Alexandra Powe Allred: Women`s Bobsled

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by Faye Rapoport
Alexandra Powe Allred thrives on a challenge. At age 28, after having set aside earlier athletic pursuits for marriage and the birth of her first child, Powe Allred decided to find a sport that she could take to the highest levels. It was 1993, and she discovered that the U.S. was putting together a women’s bobsled team despite the reservations of officials who thought the sport was too dangerous for women. She went for it.

Powe Allred traveled to the Olympic Training Center for tryouts and after making the initial cuts, returned home and trained hard. She won the U.S. Nationals in September 1994 and made sports history by being named to the first women’s bobsled team. When the U.S. Olympic Committee named her Athlete of the Year it was the beginning of a long fight to have women’s bobsled included in the Olympic games.

Competing on the World Cup Circuit until 1998, Powe Allred acted as team captain, media relations officer and international correspondent for the U.S. and international female sliders. She was one of four women who created the by-laws and athlete code of conduct for the Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. Two-woman bobsled was finally added to the Olympic roster in 2002, after her retirement from the sport.

A 1991 graduate of Texas A&M University and the mother of three, Allred is still going strong. At five months pregnant with her second child, she was squatting 375 lbs. and clocked at 20 MPH on sprint drills. Her workout regimen was and is used by both the United States and the International Olympic Committee for pregnant athletes. She earned her second black belt while pregnant with her third child.

Powe Allred recently spent a year playing on a women’s football team, part of a writing assignment from Sports Illustrated. She enjoys a prolific writing career, has worked with U.N. officials to incorporate ‘Games for Girls’ as part of their educational program to third world nations, was nominated Mom of the Year by for her contributions to research in obstetrics and gynecology and was named Author of the Month by Her titles include The Quiet Storm: A Celebration of Women in Sport (Masters Press, 1998) and Atta Girl! (Wish Publishing, 2003).

Recently, Powe Allred took the time to speak to about her experiences with women’s bobsled, and the intense training that athletes in this unique and demanding sport go through in order to maintain the strong, healthy feet and calves they need to power the sleds. Alexandra, how did you get involved in bobsledding?

Powe Allred: It was at a time in my life when I knew I wanted to do something, and go to the highest level possible. I was 28, I had just had a baby, and Kerri was 6 months old. I was watching bobsled on ESPN, and it was so cool.

In fact, truly one of the things that caught my attention was the way they ran before they got into the bobsled. They show this over and over in slow motion clips. These guys are on the balls of the feet and it’s so important how you dig into the ice. It’s all about the feet, the push. And I loved it.

I waited for the women to come on and they never did. I investigated and learned that there were no women bobsledders. Even in 1993, it was considered too dangerous of a sport for women.

I contacted the federation and said, hey what’s happening? Well, it just so happens they were talking about putting a women’s team together. I had to send an athletic resume, which I had to create, and two months later I got a phone call and I was invited to the Olympic Training Center. That was the beginning. For me personally it was a bigger challenge because I was still breastfeeding, I was still out of shape. What kind of athletic training had you done prior to your try at bobsledding?

Powe Allred: I had been involved in track and soccer, and already had already had a black belt in martial arts. All through high school and then in college I was active. What happened after you arrived at the Olympic Training Center?

Powe Allred: First I went to the camp and I made the first cut. They told me later on that they knew I would get in shape and had the right attitude because I wasn’t a prima donna. The first thing I had to do when I got home was get a track coach. I had to learn how to run again, because it was all about my feet.

I kept returning to the camps, and made three more cuts. Then I found out I was pregnant again and thought I would have to drop out. I continued to stay in, and I actually won U.S. nationals in September of 1994 while I was 4 and-a-half months pregnant.

When we started sliding I sat out that year, but I was on the team until 1998. I traveled the World Cup Circuit during that time. You have mentioned a couple of times that bobsledding is “all about the feet.” Can you tell us why this is true, and how you train to gain strength in the feet and lower legs?

Powe Allred: Really the two biggest criteria for bobsledding are to have a strong push — which means you have to spend a lot of time in the gym lifting weights and doing squats and a lot of time on the track — and the push off, when you have to have power on the balls of your feet.

