For as long as he can remember, John Napier had one goal in life.
“Kids dream of being an astronaut or a firefighter. I always wanted to be a bobsledder,” said the 23-year-old Schenectady native. “I’m one of those fortunate people on Earth, to be doing what I love.”
Napier isn’t just a bobsledder; this week, he’ll officially be an Olympic bobsledder.
Napier will pilot the USA-2 sled at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. While the Games begin with opening ceremonies on Friday, bobsledding won’t start until Feb. 20, with the first heats in the two-man competition.
Unlike most athletes in the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, who gravitated to sliding from other sports, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Napier has been driving bobsleds since he was 8 years old.
His father, Bill, who died of kidney cancer in 2005, was also a driver and took part in the 1980 Olympic Trials before becoming president of the USBSF. His mother, Betsy, was a brakewoman in club races, served as secretary of the USBSF and as the story goes, had John tucked inside her coat when he was two weeks old as she watched her husband compete at Lake Placid.
“I ran some track in [Schenectady] high school, but I wasn’t very good,” said Napier during a telephone interview from southern California, where the U.S. team was doing dryland training. “My calling was bobsledding.”
When he was 8, Napier’s parents began taking him to Lake Placid every weekend to take part in the Olympic Regional Development Authority- sponsored pee-wee program, in which his father was a coach. He would spend Saturdays in an old-fashioned bobsled, the ones with no sides, negotiating the last five turns of the Mount Van Hoevenburg run.
When he was 16, Napier left home and moved to Lake Placid, where he split his residence between his family’s cabin and the Olympic Training Center. He home-schooled for what would have been his final year of high school so he could spend as much time as possible on the bobsled run.
And through good times and bad, his parents were always behind him — and were sometimes pushing.
“Pushed me, shoved me, call it what you want,” said Napier with a laugh. “Both my mom and my dad had a huge influence on my career. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
“When things got tough, it was my mother who would tell me that quitting wasn’t an option. She said she’d kick my butt if I even talked about it.”
For the last six years, there probably hasn’t been a lot of talk about quitting, because things have been very good.
From 2004 to 2006, Napier dominated the America’s Cup circuit, winning the overall title twice in two-man and once in four-man.
He continued to slide in 2007, but also made the decision to join the Vermont National Guard.
“I wanted to learn a skill, but I had also gotten over $20,000 in debt from sliding and needed some kind of work to help pay the bills,” said Napier, who is an engineer in the guard.
Napier now is a member of the Army World Class Athlete program, which provides financial assistance to athletes in training.
Napier ran a limited World Cup schedule in 2008-09, but had a breakthough year this season, finishing fourth in the world in four-man. The highlight of his season came in November, when he won his first World Cup gold medal, in two-man at Lake Placid, on the same run he practiced on as an 8-year-old. He also had an impressive third-place finish in four-man in Koenigssee, Germany, in January.
“Going into the last four-man race, I was second in the world, but I slipped a bit,” Napier said. “But for my first full World Cup season, to be fourth in the world, I can’t complain. People are calling me a medal hopeful. I’m not really sure what that means, but it makes me feel good.”
“John was under the radar, but the win at Lake Placid opened some eyes,” said U.S. coach Brian Shimer, who won a bronze medal at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, during a teleconference when the U.S. Olympic team was announced.
One of the big reasons for Napier’s success this season was a vigorous offseason training program that helped him gain 25 pounds.
“For years, everyone has been telling me I had to get bigger and stronger, and this year, I thought I’d test the theory,” he said. “I always knew I had the driving ability, but I knew I needed to get stronger to get better push times.”
What Napier has become is the prototype bobsledder — young, big and strong. But the one thing he has that many others don’t possess is experience.
“What makes bobsledding unique is that most guys come in after they finish some collegiate sport,” said Shimer. “With John’s father being in the USBSF, it was natural for him to get into it, and from an early age, he had a great feel for it. When he started driving against the top national team drivers, he was already at a level they hadn’t reached, and they were 20 years older than he was.
“At 23, to see the gains he’s already made, and to know it’s just the start . . . I know John has a great future in the sport.”
Napier’s future may not only be in bobsledding. As a member of the Army National Guard, he has watched as many of his comrades in arms were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and Napier feels an obligation to join them.
“It’s just like training for the Olympics,” he said. “I wouldn’t want my team to go to the Olympics without me. I worked and trained with a bunch of great guys [guard members], and now I’m going not with them. Right now, the military is supporting me in bobsledding, but deployment is something I feel I need to do.”
But the immediate future revolves on the Olympics, and trying to give the U.S. its first gold medal in the sport since 1948 in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Steve Holcomb and the USA-1 team won the overall World Cup four-man crown this year and is carrying the hopes of the USBSF, but Napier has been right on Holcomb’s tail all year.
“Now, the world sees John as a medal threat,” said Shimer.
Napier’s four-man crew includes Chuck Berkeley of Clayton, Calif.; Steve Langton of Melrose, Mass.; and Chris Fogt of Alpine, Utah. Langton will be behind Napier in the two-man sled.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” said Napier, who now lives in Lake Placid year-round. “I have two of the top push crews in the world, and we have the best equipment. I feel relaxed. I think things are going to go really well.”
And you can bet his mother will be standing at the finish line at the Whistler Sliding Center, ringing her old cowbell, just the way she did when her husband was racing at Lake Placid so many years ago.