I’ve followed Bree Schaaf’s
progress as a world-class bobsled pilot this season from afar,
and from judging her finishes in World Cup races in Europe it
seemed like the Olympian from Bremerton had taken a step back.
Except for the fifth-place effort at Altenberg, Germany, on one
of the world’s speediest and dangerous tracks, there hasn’t been a
whole lot to cheer about. She was 11th, 11th, 9th, 15th and 14th in
her other five World Cup races — not the kind of finishes she
had in mind when she stared the season driving the USA-I sled.
“You have assumptions,” conceded Schaaf during a Wednesday night
phone call from Whistler, British Columbia, where she races
tonight. “You assume everything’s a progression, not a disaster.
And in my mind, this season has been kind of a disaster.”
She says that, knowing she’s competed the whole year with an
injured left hip that will require surgery at the end of the
“It makes me uncomfortable to talk about it because it sounds
like I’m pumping excuses,” she said.
Two years ago, the relatively unknown American who broke in to
the winter sports scene as a skeleton athlete — sliding head-first
down those ice track — placed sixth in her first World Cup race on
the same crazy-fast track that she’ll be competing on tonight under
the lights at Whistler.
Schaaf and brakeman Emily Azevedo from Chico, Calif., returned
to Whistler a year later and nearly won a medal at the 2010 Winter
Olympics. They were standing on the podium, holding on to third
place until the final two sleds knocked them back to fifth.
It was a remarkable performance for someone who was still
learning her craft. The sky seemed to be the limit for Schaaf.
But sometimes the fight to get the top — no matter how dedicated
and passionate you are — can be a struggle. Sometimes the struggles
are out of your control.
In the post-Olympic year, emergency appendectomy surgery killed
Schaaf’s mojo after she was seemingly on her way to establishing
herself as a serious medal contender.
Now, she’s dealing with a labral tear in her left hip, a
common injury for bobsledders. (This
report explains why bobsledders are subject to hip injuries
better than I can). Azevedo had surgery for a similar injury a year
ago, and came back as strong as ever.
It’s a chronic condition from overuse and Schaaf started
noticing the pain while working out at the Olympic training center
in Colorado Springs this summer.
“I knew the workouts were getting significantly more and more
painful,” she said.
She suspected what was going on, but wasn’t sure she wanted to
hear the answer from doctors so she didn’t get an MRI right
“I was trying not to focus any energy on it,” she said. “I just
kind of gutted it out for a while. Hopefully I didn’t make it
too much worse. … Part of the reason I didn’t want to know is that
a lot of time if you don’t give the injury the attention, you don’t
notice the pain as much.”
She eventually gave in, got an MRI, which confirmed the injury.
She decided to compete in the World Cup season regardless.
“As a driver the only time you get better is to drive during the
season,” she said.
But it’s been a battle. At 5-10, 165 pounds, she’s one of the
smaller athletes in the sport and it’s been tough to maintain her
muscle mass because she hasn’t been able to do her normal
Factor in what a mental grind it must be, and you can imagine
Plus, a new coaching staff has mixed and matched drivers and
brakemen this season. Azevedo has been paired with Elana Meyers,
the rookie pilot who has surpassed Schaaf to drive USA-1, at
Meyers won’t race the final two World Cup races — tonight in
Whistler or at Calgary next week — as the U.S. has decided to have
her train in Lake Placid, N.Y., which will host the world
championships Feb. 17-18.
Schaaf and Azevedo will be together the next two weeks, and
they’re looking forward to see if they can regain some of the magic
they had during past races on North American tracks. Schaaf, the
former Portland State volleyball player, will always consider
Whistler her home track.
“I love the speed, I love the treachery, which I know sounds
kind of sick,” he said. “It’s just one of those tracks that makes
you feel alive.”
Even though the season has been a bit of a downer, Schaaf will
try to turn it into a positive.
“It’s been a good test,” she said. “It’s hard when you put
everything into every race, and you take it very personally, but
you try not to take it personally. I wouldn’t be here unless I was
a competitive person and this is just part of the learning
“Going through this is something that has made me realize how
much I love the sport.”
If the surgery goes well, she’s hopeful for a fast recovery. At
32, the goal hasn’t changed: Win a gold medal at the 2014 Olympics
in Sochi, Russia.
When she’s not sliding down those ice tracks around the world,
you can hear her work as a broadcaster at Universal Sports, which
televises the World Cup races on a delayed basis. Bree often serves
as the color commentator for the men’s bobsled races. Coverage of
the Whistler races will be live in Canada and on the internet.
Check you local listings to find out when they air in the U.S.