In training, we would see these big huge monster guys, but they just couldn’t run, they couldn’t t get on the balls of their feet and dig into the ice. How do you spefically develop the strength and power you need while on the balls of your feet?

Powe Allred: In the gym there were a lot of calf raises, in three different ways: working on the calves when I was doing squats and with the squat machine, doing calf raises while standing with a barbell over my shoulders, and holding dumbbells in my hands while going up and down stairs. That was just the gym work. For my track work, I had to run stadium stairs all the time. At the time I was at the Ohio State University football stadium and I had to run the stairs, going back and forth. But the big focus was that you had to be on the ball of your feet the entire time. I didn’t land flat footed ever, not going up, and what is even harder, not going down.

Let me tell you something, when you’re hitting those stairs, it’s agony. That was my hardest challenge at the beginning, but in the end it was my favorite. That sounds pretty brutal!

Powe Allred: I think athletes tend to underestimate the value of their feet. Athletes tend to think of their bodies as machines, as works in progress. It isn’t until they have a foot injury or difficulty performing a skill that requires foot-specific movements that they think about their feet. Take sprinting: You’re on the balls of your feet the entire time. How you position the feet greatly determines how well you will run. Doesn’t this level of training up on the balls of your feet lead to injuries such as shin splints?

Powe Allred: Yes. I never experienced pain in terms of shin splints like I did when I was in training. It’s funny, because I was really bad in 1995, and then for some odd reason again in 1997. To this day I don’t know why I did better in 1996. In 1995 I had one baby who was two at the time, but by 1997 I had a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. When I was on my downtime and they’d come and jump on me, I couldn’t let them touch my shins.

But I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t stop training. As soon as I was done with my workouts, I’d drive home. By the time I was walking into my house I was already feeling it, and I put frozen bags of peas on my shins, 15 minutes on, 15 minutes off, until I just had to start doing other things. Can anything be done to eliminate this problem?

Powe Allred: I made sure that I used a lot of insoles for my shoes. I was already wearing really nice athletic shoes anyway, and I was adding insoles because I needed as much absorption of the shock as I could get. That was it. I went one time to my physician, who told me I just needed to lay off of my training. I said, “Thank you very much,” and went home and didn’t listen to him. I continued my training, because I had to.

The vast majority of bobsledders suffer with this, those who don’t either aren’t training or they are genetically blessed. We all do land training from March until October when the tracks around the world are closed. That’s when bobsledders are most intense in their training, getting ready for ice time. By mid-summer most bobsledders are saying, “My shins are killing me! They are just taking so much pounding. Are there any other foot concerns or injuries that bobsledders deal with?

Powe Allred: Well, it’s not first on your mind, but you are dealing with a 500-pound sled, and the base are the metal blades (runners). I know people who have dropped the sled on their foot by accident.</p>

But the biggest thing with bobsledders and their feet is that the shoes we wear are specially made. We order ours from Germany, and there are about 100 tiny, razor sharp needle spikes on the balls of the shoe. When you start, you say, “Ready, Set!” Then you squat down, they are poised, and everything you’ve been training for is in your calves. You’re about to explode in your shoes, you can feel that all your power is going to come from your feet. I would imagine myself digging my feet into the ice as hard as I could, pushing against the ice with my feet. You run the 10 or 20 meters before you jump in the sled.

How many inexperienced brake people have jumped in and let their feet slide down the back of the driver with all of those spikes on them? Your feet have to separate and slide along the outer side of the sled. Ouch! Were you the driver?

Powe Allred: I was a driver for the first two years and then I moved to the brake position. It sounds like a very demanding sport, for the feet and the calves especially. Are you retired now?

Powe Allred: I retired in 1998 and then was asked to try out for a women’s professional football team and write about it! I did that, and that’s in a new book that’s out called Atta Girl! A Celebration of Women in Sports, chronicling life as a professional football player. I played the one season and now pursue a career as a writer. A lot of what I do is sports writing. Thank you for enlightening us about this unusual sport and the training involved.

Powe Allred: I’ll finish with one request, if anyone ever finds an answer to the shin splint question, I’d love the feedback!

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