How Team USA found an Olympic medalist on a reality show [Video]

YANQING, China — The contestants arrived at the 37-acre campus to chase a far-fetched dream. None had ever tasted anything resembling the Olympics. Most never would. They were amateur athletes plucked from across the United States, lured to Colorado Springs by the promise of a “scouting camp.” A few, they were told, would earn opportunities to make a niche U.S. national team.

But first, they were going to make a TV show.

Team USA officials had long valued the “talent transfer” concept. “We’ve always had this belief,” says U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee high performance director Scott Riewald, “that there’s so much untapped talent here in the United States, athletes who have tremendous physical skills, and developed attributes, physiologically, mental, physically, that could contribute to having success in an Olympic sport.”

The USOPC just had to attract them, so, in 2017, it concocted an idea. Commercial executives and sports directors put their heads together. Coaches and sponsors came aboard. They partnered with NBC to stage a week-long tryout at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center — that would double as a reality show.

They called it “The Next Olympic Hopeful.” Five summers ago, almost 100 aspiring athletes jetted to Colorado for Season 1. They soaked in cheesy speeches, and gawked at sprawling facilities. They came in all shapes and sizes, and some were way out of their league, but several emerged as contenders to “win” the show — and win funding from one of four sports: bobsled, skeleton, rugby or cycling.

But there were no long-term guarantees. In the years since, most “winners” have fallen off Team USA’s radar. Riewald says that at the outset, he was “cautiously optimistic” they’d identify a future Olympian, perhaps “70% confident that we would find somebody” — but 30% resigned to the possibility that they might not.

In the end, they didn’t just find somebody; they found two 2022 Olympians, and one who pushed the U.S. to a bronze medal here on Saturday night.

Josh Williamson and Sylvia Hoffman came to “scouting camp” as names with numbers. Five and four years later, respectively, they came to Beijing as bobsledders, and as proof that leaps of faith can pay off.

Passion to compete

The Olympics, to Williamson, were once “a massive, massive childhood dream.” But at age 18, life had moved on. Williamson enrolled at Mercer College to play lacrosse. After injuries spoiled his freshman season, he transferred to Florida State, “to go be a student,” and figured his competitive sports career was over.

He felt burnt out. He craved a “normal college experience.”

About a semester into it, he realized that he “needed competition” in his life.

Bobsled, at the time, was a foreign concept. But it was a sport for sprinters and heavyweight lifters, the type of athlete Williamson aspired to be. So he followed a few on Instagram, and that’s when the lightbulb flickered, and the dream rekindled, and he thought, “You know, maybe I can do this.”

And that’s when the Instagram algorithm figured him out.

While scrolling one day in 2017, he saw an ad for something called “The Next Olympic Hopeful.”

The USOPC had identified fitness junkies as a community ripe with potential. It used targeted ads on social media to attract contestants. Williamson saw one, drove to a nearby 24 Hour Fitness, passed some tests, and qualified for the first season of the show. Before long, he was on a plane to Colorado Springs, and then surveying state-of-the-art amenities. And not too long after that, on fields and in weight rooms, his physical prowess jumped off the screen.

USOPC high-performance coaches had initially pegged him as a skeleton athlete, but as coaches watched him lift and sprint, they quickly realized he was a perfect fit for bobsled. When “Joshua, athlete 303” came up at a nightly evaluation meeting, U.S. bobsled coach Brian Shimer pointed and grinned. “That’s a guy that we’re gonna keep an eye on,” he said.

Darrin Steele, the USA Bobsled and Skeleton CEO at the time, told the room: “He’s probably the best natural candidate that we’ve found as a recruit [in years]. … He’s one of the few that I would say has the potential — and it’s always a long shot, but has the potential — to make the Olympic team in six months.”

A few days later, Williamson and 90-some others filed into a gym for the grand finale. They sat on bleachers, and twitched with nerves. Two NBC hosts called the names of the winners, including “athlete number 303, Joshua Williamson.” He walked up to a stage, beaming. A couple peers lifted him onto their shoulders. He became the show’s poster child, its first success story, and came back the following year as something of a coach-counselor to help find someone who’d follow his path.

YANQING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 19: Bronze medal winners Elana Meyers Taylor and Sylvia Hoffman of Team United States celebrate during the 2-woman Bobsleigh Heat 4 on day 15 of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at National Sliding Centre on February 19, 2022 in Yanqing, China. (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

Bronze medal winners Elana Meyers Taylor and Sylvia Hoffman of Team United States celebrate during the 2-woman Bobsleigh Heat 4 on day 15 of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at National Sliding Centre on February 19, 2022 in Yanqing, China. (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

Alternate path

Sylvia Hoffman, at the time, was a 28-year-old former NAIA basketball player who’d taken up weightlifting and, after six years in the non-glamourous sport, plateaued.

As a kid, she’d aspired to do astronautics and gymnastics. She’d taken up volleyball and track. As a Texas teen, she ultimately zeroed in on basketball, which gave her the nickname “Superwoman” and took her to LSU-Shreveport. When that journey ended, she felt called to represent her country, and the logical avenue was through the Air Force. She aced her ASVAB test. She fantasized about flying. She underwent her medical — and was told she couldn’t.

Doctors had identified scoliosis, a 39-degree curve in her spine, way back in 7th grade. A back brace had stabilized it at 35 degrees, but the Air Force wouldn’t accept that. “I really wanted to join the military,” Hoffman says. She couldn’t, “so I had to figure out a different way [to represent my country].” The only other way she knew was through sport.

She immersed herself in competitive weightlifting, first at Shreveport, then in Colorado Springs. She qualified for nationals, and then for international events. She targeted Rio 2016. She didn’t make it. She hit personal bests the following year, and began receiving USA Weightlifting stipends, but then those fell through, and her trajectory flattened. That “long long dream that I had of becoming an Olympian,” she says, began to drift away.

She narrowly missed out on a medal at nationals. Some depression crept in. She’d jumped around to a few different jobs, and was still doing a sport, but wasn’t going anywhere.

And that’s when she saw the ad, the same kind Williamson had seen the year before.

She arrived at “Next Olympic Hopeful” camp completely unaware that it would be gamified and televised. She remembers rolling out muscle tightness on her first day, and being confused by talk about “Season 1.” So she Googled the show, then set out to win it, and … didn’t. When the show eventually aired, she wasn’t featured, or even mentioned

Riewald, who helped guide the scouting camp, still takes the occasional ribbing for this oversight. Because “ultimately,” he says, Hoffman “is the one who had the greatest success.” She didn’t win, but did impress coaches, and earned an invite to bobsled rookie camp.

From there, she rose rapidly through the ranks, winning national titles and World Cup medals. She teamed up with Elana Meyers Taylor, a legend of the sport, and on Saturday night here in Yanqing, they slid to an Olympic medal. Hoffman sprung out of the sled, and then into Meyers Taylor’s arms. She keeled over, overwhelmed by emotions. She waved to a small crowd, and bowed. She grabbed an American flag and for minutes, she bathed in it.

Back at the USOPC’s offices, where this somewhat preposterous plan for an Olympian-finding reality show was hatched, high-fives were surely exchanged, and memories recalled.

“The idea was to kind of turn over rocks that we hadn’t turned over before in order to identify talent,” Riewald said.

And underneath the rocks, they found a bronze gem.

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