SOCHI, RUSSIA – Aja Evans stood at the top of a hill for her moment of truth two years ago, a moment she described as “really awkward.”
Evans, the younger sister of Vikings defensive tackle Fred Evans, had made her mark as a standout track and field athlete in college. But this was something foreign to her. She was about to launch her first run down a bobsled track.
“There’s no way to get your feet wet in this sport,” she said. “I was like a deer in the headlights. No matter what people tell you, their stories or what to expect, you really don’t know until you go down the track. It was definitely one of those points where I was like, ‘OK, do I really want to do this? Just go for it. Suck it up and be a big girl.’ ”
She did, and then came her second moment of truth.
“When I got to the bottom of the track, I’m like, ‘I’m either going to go that way to the car or I’m going back to the top and keep going,’ ” she said. “I made the decision to stick with it.”
Funny thing happened, too. She was natural, so much so that Evans went from beginner to Olympian in a short time.
Evans qualified for the Sochi Games as a pusher/brakeperson for pilot Jamie Greubel. Their competition begins Tuesday, and the Greubel-Evans team is considered a medal contender.
Evans is one of three U.S. pushers with a track and field background. Lolo Jones is a two-time Olympic hurdler. Lauryn Williams is a three-time Olympic sprinter who won silver in the 100 meters in the 2004 Games and gold in the 4x100 relay at the 2012 Games.
Evans has aspirations to compete in the Summer Games someday, too. The Chicago native has such unique athletic versatility that she competed as a sprinter and in the shot put at the University of Illinois. She became an All-America and Big Ten champion in the shot put.
Evans returned to Chicago and worked as an instructor at a training facility after graduation. She still desired to compete in athletics but was unsure of her next move.
Mike Erb, her coach at Illinois, mentioned the possibility of trying out for bobsled. He figured Evans’ combination of speed and power would translate into the role of pusher.
The idea intrigued Evans, who had a limited knowledge of the sport but loved the movie “Cool Runnings,” which was based on the Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the 1988 Olympics.
Evans found information about bobsled combine testing online and decided to give it a shot. Not only did she compete, but she also finished first by scoring 794 out of a possible 800 points to win the 2012 U.S. National Push Championship title. She later was named USA’s Bobsled rookie of the year. By the end of 2013, she had won two World Cup medals.
And now she’s at the Olympics.
“A lot of my success came from my athleticism and being so strong and powerful and the track and field background,” she said. “In this sport, you don’t get to get to learn stuff in advance. It’s not like there’s a bobsled track in Chicago. You have to learn by experience.”
Evans comes from an athletic family. Her brother plays in the NFL, and her cousin is former Major League Baseball player Gary Matthews Jr. She trains with NFL players, including Bears running back Matt Forte, at EFT Sports Performance in Chicago.
“I’m the only female athlete out there, so it’s a really cool experience,” she said. “They know how to get out there and grind it out and still have an enjoyable atmosphere.”
Fred Evans planned to be in Sochi to watch his sister compete. The veteran defensive tackle provided updates to teammates on her training this season and even live-streamed one of her races.
“Adrian Peterson has tweeted about it,” Aja said. “It’s really, really cool.”
Evans’ rapid ascension will be complete as she makes her way down the track on her first official Olympic run.
“It’s just an adrenaline rush,” she said. “From start to finish, you’re just on a high. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind experience.”