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Ice dreams: Bree Schaaf prepares for 2010 Winter Olympics
Bree Schaaf stood atop the tallest ice track in Germany, staring down 1,400 meters of steep, twisting slope.
Wrecks are common at the Altenberg bobsled, luge and skeleton track in Altenberg, Germany. Drivers are swallowed up on their way down the chute, with its 17 turns and a 122-meter vertical drop.
Traveling upwards of 90 miles per hour in a 500-pound metal contraption, it’s not a pretty scene when wipeouts occur.
But this was the path to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
“I’ve never stood on a start line in a race so terrified,” Schaaf said. “It wasn’t about winning any more, it was about getting down.”
She got down. Barely.
Pilot Schaaf and brakeman Emily Avezedo finished 13th that December day, which turned out to be Schaaf’s worst finish in eight World Cup races.
It was the Bremerton native’s first time on the track, considered to be one of the most difficult in the world, and she had to navigate it eight separate times.
“People don’t quite realize that you don’t just show up to the Olympics,” Schaaf said. “I knew it would be tough, but it’s been 100 times harder than I anticipated.”
Coming from Schaaf, that’s saying a lot.
The 1998 Olympic High School graduate is a natural athlete.
She is 5 feet 10 inches tall and played basketball and volleyball at Olympic before attending college at Portland State University, where she became an all-conference volleyball player while earning a degree in anthropology.
Her athletic achievements continued post-college, too, when she chose to attend a skeleton racing camp with her brother Tim, 30.
Skeleton is similar to bobsled in that it requires athletes to navigate steep tracks at high speeds, but it’s different because racers zoom down the track head first, and alone, rather than feet first with a partner.
Schaaf fell in love with the rush, competing in skeleton for about fours years.
In 2007, however, she decided she wanted something more.
“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.”
Now she’s an Olympic bobsledder.
“She’ll just look at something and say, ‘I can do that,’” father Ken Schaaf said. “And then she does it.”
That can-do attitude has been a staple of Bree Schaaf’s life.
Her mother, Terri, remembers times when Bree would see something — a costume, food from a restaurant, jewelry, even music — and then go home and do it herself.
A few years ago, Schaaf made a Wonder Woman bobsled racing suit from scratch. She thought it would be funny to race as Wonder Woman, so she gathered the materials and put it together without fail.
She also is bilingual, speaking German fluently and acting as the team’s translator when it is in Germany competing. Driving the team truck that holds sled equipment, up and down mountains, with a manual transition, is no big deal either.
Schaaf is one of the few women on the team who can drive it, so she does.
And then there’s the music. Her specialty is piano, but she also plays trombone, bass and guitar.
“I used to tell her, ‘That can’t be done, even for people with experience. You can’t do that,’” Terri Schaaf said. “But she always did it.”
Now Schaaf, 29, is in the Olympics. She did it.
She survived the 13th-place finish at Altenberg. She gained 20 pounds of muscle between 2008 and this year. She stuck to a strict diet and workout routine, dropping carbohydrates and picking up weights.
The only thing left to do is enjoy the rest of the ride.
“You have these moments of doubt when you’re tired and sick and things aren’t going as planned,” Schaaf said. “I’m looking forward to the best part — getting to the Games.”