Pursuit of a dream

Student athletes in Northeast Michigan may have fun watching the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but may feel that Olympic glory is far out of reach.

Nobody ever told that to Doug Sharp.

Doug Sharp, a former Alpena resident, won a bobsledding bronze medal in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. His road to Olympic glory took many detours, but was paved by hard work and dedication to increasing pure athletic skill.

Sharp moved to Alpena when he was in kindergarten and remained a resident until the 8th grade, from around 1976-1984. As a child, Sharp enjoyed the cold weather, rural beauty and winter sports in Alpena.

In fact, his future as a bobsled Olympian started in Alpena at a very young age, thanks to one of the most exciting events in US Olympic history.

“After the US won the gold in hockey in 1980, Alpena was freaking out. The whole town was crazy and electric. The winter olympics were huge,” he said. “So, some friends and I started building a bobsledding track right in the front yard.”

Sharp’s track was designed entirely out of snow and was rather intricate for a nine-year old. It was iced using a common garden hose and was fully raceable on a sled.

Sharp raced it for a few weeks until the day he left the hose running too long. The water flooded the drive way and street and created an icy mess that forced his father to put an end to his bobsledding.

Although he didn’t realize it at the time, this event may have imprinted bobsledding on his mind for life.

In 1984, Sharp and his family moved to Bay City where he attended John Glenn High School. He participated in multiple sports, but excelled in football. He played on an undefeated, championship team and top universities began offering him full ride scholarships for football.

He turned them all down.

“My parents were losing their mind about it. I loved football, but it was a non-Olympic sport,” he said. “I knew track was an Olympic sport and I’d always done pole vault. So, I thought pole vault, pole vault, pole vault, I’ll make the Olympics in pole vault,” Sharp said.

Sharp attended Purdue University, a school renowned for its pole vaulting program. He graduated Purdue in 1993.

After graduating, Sharp sharpened his pole vaulting skills and was ranked ninth in the nation in 1996 after a jump of 17-7. His top jump during that year was 18 1/2, but it was too short to qualify for the Olympics.

During a later jump, he injured his ankle badly enough to exclude him from the 1996 Olympics.

Sharp’s path to the Olympics had to take a sharp turn, where a chance meeting in chiropractor school laid further stones on his path to the Olympics.

“I knew a guy, Dr. David Juehring, in the rehab department who was a recruiter for the U.S. bobsled team. He said I was the perfect size and had the right speed for bobsledding. He tried really hard to get me to try out for his team,” Sharp said.

Sharp, who was still pole vault training for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, paid him no attention.

“I basically blew him off for four years,” Sharp said. “I would have had to take off my winter semester which would have extended school for years At that point, I was 34th in the world in pole vault. I figured, ‘why should I (bobsled)?'”

In 1997, Sharp, by now a doctor of chiropractic science, became an assistant athletic coach for the University of Louisville pole vaulting team. Sharp was still training for pole vault and dreaming of the 2000 Sydney Games.

That all changed the moment he watched bobsledding in the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

“It hit me like a thunderbolt. It hit me so hard that it opened up what I was about. I couldn’t believe I blew off (Juehring) for years,” Sharp said. “I told my friends and family that was going to do this, that I fit the profile perfectly. I figured I could always go back to being a doctor.”

Sharp’s training was immediately successful: nine months after his epiphany he was a national champion and his team ranked 12th in the world. He was a national champion three more times and his team was globally ranked as high as third.

A big part of Sharp’s success was a dedication to increasing speed, strength and learning how to match his teammates stride.

“You have to get a 530 pound sled up to speed by the time the driver takes over. If you don’t have enough speed going into the first curve, you won’t get the gravitational speed to finish,” he said. “So, you work on explosive speed, sprinting, over speed springing down hills, hitting the weight room and perfectly meshing team stride.”

Sharp was bench pressing 450 pounds and squatting over 500 pounds by the time his team qualified for the 2002 Olympics as USA 2. Larger countries usually send two or more teams for each Olympic sport.

The USA 1 team was considered the better of the two teams and no USA 2 bobsled team had medaled since 1936. As a result, his team felt compelled to do things a little differently.

USA 2 traveled to Salt Lake City and practiced on the upcoming Olympic track while USA 1 went to European courses.

The European courses were technically tougher, but Sharp and his team felt it was more important to get the feel of the Salt Lake City track. By the time of the opening ceremony, he and his team had gone down the track over 1,000 times.

“Walking into that opening ceremony was a culmination of all those different dreams and all those years of training and injuries. Everything just finally came together,” Sharp said. “It was after 9/11, so the country was screaming red white and blue.”

USA 2 raced before USA 1 and completed a run that was good enough for second place. There were only a few teams left, so this placement guaranteed the U.S. a bobsledding medal.

His team’s celebration was short lived after USA 1 kicked them down to third place. The U.S. was still guaranteed a medal, but the upcoming Switzerland team was more than good enough to knock Sharp down to fourth place.

“There’s nothing worse than getting fourth place. My teammates and USA 1 gathered around the monitors to see the Swiss team come down,” Sharp said. ” I went to the locker room and started undressing, just fuming.”

As he stewed in the locker room, the Swiss team immediately made mistakes in its pushoff that caused it to struggle its way down the hill and off the leaderboard. Sharp heard the crowd screaming in excitement, but figured they were screaming for the Swiss team.

He found out how wrong he was a few seconds later.

“As soon as it happened, a big Austrian guy comes in the locker room, grabs me, picks me up and starts screaming ‘You just won a medal! You just won a medal!’ I went out and sure enough we had won,” he said. “I hit the short wall (of the track) and went over and into the crowd and was surrounded by 33 friends and family members.”

Sharp has since retired from bobsledding, married and relocated to Bay City. However, he still remembers the small town where he grew up and the ways it influenced the biggest achievement of his sporting life.

“Alpena is such a great place for a kid who loves winter sports to grow up! You can just go out your back door and snowmobile in the woods for miles. And Alpena is where I got started,” he said. “I just want those kids in Alpena to think ‘oh wow, this guy’s from Alpena and he did this, why can’t I do that?’ Inspiring a kid to aspire for that is more important to me than any other legacy.”

Eric Benac can be reached via email at ebenac@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5690. Follow Eric on Twitter @EricBenac.