. Former Olympic sprinters Tyson Gay and Ryan Bailey and former World Cup rugby player Phaidra Knight have also trained in the sport.
If he were to medal in Pyeongchang, which Team USA has done four times in the four-man event since 2002, Adams would be one of just a handful of black athletes to win gold, silver or bronze at the Winter Olympics, including Flowers, speedskater Shani Davis and figure skater Debi Thomas, who in 1988 became the first African-American ever to medal at the Winter Olympics.
Adams is not ignorant to the fact that he doesn’t look like most of the prospective Olympians. He said it was a bit of a challenge adjusting from a homogenous environment like a historically black college or university (HBCU) to a nearly all-white sport like bobsled.
“It’s not common to find African-Americans in the sport,” he explained. But “I feel very much included. We’re like a big family here. I’ve been around for some years.” And, as a black man in bobsled, he of course hears the same, tired jokes about a Disney movie from nearly 25 years ago about Jamaicans, which he is not. “Ah, man, Cool Runnings jokes never fade out. All the time. Anytime I meet anybody it’s, ‘Oh, you’re Cool Runnings, huh?’ Everything is Cool Runnings.”
It helps that the same men who train Adams, Team USA head coach Brian Shimer and assistant coach Mike Kohn, trained alongside his father two decades ago. Randy Russell competed in bobsled in the late 1990s and early 2000s, placing fourth in the four-man sled at the U.S. bobsled trials ahead of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Adams talks to his dad every day, and Russell tells him stay to motivated and levelheaded and let the “chips fall where they fall” heading into this week’s trials.
So when Adams sits atop the 4,733-foot track on Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid, making the Olympic team will be the only thing on his mind. It’s what’s most important to him at this point. He has had to work twice as hard as most other bobsled athletes to get to this point, sometimes pulling 12-hour days between his training and working two hours away to even afford said training. Because he wasn’t supposed to arrive at this moment, especially after just five years. Competing on that stage in Pyeongchang in February would make all the hard work worth that much more.
“To this day, where I am,” he said. “I never thought that I would be as involved in this sport thus far.”