Bree Schaaf: Bremerton’s next Olympian?

Bremerton native Bree Schaaf, front, and brakesman Emily Azevedo of Chico, Calif. won the 2009 U.S. National Bobsled Championships in Lake Placid, N.Y., sweeping four races during the two-day event. - Photos courtesy of  U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation
Bremerton native Bree Schaaf, front, and brakesman Emily Azevedo of Chico, Calif. won the 2009 U.S. National Bobsled Championships in Lake Placid, N.Y., sweeping four races during the two-day event.
— image credit: Photos courtesy of U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation

Bree Schaaf slices ice at 90 miles per hour.

She navigates hairpin curves and dizzying dips from the driver’s seat of a 500-pound piece of metal, creasing slippery courses like origami.

She races bobsleds. And she races the clock.

“It’s high pressure, that’s what I love about it,” Schaaf said. “You’re constantly learning and fine-tuning your skills so that you get faster and faster.”

The 29-year-old Bremerton native, who graduated from Olympic High School in 1998, is in Canada training for the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation World Cup, a series of eight races that will determine which athletes qualify for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

The World Cup begins in November with races in Park City, Utah and Lake Placid, N.Y., the only two American cities with FIBT-sanctioned bobsled tracks, and culminates in January 2010 with a race in Austria.

Between now and the beginning of the Cup, Schaaf’s job is to stay fit. She lifts weights four times a week, sprints twice a week and adheres to a healthy diet. She spends her days pushing sleds and keeping her body at 100 percent.

“It’s mainly all about training,” Schaaf said, adding she’s only on the ice from October to March. “It takes a lot of focus.”

2009 has been the biggest year of Schaaf’s brief bobsledding career. She was named the 2009 Women’s Bobsled Rookie of the Year, captured the 2009 America’s Cup championship and reached the podium in two World Cup events in February.

“The (Rookie of the Year) award was a great reflection of the serious amount of hard work that went into last season,” said Schaaf, who graduated from Portland State University in 2002 with honors and a Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology.

The Bremerton-born athlete is rising to stardom.

How it all began

During Schaaf’s senior year at PSU, her brother, Tim, 30, was competing in skeleton races. Similar to bobsled in that it’s a speed sport on ice, skeleton requires a single racer to navigate a track face down, head first, at high speeds. Bobsled teams are comprised of either two or four racers.

Wanting to pursue a career in athletics — she played volleyball, basketball and was a member of the track and field team in high school — Schaaf decided to try skeleton.

“I thought to myself, ‘I could do that,’” she said.

The 5-foot-10-inch, 165-pound volleyball player-turned skeleton speedster landed a spot on the Skeleton Nation Team in 2003. She competed on the team until 2007, traveling the world in competition and perfecting the sport.

But the four-time Big Sky Conference All-Academic selection reached a point in which she wanted more, something new. The next challenge.

“I felt like I had kind of maxed out on the sport. I had reached a plateau,” Schaaf said. “I had always wanted to try bobsled.”

With four years of highly competitive skeleton experience, Schaaf had the tools to excel at bobsled. She enjoyed — and was comfortable with — speed, understood the sport’s physically demanding nature and was motivated to get bigger, faster and stronger.

The biggest challenge was to obtain and upgrade equipment; bobsleds and parts are expensive and continuously evolving. The better the equipment a racer has, naturally, the better a racer will do.

“I was set up nicely with my skeleton experience,” Schaaf said. “It was a pretty natural transition, it was just a matter of working my way up to better equipment.”

She wasted little time sliding to the podium.

In January 2009, Schaaf won the U.S. National Bobsled Championships in Lake Placid with brakesman Emily Azevedo of Chico, Calif. The duo swept all four heats of the two-day event, posting a combined time of 3 minutes, 51.98 seconds, 2.73 faster than second-place finishers Phoebe Burns of Lake Placid and Jamie Gruebel of Arlington, Mass.

Sharing that victory with Azevedo, Schaaf said, was a career-defining moment.

“That was one of the major positives about switching to bobsled,” Schaaf said, referring to the teamwork. “I wouldn’t have it any other way, to be able to share the celebration — the sweat and tears — at the bottom.”

Race day (BOLD)

A strong showing during the World Cup would catapult Schaaf to the 2010 Olympics. Couple that with the already adrenaline-pumping nature of the sport, and Schaaf experiences the ultimate rush — and pressure — each time she races.

On race days, she spends about five hours on-site at the course. While the races themselves last about one minute — time is kept to the hundredth-second — preparation is both lengthy and crucial.

That preparation begins the night before race day, with the runners — on which the bobsled rides — being sanded and the sled getting waxed.

Schaaf generally arrives to the course a few hours before the race, at which time she talks strategy with coaches and walks the course. Brakesmen carry the sled to the top of the track to put the runners on — it’s crucial to keep the runners warm, Schaaf said, because warm runners melt the ice and generate more speed — and drivers take “mind runs” to visualize the race.

“All the drivers look like they’re playing some virtual reality racing game,” Schaaf said.

There is a 45-minute warm-up period before the race, allowing competitors to listen to music or pace or do whatever they desire to focus. Fifteen minutes before the race, Schaaf straps on her helmet.

“You want to be absolutely ready to rock when it’s your turn to go,” she said. “For me, it’s a matter of finding that zone and just doing what I do.”

The race begins with “the push.” For two-person teams such as that of Schaaf’s, both racers begin outside the sled. The driver, who sits in front, runs alongside the sled and pushes while the brakesman pushes from behind, hopping in second.

After both competitors are in the sled, the driver’s job is to build and maintain speed.

“You get jacked up to push the sled, but then you have to be relaxed to steer,” Schaaf said. “Everything is well-rehearsed, so it’s a matter of putting it all together on race day.”

It is common for bobsleds to travel 90 miles per hour or faster. Some courses have more turns than others, altering how fast the sled travels. Schaaf said the run at Whistler, the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics race and where she is currently training, is “super intense” in terms of speed.

“It’s just such an immediate downgrade,” she said. “Each track is like a puzzle. You can’t lose focus.”

The future (BOLD)

The rigorous training schedule limits Schaaf’s ability to visit Bremerton — her parents still live here — but she manages about five trips home every year.

Her immediate goal is to reach the 2010 Olympics, but Schaaf doesn’t want to end her bobsled career anytime soon. Many of the world’s top drivers are in their mid- to late-30s, giving her at least a few more solid years.

Schaaf said there is no sport in the world like bobsled and she hopes to be a threat on the ice for many years to come.

“Bobsled is a really interesting combination of pure strength, speed and athleticism, as well as intense focus, preparation and lighting-quick reflexes and decision-making,” she said. “I love every aspect of bobsled and really enjoy being a student of the sport. I think that’s what all great athletes strive for, is to master their sport.”

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