Never give up on something that you can’t go a day without thinking about, Winston Churchill famously said.
For Natalie DeRatt, that was going to the Olympics. In 2012, the former University of North Carolina–Asheville running star missed that dream for the track and field team for Britain, but the fire to compete for the podium still burned. So when an opportunity for a spot on the USA Bobsled and Skeleton team came, she took it and ran.
“Everything was just laid out, and it was an opportunity I saw as my last chance,” says DeRatt. “I’ve come so close before, and I think if I had not followed through I would have regretted it.”
Running and racing were in her blood. Both parents competed and still do internationally at orienteering, and like them she had a spirited streak pushing her through high school and into college where she shined. In 2010, she became UNCA’s first and only student-athlete to earn a spot at NCAA championships.
After graduating in 2011, she trained for the British team trials in the summer of 2012, but after setbacks and traveling logistics ran her worst race time of the year. She decided that her racing career was over.
“I needed a break from track,” says DeRatt. After six months, though, she was already getting itchy feet again, “I soon needed a new goal and a new outlet.”
“I don’t think anyone grows up saying they want to race bobsled, though,” says Keith Scruggs, sports performance specialist at Acceleration Sports Institute at Greenville Health System and also DeRatt’s coach. Typically the racers he sees like DeRatt come from previous lives as track and field athletes, football players, softball athletes, and even volleyball athletes.
Scruggs and DeRatt’s friendship started back in 2006 when they both competed for UNCA. Scruggs played baseball, but due to multiple injuries, he was about to pack his bags.
“She came up to me and said, ‘You should try the hammer,’” recalls Scruggs. “I grew up playing football and baseball, not track and field, so my first thought was hammer and nails.” Regardless, Scruggs tried out, performed well, and joined the team with DeRatt.
Scruggs was then able to return the favor last December by suggesting she compete in the Greenville bobsled combine, which he hosted, for August 2014. DeRatt agreed, and then asked him to be her coach. The duo set to work training DeRatt to be ready for her first competition in eight months.
Despite the snow and ice aspect of bobsled, most of the actual training is sprint running and weight lifting, both of which are DeRatt’s fortes. “Bobsled is so similar to track and field in training that technically I’ve been preparing my whole life,” says DeRatt. The bobsled track, however, was a different story.
“The first day was horrific,” DeRatt says. Bobsleds race down mile-long, curving courses and can reach speeds of over 75 mph with up to five gs of pressure. The experience is like riding ‘the Intimidator’ at North Carolina’s Carowinds amusement park—except you first have to help push your 400-lb part of the coaster 54 yards before jumping in and enjoying the ride, which actually means getting bruised from several impacts.
“The veteran bobsledders always tell you the start’s horrible and not to quit,” says DeRatt. The rides did get better with each session, and soon she found the sport exhilarating. She also decided it could be another chance to make the national team.
To make it onto the team, athletes must compete in a four-part test series that looks at strength and speed. Athletes gain points based on performance, and a specific number and ranking allow them to move to the next tier. The first two tiers have combines all over the region, and the third and fourth have a couple major spots.
The regional combine Scruggs hosted was DeRatt’s first stop on the way to national team trials. She needed 450 points to advance. DeRatt killed the competition, earning 532 points and winning overall by 17 points.
She won the next two competitions, and by November, DeRatt found herself in Park City, Utah competing for an Team USA spot in bobsled. It felt eerily similar to being in Britain two years earlier competing for a track spot.
“It really brought me back to my track days just to that race scenario,” says DeRatt. “I got really really nervous and really really excited.” Competing against her were athletes such as Lauryn Williams, who was one of only five Olympians to medal in both the Summer and the Winter Games with track in 2004 and 2012 and bobsledding in 2014. Her 2014 teammate Elana Meyers was also there vying for a spot on Team USA. DeRatt reflects, “It was nice to feel those nerves again when racing against those people.”
Just a year after she started training, DeRatt put everything she had into that race on the ice. The course was steep and smooth, and when the buzzer hit she and her driver Jazmine Fenlator raced with everything they had.
She only had to wait a few hours before the announcement came, and her name finally rang out among the members of the 2014-2015 USA Bobsled and Skeleton Team.
“All of those hours I gave in my whole life—every six a.m. and after school/after work workout—felt okay when I heard my name over the intercom,” says DeRatt.
There are still many more a.m. workouts and competitions between now and 2018’s Olympic Games, but DeRatt looks forward to it all. “I believe that if you work hard you are going to get what you want,” says DeRatt. “If you have an opportunity you owe it to yourself to take that.”