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Bobsledder Briauna Jones’ Olympic dream almost coming true

Briauna Jones, a former UNC Charlotte track star, has been selected as an alternate on the U.S. women’s Olympic bobsled team
Briauna Jones, a former UNC Charlotte track star, has been selected as an alternate on the U.S. women’s Olympic bobsled team

Briauna Jones took the weekend’s news that she’s going to be an alternate on the women’s U.S. bobsled team as both a Olympic dream come true and a dream deferred.

The former UNC Charlotte track star-turned bobsledder was selected as a backup Saturday for the U.S. women’s bobsled team that’s headed to the 2018 Winter Olympics next month.

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She’ll travel to Pyeongchang with the women’s bobsled team for the Feb. 9-25 Winter Games. But she won’t compete unless one of the other brakemen on the women’s team suffer injury or illness.

“I was disappointed being named the replacement, because it means that I am not an Olympian,” Jones told McClatchy in an email interview Sunday. “But I was happy to be joining my team regardless.”

Jones, who works at Dick’s Sporting Goods in Charlotte’s SouthPark mall, would have likely been an Olympic contestant had the U.S. team qualified three bobsleds for the Winter Games. But Canada edged the U.S. for the third sled at a World Cup tournament in St. Moritz Saturday.

“Not having three sleds at the Olympic Games for us means that there are (fewer) spots and (fewer) opportunities,” she said. “But I was confident that I did all I could do, no matter the outcome.”

In the end, Winter Olympics veterans Elana Meyers Taylor and Jamie Greubel Poser were named pilots for the two American bobsleds.

Lauren Gibbs and Aja Evans, a returnee from the 2014 Winter Games, were tapped as brakemen — athletes who help push the nearly 400-pound, missile-shaped bobsled on an iced concrete track.

The competition for the brakeman spots became a battle of the Joneses: Briauna Jones, Kehri Jones, and Lolo Jones, a 2014 U.S. Olympic bobsledder and a hurdler at the 2008 and 2012 summer Olympics in Beijing and London,

“Six push athletes have been battling it out week after week and winning medals on the World Cup circuit this year, but we only have two spots for the games,” USA Bobsled & Skeleton CEO Darrin Steele said. “The selection committee chose the athletes they think have the best chance of bringing home hardware from Korea for Team USA.”

Briauna Jones said she was looking forward to competing in Pyeongchang and becoming a role model as one of three women of color on the U.S. bobsled team.

“Being a part of a largely African American team and seeing other winter sports becoming more diverse allows us to paint our own picture and show our resilience,” she said. “Our representation will serve as a domino effect for the next generation of athletes of color to do more than they ever were told that they could accomplish.”

Jones, 26, said the disappointment of not being chosen to compete in Pyeongchang doesn’t diminish what she accomplished in a sport she took up in 2016-17 at the suggestion of her former UNCC track coach, Bob Olesen.

She won a World Cup gold medal with pilot Meyers Taylor in St. Moritz last January and was named USA Bobsled & Skeleton’s Rookie of the Year.

“I’ve come a long way in this sport both physically and mentally,” she said. “There are people who have worked so hard in the sport for years, and they never have the opportunity to go to the Olympics. To me, making this team means that my hard work didn’t go unnoticed.”

UNCC’s Olesen reminded Jones of that after she texted him about being chosen as an alternate.

“As the replacement, you want the team to do well and you want your teammates to do well, but, obviously, you’d like to have a shot at it,” Olesen said Saturday evening as UNCC’s track team returned from a meet in Birmingham, Ala.

“As a rookie last year and still kind of a newcomer against some of the women who have been there for a while, she’s understood that she needed to be there and kind of always step up and do whatever anybody asked of her so that when the time comes, maybe that’s given her some capital,” he said.

It was Olesen who initially steered Jones from track to bobsled. He knew that she yearned to be an Olympian and had aimed to represent U.S. at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Olesen, a member of the 1998 U.S. Olympic men’s bobsled team, also knew that Jones was frustrated by her limited success in track and field after college and not making it to Rio. He suggested that she try another path to the Olympics.

“One day he asked me, ‘Briauna, I know you don’t like cold weather but would you be interested in bobsledding?’” Jones told McClatchy last year. “I never really thought about it because a lot of people aren’t familiar with it.”

So Olesen schooled her in the sport and trained her to participate in a USA Bobsled & Skeleton combine — a dry land tryout — in Columbia, S.C., in June 2016.

Jones’ performance there got her invited to another camp in Calgary, Alberta, where she pushed for the first time against U.S. bobsled national team members.

After that, she went all-in with bobsledding, splitting time between living in Charlotte, training in Lake Placid and other venues, and competing internationally.

To pay the bills, she worked as a security guard and a fit model for the Cato Corp., before landing a job at Dick’s through a program that provides jobs for Olympic hopefuls.

“It’s a long trail,” Olesen said of a bobsledder’s life. “It can be tough with year-round training, with all the traveling, and trying to hold down a job. We’ll certainly support her in Charlotte.”

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas

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