Sharing the Olympic dream: The storytellers of US Bobsled and Skeleton

Story by MEGAN SWEENEY

What’s the story of the storyteller? Meet Amanda Bird.

Amanda Bird, marketing and communications manager for USBSF, was a member of the US National Skeleton team.  Photo provided by AMANDA BIRD

Her current title is marketing and communications manager for the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (USBSF). She makes it her career to share those unknown stories of the less than 300 athletes who compete every four years in the Winter Olympic Games.

Bird says her favorite part of the job is relating those elite athletes to the public vs. focusing on the finish times ad medals around their necks. She was a former skeleton athlete for more than 10 years. She would hurtle herself face first down an ice chute, at speeds exceeding 70 mph. However, she discovered there was “more than showing up to train.”

Being an athlete is more than lifting weights, eating right and training hard. It also entails being a stand-up citizen, a semi-professional marketer and a savvy salesperson.

These revelations in place, Bird started to simultaneously compete and blog. After graduating from the University of Albany with a master’s degree in English, she began her career at the Albany Times Union of upstate New York as one of the initial bloggers.
With her skills as a writer and her passion for the sport of skeleton her dream of “marrying her two passions” became a reality.

Sometimes, though, reality can be harsh. Transitioning from the Albany Times Union to the USBSF was difficult. Within her first week with the organization, she had to write a press release about the death of Captain Brian Freeman, her former teammate and a member of the US Army Reserves World Class Athlete Program, who had been killed in Iraq.

She was tested again when 2010 Olympic athletes John Napier and Christopher Fogt decided to take a leave of absence from sliding in order to serve in the Middle East. “It’s difficult and emotional to go on and off the record,” Bird said in a telephone interview.

It isn’t all negative though. Bird has the opportunity to make a difference in athletes’ lives. She gets to share details about two-time Olympian Eric Bernotas of USA Skeleton. Bird wrote about the triumphant comeback of Noelle Pikus-Pace after she was hit by a bobsled in Calgary, Canada, which postponed her Olympic dreams and made her determination grow stronger for the 2010 Games.

Bird also wanted to shed light on the transitional athletes such as Bree Schaaf who started her career as a skeleton athlete and moved on to become a 5th-place finisher in the 2010 Olympic Games for the women’s bobsled team. She yearned to expose the struggles of Olympic gold medalist Steven Holcomb who pilots the No. 1 sled for USA men’s bobsled. Despite being almost legally blind, he challenged the odds by positioning himself as one of the most prominent bobsled drivers in the world.

Bird’s positive movement was enhanced within the federation in the form of negotiating contracts with sponsors such as Under Armour. This provided more athletes with national team clothing.

She was challenged by the prospect of attaining additional sponsors in order to provide the USBSF athletes funding so that they weren’t paying out of pocket to travel and race on the international circuit.

Athletes such as Erin Pac and Elana Meyers are recipients of those sponsorships. They’re also the subjects of Bird’s most memorable and favorite story she ever wrote. It began on Feb. 24, 2010, at the Whistler Sliding Centre in Whistler, Canada.

From the moment the team of two women crossed the finish line and stepped off the ice, Bird accompanied them. The trio made their way through mix zone after press conference after meet-and-greet. Then, finally (two days later), ended up at the medals plaza to receive their bronze medal in the awards ceremony. After all was said and done, Pac and Meyers turned to Bird and thanked her.

“Amanda was awesome during that entire experience!” Meyers wrote in an email. “It was great to have a familiar face with us and someone to share that moment with. She really helped make winning the medal that much more special — and we were super excited to share all our experiences with her.”

Meyers also wrote, “Having Bird definitely changed our relationship. She has shared moments with me that I’ve only shared with Erin. It was a magical experience.”

Bird agreed. “In the end it was so special that I felt I needed to share it with the world. The ride of emotion was almost indescribable,” she said.

From left: Elena Meyers, Amanda Bird and Erin Pac. Photo provided by AMANDA BIRD

While reporting on passion creates a good read, one major issue for Bird in dealing with the media today comes from an athlete’s ability to share through social media.

The USBSF is known for being one of the last sports announcing its Olympic team. Explaining the long, drawn out and complicated process to “outsiders” might be worse than trying to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

In a single tweet an athlete can tip off a reporter without even knowing. One tweet or status change that may be as simple as a smiley face followed by “20XX Here We Come!” can trigger an irreparable Google effect.

However negative social media can be, its power can extend into other avenues of Bird’s job and actually help her sponsorships.

The reason athletes look like a walking billboard on a regular basis is due to the support they receive from sponsors. A single tweet or picture of a bobsled or skeleton athlete raving about the upgraded car rental that Budget gave them for vacation goes beyond a plug to their fans.

It can result in athletes receiving Range Rovers to drive around Europe for the entire six-month season.

Another obstacle that can be difficult to overcome are time zones. This is particularly challenging when one is trying to balance both a personal and professional life. Being awake at 2 a.m. to catch results from the first heat of a bobsled race in Cesana, Italy, doesn’t allow for sleep but Bird’s fiancé, Jason Hartman, understands.

He was the former strength and conditioning coach at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center.

Hartman has worked closely with most of the athletes of the USBSF. He has a personal and emotional investment in these athletes as well and this enables him to realize that the stories Bird has to report on are more important than sleep.

At some point, an athlete transitions from competing as a hobby to competing as a career. This makes Bird’s career one of status and prominence. She is responsible for the visibility and livelihood of the athletes who represent the USBSF.

Many look to achieve her portfolio and have the ability to report on such stories as she does. In order to get there she believes that being able to communicate clearly and fully express a thought is more valuable than anything. Bird believes that practice makes perfect and she says no matter what you’re writing about, just write.

Every story Bird reports on she executes like a racer would: with a purpose and a passion.