July 2009

Sgt. Sled

Olympic hopeful Hoy Thurman pushes toward Vancouver
By Kenneth R. Wilson

As the temperature tops 80, the smell of rubber and grass rises from the Campbell High School track in Smyrna, where forty-one-year-old Georgia Air National Guard Technical Sergeant Hoy Thurman III is finishing up his workout. He grabs hold of a dolly, which looks like a homemade version of one of those flatbed carts people lug around Home Depot. The dolly is weighed down with two fifty-pound discs. Thurman’s sprints are over, and he’s ready to push. He begins his repetitions, the contraption roaring like a scaled-down freight train as he flies by, driving it from behind. But he’s not doing this for his health or even the military. He’s training for a chance to compete in the Olympics—as a bobsledder.

Thurman, who is stationed at Robins Air Force Base, wasn’t recruited for the sport. He stumbled upon it in 1996 while on the Air Force Track and Field Team, which was competing at the Armed Forces Track and Field Championships in California. Coincidentally, the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation was recruiting bobsledders there that day. After his race, Thurman missed his bus back to the hotel and decided to watch the would-be sledders; a friend suggested he join them. “So I put my tennis shoes on and tried out. I did pretty good that day, and they contacted me a couple of months later and wanted me to try out [again].” But family obligations prevented Thurman from joining the team until 2004.

The transition to bobsledding came naturally. “I didn’t see myself in track [much longer],” he says. “You gotta realize—I was competing against guys half my age.” There are athletes half his age in bobsledding, too, but age is less of a factor when speed is combined with brawn. The USBSF lists the ideal weight of a male bobsledder as 180 to 240 pounds, and Thurman needed to gain weight to be competitive. “I went from 175 pounds to 212 pounds. That was a big change for my body.” Initially, his weight gain was at odds with his Guard physical regime. Thurman chuckles, “When I first got over 200 pounds, I had to do my [fitness] test for the military. I could see the finish line, but I said, ‘I’ll get there when I get there.’”

Thurman, who is activated in the Air Force World Class Athlete Program, is permitted to train year-round. “That was the big advantage right there: To see how far you could actually go if given the proper time to train with no interruptions,” he says. Here in Smyrna, Campbell track and field coach Mike McCloud lets several aspiring Olympians work out at the school—including Thurman’s training partners, 2002 Olympic bobsledding silver medalists Randy Jones and Garrett Hines. (Thurman has a few silvers and golds, too, from the America’s Cup circuit.) Their workouts focus on the initial burst of energy needed to heave a bobsled down its icy course. With its lack of ice, Atlanta would not seem an ideal place to train for winter sports, but Thurman sees it differently: The bobsledding season begins in September and ends in March, so between races, he can come back home to continue his outdoor track and field training routine—a luxury not afforded to athletes living in colder climates.

A veteran of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Thurman credits the Air Force with giving him the opportunity to bobsled. As long as he stays competitive, the Air Force will allow him to train and compete while continuing to pay his salary. Thurman’s quest to participate in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver has its first real test at September’s Push Championships—the results help determine who competes in February’s games.

Other soldiers train to join elite groups, such as Navy SEALs or Army Rangers. But if Thurman succeeds, his feat will not be displayed on the sleeve of his uniform, but around his neck.