Need some inspiration ? Try the story of American Olympic bobsledder Sylvia Hoffman.
We’ll start with former LSU Shreveport women‘s basketball head coach Ronnie Howell, whose voice and command can start any story well.
Particularly this one.
LSUS is NAIA Division I, which means pilots do not have the resources that NCAA Division I schools have. Howell “regularly saw kids who are maybe a little less talented and a little less competent, who are still able to compete at a higher level because of their mental drive, tenacity and commitment”.
To Howell, that described Sylvia Hoffman.
Now 32, Hoffman is a member of the US bobsleigh and skeleton team for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. She is fulfilling a lifelong goal of representing the United States and – maybe – to win an Olympic medal.
Hoffman defines perseverance. She’s a black woman, a lifelong athlete from Philadelphia to Texas to Shreveport (and a few other places), who has played many sports and was later a college basketball player and then a competitive weightlifter. She is now an Olympic bobsledder.
Howell isn’t the least bit surprised that Hoffman put herself in this position.
“She’s going to work. I mean, there’s no doubt about it. She’s going to work,” Howell said.
The varsity athlete can’t make a lot of people – Hoffman took it with pride and pride.
“I never remember her being sad or disappointed, no matter what happened around us, whether it was classes or something wrong in training. I never remember that she was sitting on the bench sulking,” Hoffman’s former roommate and teammate Rachel Carlson said.
The ability to stay positive was something Hoffman was used to by the time she landed in Shreveport.
In elementary 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 what she loved to be: an athlete.
“You never know if you don’t try, so I just did my best no matter what.”
“You never know if you don’t try, so I tried my best in every situation,” Hoffman, who played high school basketball, soccer and volleyball, told ESPN.
When her basketball life ended 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, “It’s cool that you tried it — I know you missed it, but I thought it was cool. I’ve never seen that happen in my life, and I I’m like, ‘OK, that’s how you fight for Team USA.'”
And with no experience or coaching, Hoffman moved to Colorado Springs in 2013 to work in computer programming — she has a Bachelor of Science degree in computer information systems — and trained to weightlift. Without the guidance, she said she “unknowingly took a slower path to try to become the best.”
Despite a more deliberate path, she made three international squads in two years before finally coming under the guidance of an accomplished weightlifting coach.
It was then that she realized she could have been even better than she was and with the help of her new coach “it all started again. It was like an uphill battle”. But, she took it in stride and fell in love with weightlifting all over again. However, the full training reset meant she was not ready to make the 2016 Olympic team. Then a lower back injury and deep bruising to her upper leg in 2017 meant that the 2020 Olympics were also out of reach.
Hoffman wanted more than anything to make Team USA at the Olympics, but weightlifting — and sometimes her body — let her down.
“I was like, I have to do something. This isn’t working,” she said. But she stuck to it anyway.
After recovering from an injury, Hoffman competed at the national championship in 2018. She missed a medal in the lift snatch, which “devastated” her.
Hoffman admitted she was struggling and trying “to figure out life and what’s next” when she saw a sign in early 2018 during test drives for NBC’s “The Next Olympic Hopeful.” The sign sparked memories of a conversation she had in 2013 with four-time Olympian Katie Uhlaender, who suggested the skeleton as a way to make an Olympic team.
“I was like, maybe this is the best path I can take to change sports and try to figure it out,” she said. His success on the show caught the attention of the coaches of the US bobsled team.
So in the fall of 2018, she finally begins 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 very frankly that they had to choose.
“I’m good at almost everything I do, but I want to be great at something and I want to pursue that as quickly as possible,” she said. She knew she wasn’t getting any younger and getting named to an Olympic team usually gets harder with age.
Hoffman won the Rookie Push Championships at the Olympic Training Center in September 2018 and became Team USA’s fastest brakeman. In her first two years in the sport, she won five international and three World Cup medals and was a two-time national push champion.
But this did not come without difficulties. Despite the early success, Hoffman said she still feels like she’s “soaring” with more experienced bobsledders as she aims for the 2022 Games.
“I knew for a fact that I could make mistakes my freshman year. I definitely can’t make mistakes my third year, fourth year. I pretty much squeezed four years into two and a half years. That was my plan , anyway – not everyone can. I knew I was good enough to do it. And I knew where my talent was compared to the rest of the girls that were already there,” Hoffman explained.
She was in a grind – a type of grind that Hoffman had been in his entire life. But, she took it all in stride and was thrilled to see that her athleticism and cross-training in all the different sports prepared her perfectly for bobsledding. She began to define herself as a “super athlete”.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, she was in Lake Placid, working out a grueling schedule. In addition to the mental complications of the resulting changes in sport and life, Hoffman learned through pandemic testing that his lung capacity was below average. She is grateful that the specialists from the American team have helped her develop her lung capacity and live with sleep apnea. Hoffman credits his struggles and struggles, big and small, with keeping his feet on the ground and getting through the past two years.
“It was crazy, but at the end of the day, I’m in the best position possible because I made sure I was going to make it,” Hoffman said. Going into Beijing, she is considered the best brakeman on the American team.
She told ESPN she has truly found what she calls her “happy place” in bobsledding – and is here to stay for as long as she can. Team USA couldn’t be happier.
“Other athletes, you know, can come and go. But I appreciate their passion and their focus on excellence. That’s the Olympic ideal,” bobsleigh head coach Mike Kohn told ESPN. “She’s been focused on our laser sport for the past four years, and it’s paid off.”
Hoffman’s “courage and determination” make her the top athlete on the bobsled team, Kohn said. It’s a lot: From dealing with the pandemic to less-than-ideal international travel arrangements to fundraising as an independent Team USA athlete, she’s taking it all in stride.
Team USA’s women’s team is expected to win a medal after the team added Kaillie Humphries – a two-time gold medalist and the most decorated woman in sports history – after the former Canadian pilot was granted US citizenship.
“It’s a high-pressure, high-stress situation, and she sort of pulls it off,” Kohn said of Hoffman. “She keeps plugging into this stuff. She’s just incredibly resilient and mission-focused.”
Hoffman clearly hasn’t changed at all over the years, which was evident last month as she waited to be officially named to Team USA.
Carlson, Hoffman’s former roommate at LSUS, remembers driving her to practice because Hoffman didn’t have a car of her own in college. But of course, it didn’t last too long.
“She was working part-time here and there trying to save 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 this car,” Carlson said.
“I don’t remember seeing her negatively towards anything,” Carlson said. “She just worked harder if something went wrong.”
There were so many starts and stops. But now it’s Winter Olympian Sylvia Hoffman. bobsledder.