John Napier has long been considered the future driving star for the U.S. bobsled team.
The future might have arrived.
Napier has one of those everything-fell-together stories that seem to pop up during an Olympic year. His mother and father met at the sliding track in Lake Placid, N.Y. His dad was a longtime bobsledder and eventually led of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation before his death 4 1/2 years ago. His mom remains a fixture at races, charting times with her pencil and clipboard.
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And their 23-year-old kid is perhaps the biggest surprise of the World Cup circuit right now.
Heading into this weekend’s stop in Cesana Pariol, Italy, Napier is ranked fourth in two-man bobsledding, fifth in four-man, and is still basking over winning gold and silver medals at Lake Placid two weeks ago before the World Cup tour headed to Europe. At this rate, he’s well on his way to a spot in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the start of which is now only 10 weeks away.
“I still don’t quite believe it,” Napier said. “It hasn’t fully sunk in yet. It’s there. I feel like I can’t really touch it yet, though, but it’s an amazing feeling.”
It’s going to get harder, though, and fast.
First, there won’t be that air of familiarity that Napier had on the first two World Cup tracks, in Park City, Utah and then in Lake Placid, just two hours north of his family’s home in Schenectady, N.Y. Plus, Napier won’t have the same team working with him, at least for this week anyway, as the USBSF sent some push athletes back to Park City to run an America’s Cup race with Todd Hays this weekend.
Hays is recovering from a strained hamstring and will miss his second straight World Cup weekend.
Having a sled filled with new push athletes would send some bobsled pilots into deep worry. Napier says he’s simply not thinking about it in those terms.
“I’m not letting it matter,” Napier said. “There’s so many factors and if I focus on any of them, it’s just going to take away from my game, which is driving. So I’m pretty much letting the coaches do their jobs and I have faith that God will work everything out for the better.”
Friday was an off day for bobsledders, before racing opens Saturday.
“The calm before the storm,” USA-1 pilot and world champion Steve Holcomb wrote on his Twitter feed.
It’ll likely seem that way for Napier.
He doesn’t have much experience on the first two tracks in play for the European swing of the World Cup season, those being the 2006 Olympic track in Cesana Pariol and then Winterberg, Germany. Keeping those World Cup rankings anywhere near their current placing could be a tall order.
“It’ll be interesting to see how I do with limited trips at Torino and Winterberg,” said Napier, who was at the track in Cesana Pariol for a World Cup race three years ago. “But I have a lot of confidence.”
Hays is expected back on the World Cup circuit soon, possibly in time for the Winterberg race. Holcomb’s team in four-man bobsledding is the reigning world champion and prohibitive gold medal favorites. The Germans are always going to be strong, and Canadian drivers will know the 2010 Olympic track in Whistler, British Columbia better than anyone by far.
Everyone in that group was widely expected to get to the Olympics this winter.
Napier wasn’t necessarily thought of as a lock to join them. Another medal or two on the World Cup circuit, and that will quickly change.
“It seems a step closer each day,” Napier said. “It is a long road ahead and it’s been a long road behind me as well. Every day is kind of a step closer for me, so it gets a little more real every day.”