Winter Olympics 2022: Bobsledder Sylvia Hoffman is the unlikeliest Winter Olympian for Team USA


In need of a little inspiration? Try the story of U.S. Olympic bobsledder Sylvia Hoffman.

We'll start with former head coach of the LSU Shreveport women's basketball team, Ronnie Howell, whose voice and command can start any story off strong.

Particularly this one.

LSUS is part of NAIA Division I, which means the Pilots don't have the resources the NCAA Division I schools do. Howell was regularly "seeing kids that are maybe a little less talented and little less skill level, that are still able to compete at a higher level because of their mental drive and toughness and commitment."

In Howell's eyes, that described Sylvia Hoffman.

Now 32, Hoffman is a member of Team USA's bobsled and skeleton team for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. She's fulfilling a lifelong goal of representing the United States and -- maybe -- winning an Olympic medal.

Hoffman defines stick-to-itiveness. She is a Black woman, a lifelong athlete from Philadelphia by way of Texas and Shreveport (and a few other places), who played many sports and went on to be a college basketball player and then a competitive weightlifter. Now she is an Olympic bobsledder.

Howell is not the least bit surprised that Hoffman has put herself into this position.

"She's going to work. I mean, there's no doubt about it. She's gonna work," Howell said.

The college athlete grind not many people can do -- Hoffman took it in stride and with pride.

"I never remember her ever being sad or let down no matter what happened around us, whether it be classes or something went wrong in practice. I never remember her sitting on the bench sulking," said Rachel Carlson, Hoffman's former roommate and teammate.

The ability to stay positive was something Hoffman was used to by the time she landed in Shreveport.

In grade school, she was diagnosed with scoliosis -- a curvature of the spine -- and had to wear a corrective back brace in hopes of avoiding surgery. The brace stayed with her until her senior year in high school but didn't deter her from being who she loved to be: an athlete.

"You never know if you don't try so I just did the best that I could with whatever situation." Sylvia Hoffman

"You never know if you don't try, so I just did the best that I could with whatever situation," Hoffman, who played basketball, soccer and volleyball in high school, told ESPN.

When her basketball life concluded at LSUS, she wanted to continue being a competitive athlete and was drawn to weightlifting after watching Kendrick Farris, of Shreveport, attempt to break an American record.

Hoffman thought to herself: "Cool that you attempted it -- I know you missed it, but I thought it was cool. Never seen it happen in my life, and I'm like, 'OK, so this is how you compete for Team USA.'"

And with zero experience or coaching, Hoffman moved to Colorado Springs in 2013 to work in computer programming -- she has a Bachelor of Science in computer information systems -- and trained in weightlifting. Without the guidance, she said she "unknowingly took a slower route into trying to become the best."

Despite a more deliberate path, she made three international teams in two years before she finally came under the guidance of an accomplished weightlifting coach.

It was then she realized she could have been even better than she was and with the help of her new coach "started all over. It was like an uphill battle." But, she took it in stride and fell in love with weightlifting all over again. However, the complete reset of training meant she was not ready to make the 2016 Olympic team. Then, a lower-back injury and deep upper-leg bruising in 2017 meant the 2020 Olympics were also out of reach.

Hoffman wanted to be part of Team USA at the Olympic Games more than anything, but weightlifting -- and sometimes her body -- was letting her down.

"I was like, I got to do something. This isn't working," she said. But she stuck with it anyway.

After working her way back from injury, Hoffman competed in the national championship in 2018. She missed medaling in the snatch by one lift, which "devastated" her.

Hoffman admitted that she was battling and trying "to figure out life and what's next" when she saw a sign in early 2018 advertising tryouts for NBC's "The Next Olympic Hopeful." The sign triggered memories of a conversation she had had in 2013 with four-time Olympian Katie Uhlaender, who had suggested skeleton as a way to make an Olympic team.

"I was like, this might be the best route that I can take to switch sports and try to figure it out," she said. Her success on the show caught the attention of Team USA Bobsledding coaches.

So in the fall of 2018, she finally began to find her place. So much so that when the coaches asked her where she wanted to be -- as a bobsledder with a teammate or alone on the skeleton -- she told them quite frankly that they needed to choose.

"I'm good at nearly everything I do, but I want to be great at something and I want to pursue this as quickly as possible," she said. She knew wasn't getting any younger, and being named to an Olympic team generally only grows more difficult with age.

Hoffman went on to win the Rookie Push Championships at the Olympic Training Center in September 2018 and become the fastest brakewoman for Team USA. In her first two years in the sport, she won five international medals, and three World Cup medals and twice was the push champion nationally.

But that didn't come without struggles. Despite the early success, Hoffman said she still felt as if she was "winging it" around more seasoned bobsledders as she set her sights on the 2022 Games.

"I knew for a fact that I can make mistakes my first year. I definitely cannot make mistakes my third year, fourth year. I pretty much squeezed four years into two and a half. It was my plan, anyway -- not everyone can do that. I knew that I was skilled enough to do it. And I knew where my talent was compared to the rest of the girls that were already here," Hoffman explained.

She was in a grind -- a type of grind Hoffman had been in her whole life. But, she took it all in stride and was pleased to see that her athleticism and cross-training from all the different sports set her up perfectly for bobsledding. She began to define herself as a "super athlete."

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, she was in Lake Placid, training under a grueling schedule. In addition to the mental complications of the resulting changes in sports and in life, Hoffman learned through pandemic testing that her lung capacity was below average. She's thankful that the Team USA specialists have been helping her work to expand her lung capacity and live with sleep apnea. Hoffman credits her struggles and her grinds, big and small, with keeping her grounded and pushing through the past two years.

"It's been crazy, but at the end of the day, I'm in the best position that I can be in because I made sure that I was going to make this happen," Hoffman said. Heading into Beijing, she is considered the top brakewoman on Team USA.

She told ESPN that she truly found what she calls her "happy place" in bobsledding -- and that she's here to stay as long as she can. Team USA couldn't be more thrilled.

"Other athletes, you know, they can come and go. But I value their passion and their attention to excellence. It's the Olympic ideal," bobsled head coach Mike Kohn told ESPN. "She's just been laser focused on our sport for the last four years, and it's paid off."

Hoffman's "grit and determination" are what make her the top athlete on the bobsledding team, Kohn said. It's a lot: From dealing with the pandemic to less-than-ideal international travel conditions to raising money as a self-employed Team USA athlete, she takes it all in stride.

Team USA women's team is widely expected to medal after the team added Kaillie Humphries -- a two-time gold medalist and the most decorated woman in the history of the sport -- after the former Canadian pilot was granted U.S. citizenship.

"It's a high-pressure, high-stress situation, and she just kind of rolls with it," Kohn said of Hoffman. "She just keeps plugging through this thing. She's just incredibly resilient and laser focused on the mission."

Hoffman clearly hasn't changed a bit over the years, which was evident last month as she waited to be formally named to Team USA.

Carlson, Hoffman's former roommate at LSUS, remembers driving her to and from practice because Hoffman didn't have a car of her own in college. But of course, that didn't last too long.

"She would do part-time jobs here and there trying to save up money. And I remember after we graduated, she bought her very first car, a red Mustang. And she was so proud of that car because she had worked so hard for so long to get that car," Carlson said.

"I don't ever remember seeing her negative towards anything," Carlson said. "She just worked harder if something went wrong."

There were so many starts and stops. But now it's Sylvia Hoffman, Winter Olympian. Bobsledder.