Bad hip explains a lot about Bree’s bobsled season

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 season.

“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 away.

“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 workouts.

Factor in what a mental grind it must be, and you can imagine the frustrations.

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 times.

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 process.

“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.

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