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Olympics / Sports

USA bobsledding alternate Katie Eberling during training at the Sanki Sliding Center during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Eberling leaves disappointment behind, pitches in as alternate

SOCHI, Russia -- Wearing a dark warm-up suit with USA emblazoned on the back, Katie Eberling helps carry the 400-pound bobsled to the starting line and places it down on freshly sanded blades.

She gives a reassuring nod to teammate Elana Meyers, her offseason roommate and the talented pilot with whom she has won two world championship medals. She also smiles at Meyers' new brakeman, Lauryn Williams, a former track star who has only been racing for seven months.

Eberling, a Palos Hills, Ill., native, watches the pair as they start down the ice, following their progress as the sled slides into the first curve. Her gaze cannot and does not linger long. There are two more American sleds that need to be moved to the track. That is Eberling's responsibility.

As an Olympic alternate, Eberling doesn't have time to dwell her lost Olympic dreams. She's too busy helping other people realize theirs.

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't extremely hard and that I wasn't still trying to heal from it," she said, forcing a small smile. "But you can't focus on that, not when other people are depending upon you."

Eberling, 25, agreed to serve the American cause here a few days after the U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation's surprising decision to leave her off the Sochi roster. Her parents had urged her to stay home. It seemed a tempting refuge, but she ultimately believed she had a responsibility to her teammates.

Her new role tests both her character and her emotions on a near hourly basis. Eberling lives in an alternate's limbo, a frequently lonely place where she is not considered an Olympian but is no mere spectator either.

She is not staying in the athletes' village with her countrymates. She was not allowed to walk in the opening ceremony. Beyond her team uniform, she didn't get any free clothing, not even one of those divisive Ralph Lauren sweaters.

And unlike most Olympic alternates, Eberling doesn't sit around waiting for a teammate to roll an ankle or come down with flu. She works. She spends hours at the track and in the workroom, helping to carry the squad's three massive sleds, sanding the bobs' blades to make them faster and taking training runs to give the three U.S. brakemen some rest and a scouting report at the bottom.

"I was never under the illusion that it would be an easy role," she said. "But ultimately I am part of something bigger than myself and I think that has helped me move forward."

Indeed, Eberling seems to have found a fledgling peace in the Caucasus Mountains, where she has embraced as much of the Olympic experience as her schedule allows. In the Winter Games' first week, she visited Olympic Park, watching pairs figure skating and witnessing the thrilling U.S. hockey victory over Russia.

There have been rough moments, too.

She cried watching the opening ceremony when the high-definition difference between her role and the Olympians' experience was broadcast directly at her.

She has shared a residence in the mountain village of Krasnaya Polyana with bobsled alternates and the family of skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace, a silver medalist here. It's a beautiful home, Eberling says, and one made especially lively by Pikus-Pace's two small children.

"It has been a lot fun to have the kids around," she said. "And Noelle is just such a positive person. It has been so good for me."

Her teammates have noticed her lightened mood since arriving in Sochi, as well. She laughs more, they say. Her smile seems genuine again.

"That's the Katie I know," Meyers said. "Anytime that kind of disappointment comes your way, it might take a second to recover. But Katie has done a great job bouncing back and has really been a team player."

Eberling -- a former standout volleyball player at Western Michigan -- had been considered a lock for the U.S. team in Sochi after finishing second with Meyers at the world championships last year. She medaled three times in four races on the World Cup circuit this season and finished second at the national push championships that clock how fast athletes can thrust the sleds off the starting line.

But the federation passed over Eberling last month in favor of track star Lolo Jones and Williams, who is an Olympic silver medal 100-meter sprinter. The two brakemen are poised to become only the ninth and 10th U.S. athletes to compete in both the Winter and Summer Games.

On the World Cup circuit this season, Jones won two silvers to Eberling's three bronzes, but one of her medals she rached with Meyers, the world's No. 2-ranked pilot. Eberling did not race this season with Meyers, with whom she made the world championship podium in 2012 and 2013.

In the days after the federation's decision, Eberling raised concerns about the selection procedures and questioned whether she had been treated her fairly. Though she stressed she did not blame her teammates for the process, her remarks fueled stories about whether Jones deserved her spot and caused turmoil among the close-knit bobsled team.

From the start, Eberling regretted the negative spotlight placed on Jones and believed her words had been twisted. The team has talked about the situation and it's no longer an issue, she said.

"We moved past everything," she said. "We're just trying to go for medals. And I'm still a part of it. I realize that I'm not in the position that I wanted to be, but I'm still a part of it."

There was no evidence of any lingering animosity between Jones and Eberling as they worked on the track star's sled last week.

"We're all a team right now," Jones said. "She's out here helping us."

That included taking four training runs at the Sanki Sliding center last week, two of them with Meyers. She and Meyers crashed near the finish line after Meyers slid late into a curve during their first run. On their second one, however, they posted the heat's third-best time.

On Saturday, Eberling ran again and pushed pilot Jazmine Fenlator to one of her fastest times all week.

"I think there are still a lot of great things left for Katie in this sport," Meyers said. "I'm excited to see where the future takes her."

Eberling, however, isn't sure whether her future will include bobsledding. She earned a teaching degree before joining the national team and she wonders whether it's time to "get a grown-up job."

She knows some people in the U.S. bobsled federation would like to see her stick with the sport, perhaps becoming a driver and giving the Olympics another shot in 2018. With the wounds still healing, Eberling isn't ready to consider another four years in the hardscrabble world of international bobsledding.

"You give it all you have and you make yourself vulnerable by doing that," she said. "There's no other way to do it. You have to go all in if you want to wear U.S.A. and represent your country. I don't have any regrets ... but right now I can't think about doing it all over again."

Besides, Eberling says, she won't be making any major decisions in Sochi. She promised herself that she would focus on enjoying Sochi and making the most of her Olympic moment -- even if it's not the one she wanted.

"I've realized how awesome it is to be in this atmosphere, just to feel that Olympic experience is amazing," she said. "I had to move past the heartbreak and negativity and just realize that if I don't take this chance to enjoy it, I'll regret it."

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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