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Thrill of the hill hooks Kelly OP athlete finds a new passion

The first trip down was an absolute nightmare, a day Katelyn Kelly will never forget.

Fresh out of college at Miami (Ohio), Kelly figured she'd give bobsledding a shot. Every year, national recruiters for the sport reach out to track and field athletes like herself.

So off she went to this NFL Combine-like bobsledding event. Why not?

"I thought it was just going to be fast, sort of like a roller-coaster," said Kelly, an Orchard Park graduate. "But it's not at all."

Kelly screamed, at full throat, the entire trek down the chute. Peers and coaches asked if she'd continue, half-assuming she wouldn't. For pride's sake, Kelly gave bobsledding a second chance. This time, she didn't scream. But she did, um, throw up on the car ride home.

OK, so this wasn't love at first sight.

But one year later, bobsledding consumes the 23-year-old Kelly. She kept climbing back to the top of the hill, learned to love a foreign sport and now has her sights set on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia. After making the national team last September, Kelly spent her rookie season as an alternate brakeman on the World Cup tour.

This sport -- one she abhorred initially -- became a demon she needed to exorcise. At her core, Kelly is a competitor.

"I just said, 'I'm not going to give up. If other people see something in this, I'm going to as well,' " she said.

"I don't even know how I have the lung capacity to scream for a whole minute. It's hard to get used to. It's a shock. But by the third, fourth day it started to become more fun. My body got used to all the G-force pressure that you experience when you go down a hill."

As a kid, Kelly remembers watching "Cool Runnings," the Disney film about a Jamaican bobsled team. But it's a faint memory at best. She didn't truly learn about the sport until 2010, the year Buffalo's own Steve Mesler was on the men's team at the Olympics.

After earning her undergraduate degree, Kelly planned on attending a physician assistant's school or medical school. A national bobsledding recruiter contacted the strength coach at Miami University, Kelly gave it a try at Lake Placid and she hasn't looked back since.

Today, Kelly reaches regular speeds of 70 mph and doesn't flinch. No screaming, no puking. As a rookie, she raced here and there, finishing 12th at a race in Calgary on Dec. 10 with the World Cup team. After setting the high jump record at Orchard Park High, excelling in the pentathlon at Miami and taking gold in the high jump at the 2010 Empire State Games, she needed to keep the competitive fire burning. She needed to get her fix, somehow.

Not that her dad is surprised.

Tom Kelly remembers an Easter party a few years back when a neighbor innocently asked Katelyn if she wanted a piece of pie. In the middle of training, she politely turned him down.

The neighbor joked that she can start training tomorrow. And Katelyn fired back that "Losers start tomorrow."

It's in her nature to make the sacrifices necessary, to thirst for more.

Growing up, Kelly was the only family member bold enough to go on the Superman ride with Dad at Darien Lake. Her two brothers chickened out.

"They were good athletes, too, and they kept her in check," Tom Kelly says, "but she always wanted to be ruling the roost.

"She's a very determined individual. When she sets out to do something, she reaches her goals. As soon as she put her mind to it, I knew she wouldn't quit until she got to where she wanted to be. And I know she's not where she wants to be yet."

That's because now that Kelly has a taste, she wants the entire six-course meal.

The women's team is composed of three duos. After serving as a spot fill-in, Kelly wants to be a regular on Team USA.

There isn't a trace of complacency in her voice.

"It's definitely the biggest honor to compete for your country," she said. "[The Games in] 2014 and 2018. Right now, I'm going for both of them."

Only two individuals -- a driver and a brakeman -- make up a women's bobsled team. The competition is heated. Right now, Kelly is training in Lake Placid and will participate in a driving school.

As Team USA women's coach Dave Owens said, plenty of brakemen ascend into the pilot's seat.

"Her athletic ability is very promising if she does take to this driving, being a pilot," Owens said. "It could be very exciting for her. She definitely has the potential to move forward."

Kelly certainly hasn't looked back. If she did, that first day on the hill would've been her last. Instead, each sleigh ride became a thrill. Kelly says bobsledding is something like rolling down a hill in a metal garbage can.

Bring it on.

"Every time I get up there," Kelly said, "I feel the rush."

e-mail: tdunne@buffnews.com

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