MISSOULA – To compete at a high level in many sports, an athlete begins at a young age. Perhaps a decade or more of practices and events, one grows to sharpen his or her skills in that particular sport.
Yet, only two seasons competing in the sport of bobsledding, Corvallis native Austin Landis has his sights set on the big stage: pushing for Team USA in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
In February, Landis, along with three Team USA teammates, earned an 11th-place finish at the 2017 four-man Bobsleigh World Championships in Königssee, Germany. One month later, the same group finished in 15th place at the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation (IBSF) World Cup at the aforementioned future Winter Olympics course.
Landis recently returned to his home state of Montana during his offseason, and shared his experience so far competing with Team USA, the possibility of making the Winter Olympics, his love for sushi, and much more:
MTN: You’ve been around the globe this year alone. What’s your favorite country so far?
Austin: I really enjoyed [South] Korea. I liked the food a lot.
MTN: I had a feeling you might say that. On your Team USA bio, you stated that you “could eat sushi everyday.” Does South Korea have the best sushi you’ve ever eaten?
Austin: Actually we flew into Tokyo [Japan] on the way back, and I got sushi in the Tokyo airport. That was the best sushi I’ve ever had.
MTN: Fair. Moving away from delicious food, let’s talk about your sport. One thing that stands out to me while watching bobsledding, is how important staying fit and lifting weights must be, especially for you as a pusher. How important would you say that aspect is to your success?
Austin: I would categorize it as very important. Not the most important, but when you think about what we’re doing, we’re going down in a sled with our protective gear — our burn vest for ice burns, and then a helmet — which that keeps us safe, but when you crash it’s pretty brutal. So lifting literally keeps you, so that you can crash and continue to compete. It just keeps your body ready for anything.
MTN: I’m sure lifting also helps when you have a very heavy toboggan-like object to push.
Austin: Oh yeah. The sled is completely static. So it’s taking a 500-600 pound object that’s completely static, and trying to move it 50 meters in five seconds. It takes a little bit of strength.
MTN: Did you ever imagine you’d be doing something like this?
Austin: No, haha. Not at all.
MTN: So how do you put into words the experience of recently competing in the World Cup and World Championships?
Austin: It was a very good experience, because it was my second season, but first season on World Cup. So I had to learn everything really fast. It’s just a much higher level than what I was doing last year. And you don’t really have the learning curve, so I just decided to jump right into it. My pilot [Justin Olsen] was a gold medal brakeman in 2010, so being on his sled and having his leadership, I learned so much this season.
Just to sum it up, I feel like from the beginning of the season until the end, I grew mentally as much as I did being an athlete. Because it’s such a mental sport. You only get two training runs per practice, so every run matters, and you have to constantly be dialed in.
MTN: With the limited amount of chances you have to practice and improve, how have you produced success so quickly?
Austin: I guess I would say because once you get into it, once you’re at the World Cup level; if you want to be there, you don’t have any choice. It’s just either sink or swim. You’re only option is to pick it up and do well, or else you’re going to be gone.
MTN: You mentioned your “gold medal teammate” earlier, Justin Olsen. Your team placed 11th at the World Championships in Koenigssee recently. Taking a moment to appreciate that finish, what was that like?
Austin: It was very rewarding, because the weeks prior we really struggled when we had a World Cup race there about three, four weeks before that. So to go back there and do so much better than we did a month earlier, it felt really good. Obviously we want to get better than 11th place, but we keep things in perspective, and Justin, being in his ninth season, he has a lot of experience to draw on. And he was very proud of what we accomplished as a team. I was proud of it, so I really enjoyed the World (Championships).
MTN: What is your relationship like with Justin?
Austin: We really got to know each other last summer after I moved to Lake Placid (N.Y.) to train full-time. I just try to watch how he does things, because with him being a gold medalist and doing it for nine years, the way he operates, he’s efficient at what he does, and knows what he’s doing. So I just try to basically just watch and learn from him. He’s a very good competitor, and he demands a lot out of his athletes, or his brakemen that are pushing for him. We have a good relationship because I want to rise up to that level, and compete at that level, so I have no problem trying to do that.
MTN: While you wait for Team USA to announce its 2018 Winter Olympics selections, what do you do?
Austin: It’s the offseason now, so I’m taking a little rest, then I’ll start training with the dry-land stuff such as the sprinting, the lifting. And at Lake Placid, they have a dry-land push track, where you can push without the ice.
MTN: On your Facebook page, a video was shared during your time in Germany of your bobsled overturning. Is that the first time you’ve crashed?
Austin: That was the second time. Laughs.
MTN: Can you walk me through what happened?
Austin: Yeah, so that was in Winterburg, Germany. It wasn’t during a race, it was a training day. And Germany had its, like, Luge Junior World Championships, or something, so the ice was in extremely fast conditions. It was Justin’s, like, second run ever on the track. So when you have somebody so new to a track, and the ice is extremely fast, that kind of thing happens.
We got too high on a curve, and, you know, me and him are both pretty big, so with all that weight on our upper bodies, we just tipped over the sled, and ended up sliding to the bottom. We were going pretty fast at that point. But it happens.
MTN: What was going through mind during those moments?
Austin: On tracks, you can feel the G-forces pressing down on you going around a curve. But when you’re about to crash, you feel zero G’s, like a weightless sensation. So, I think that was my first run on that track. And I didn’t really know, because you start to know what a track feels like (with repetition). So I was like, ‘Ah, this feels strange,’ but I had never been there so I couldn’t compare it to anything. And then the next thing I know I’m on my head. And we have handles so that we can hold on to the frame, so I was just holding on to the frame for everything I could and just trying to get my shoulder and head off the ice a little bit.
MTN: Do you ever think about how dangerous this sport is?
Austin: Yeah, for sure. Especially after my first crash this year in Whistler (British Columbia, Canada), which is the fastest track in the world. So that one can be a little brutal to crash in because you’re going so fast. And that was a four-man crash compared to a two-man crash in Germany. But it makes you, you know, maybe have a little more worries than you did before. But I know what this sport entails, and I’m willing to endure it, because I like to do it. I want to compete, but, yeah, after that crash I had to take a little time to recover and get going again. But it happens.
MTN: Being able to join this sport and find success so quickly, what is that feeling like?
Austin: It means a lot, because when I was done with track after college, I felt like I closed the chapter on track. I didn’t accomplish everything that I wanted to, but I had a good sense that I was ready to be done with track. But I still felt like I was a good enough athlete that I could really contribute to some sport. And so finding that in bobsled, it means a lot because I feel — well, I really love it, and I feel like I could actually make a contribution to Team USA, and actually help Team USA compete against other countries and win.
MTN: How big of an honor would it be if you were selected to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics for Team USA?
Austin: It would be huge, because I feel like it’s the ultimate way for me to represent my country, and wear a Team USA uniform at the highest level. So to be chosen among a select few, it means a great deal to me.
You can visit Landis’s Team USA profile here.
Landis also began a GoFundMe page for those looking to support his goal.