Editor’s note: A breakout box was updated after the competition to add the results of the race.
Growing up in Arlington, Sylvia Hoffman was rarely surrounded by ice.
But now she’s an Olympic athlete in a sport that requires her to sprint on a frozen track while pushing a sled that weighs over 360 pounds.
In her youth, she participated in everything from volleyball to basketball and track. In 2005, her sophomore year of high school, the Arlington Bowie Lady Vols won the state basketball tournament. Hoffman, now 32, continued to play the sport as she went onto Kilgore College and later Louisiana State University Shreveport.
Wanda Talton, her former high school basketball coach, described a young Hoffman as being eager and having a bubbly personality.
“She was very coachable,” Talton said over the phone. “She was ready to get better.”
In college, Hoffman started weight-lifting competitively.
She continued competing after graduation while working as a technician at Geek Squad and eventually as an engineer at Hewlett Packard Enterprise.
“Once I graduated from college, it was like I need to make sure that I’m utilizing this degree that I just got,” Hoffman said over Zoom from Beijing.
While living in Colorado Springs, also known as “Olympic City USA,” she saw an ad for a training camp for Olympic hopefuls and decided to go for it. She didn’t realize until later that the camp would be filmed for the NBC show “Scouting Camp: Next Olympic Hopeful.”
Hoffman didn’t win, but her strength and speed impressed the coaches enough for an invitation to what’s called “push camp.” There, she put her skills with a bobsled to a test.
Laughing, Hoffman recalled her first run.
“I’m going down, and I’m just counting curves like one…two…three, four, five, six, seven,” she said. “From curve three to four, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. What’s happening?’ It was a lot.”
As a self-described visual learner, not being able to see the path of the sled as it careened down its icy track presented a learning curve for Hoffman, but she proved to be a quick study. She went on to win the national women’s push championships and is now competing for Team USA in Beijing.
To spectators, the sport can be deceptively simple, but it requires more preparation than just jumping in a sled.
“It is a lot more complicated. I initially thought the same thing until I realized I actually needed some good sprint training and programming,” Hoffman admitted. “The sport is based off of speed, power and strength and you have to have all of those things.”
Hoffman’s role as a brakewoman is to help the sled gain momentum at the start of the race with a big push and to safely stop the sled at the end. Her position in the sled doesn’t allow her to see the track during the ride, so she has to study its course before a race.
Another role that spectators might miss is sled maintenance.
“USA Bobsled has one mechanic,” Hoffman explained. “Sometimes that equates to eight sleds for one person to try to go back and forth through. A lot of athletes become mechanics ourselves, getting to know the sled in and out, so that way we’re not putting so much stress on one person.”
Talton, the former high school basketball coach, called Hoffman a jack of all trades.
“She knew what she wanted and was ready to go get it. And, she put in the work to go get it,” Talton said. “Some people say they want to be this or this, but they don’t put in the extra work, and she always did.”
Women’s bobsled events weren’t added to the Olympics until 2002, but U.S. women have made it on the podium for the sport in every Olympics since then.
“It’s a blessing and an honor to even be here,” Hoffman said. “But at the same time, I’m in complete recognition of like, I’m not trying to be here, just to be here. I’m here because I want to win a gold medal.”
This week, she’ll get her chance.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.