Olympics / Sports

Former Missouri-Kansas City sprinter Kleiser of Austria in the bobsled world, too

Viola Kleiser's University of Missouri at Kansas City track career ended on a high note when she set a school record for the indoor 200-meter dash at the conference championship meet in 2012.

She's been climbing ever since.

Kleiser is an Olympian, not in track but as a member of the bobsled team, representing her native Austria at the Sochi Games. Her competition begins with preliminary heats on Tuesday. The finals are the next day.

Like American hurdler Lolo Jones and sprinters Tianna Madison and Lauryn Williams, Kleiser is following the trend of powerful speedsters into the sled and down the twisting, ice-banked track.

"Sprinters bring strength and, even more important, speed to give the sled the right push at the beginning of the race," Kleiser wrote in an email to The Star. "The normal practice of a bobsledder looks every similar to one of a track athlete."

They are often the push athletes, who help push the sled to a competitive speed at the beginning of the race, then hop in and crouch in an aerodynamic position with the skilled, experienced driver. The driver steers, both shift their weight in turns and gravity takes over. The average speed for the 1,500-meter track in Sochi is expected to be 84 mph.

Kleiser had never been in a bobsled until after college. Although Austria had a proud tradition in bobsled with men, the sport is growing on the women's side.

The four-man bobsled made its debut in the Olympics in 1924 and the two-man in 1932. But it wasn't a women's Olympic sport until 2002, and women only compete in the two-woman event.

Kleiser and her teammate Christina Hengster, who has been a bobsled pilot since 2007, became the first women's team from Austria to qualify for the Olympics. "A very special honor to represent Austria for the first time in an event," Kleiser said.

She fared well in a UMKC uniform, sprinting at nearly every distance for coach Shameika McField, including hurdles and relays.

"I cannot express how excited we are for V," McField said of the school's first athlete to complete in the Olympics. "She's embraced this sport and run with it."

Or, in the sport's vernacular, slid with it.

When Kleiser arrived at UMKC, learning of the school through a coaching connection, she had already studied for three years at the University of Vienna. As a student, she competed for the sports club ULV Krems.

Running for the Kangaroos for the first time during the 2011 outdoor season, Kleiser was part of a 1,600 relay team that finished fifth at the Summit League conference championship.

A year later, she set the school record for the indoor 200 at the conference championship meet, and her 1,600 relay team finished third.

After an outdoor season highlighted by a ninth-place finish in the 400 at the Summit League championship, Kleiser was selected a distinguished scholar and academic all-conference by the league.

"She was naturally fast and very technical," McField said. "I think what we were able to do is get her stronger for a longer season."

Kleiser returned home after graduation with the goal of running track for her national team. But soon she was contacted by Austria's bobsled team.

"I was asked to try out because of my good results at speed and strength tests," said Kleiser.

Those tests revealed proficiency in speed and strength, especially from a start, precisely what a bobsled team seeks. Her first competition came in 2013, and last month, she and Hengster finished ninth in the European Championship.

A top-10 finish in Sochi would be considered a triumph, Kleiser said.

"I think a realistic goal is to place around 10th," she said. "It would absolutely amazing to finish in the top 10 at the Olympics."

The Jamaican team, the subject of the movie "Cool Runnings," returns after a 12-year absence in the men's two-man field, and will be a popular story line in the event. Among the Americans, a pair of women's teams will draw attention for their lineup with track stars Jones and Williams as pushers. Teams from Canada and Germany also rank among the favorites.

But on the UMKC campus, the Kangaroos will be pulling for one of their own.

(c)2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


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