Josh Williamson’s Unique Journey Has The Bobsled Brakeman On The Cusp Of The Olympics
by Luke Hanlon
Josh Williamson poses for a photo at the Next Olympic Hopeful in July 2019 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Growing up in Central Florida, Josh Williamson never dreamed of playing college lacrosse, much less pushing a bobsled at the Olympic Winter Games.
Yet there he was a few years later playing Division I lacrosse at Mercer University in Georgia, and now less than 50 days from the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 he’s in position to make his Olympic debut as a bobsledder.
“The number one goal of our organization is competitive excellence at the Olympic Games,” he said, “and that’s a motto I love to live by because I don’t know how you could better sum that up.”
It’s been a unique journey for Williamson, 25, yet in a way it’s one he’s been preparing for since he was a kid growing up in the Orlando suburb of Lake Mary.
Like many kids in the area, Williamson’s first love was playing football, and lacrosse only came into the picture in sixth grade as something to keep him busy during the offseason.
Lacrosse wasn’t very popular in the South when Williamson started playing, but he enjoyed it enough to really go for it. With just one team in the area, he didn’t know any of the other players and was constantly in the car driving to games and practices. He also wasn’t all that good, at least right away.
“Like anything, when you first start, you’re not very confident,” he said. “When you have people around you who are very good it’s tough. The better you get, the more fun it gets.”
Williamson ended up being very good — so good that he earned a scholarship offer from Mercer. But after suffering a few injuries in his freshman year, his story pivoted again.
“A goal of mine that I set in high school was that I wanted to play Division I lacrosse, that was an obsession of mine,” he said. “Sadly, after a year I did that and I didn’t really know what to do next.”
He transferred to Florida State to be “just a student” for the first time in his life. After one semester, he knew he needed something else to compete in. He had continued working out the entire time and loved everything about it — lifting weights, jumping, wind sprints. But what was a sport that allowed him to do those things and didn’t require a bunch of new skills to learn?
“If I’m shopping for a sport here let me find something that I don’t hate,” he said. “I knew there was going to be stuff that I didn’t like to do in any sport I picked, but if I could help it, let me find something where I can enjoy almost everything that we do.”
He had been following a few bobsledders on Instagram because he liked the workout videos they posted. He noticed a lot of the workouts were ones he was already good at.
“It’s like I was training for bobsled my entire life, but I was playing lacrosse,” he said.
He signed up for a combine in Park City, Utah, and stood out enough to earn a spot on “Scouting Camp: The Next Olympic Hopeful,” a 2017 show designed to identify talented athletes from across the country for an opportunity to train with a U.S. national team. One of the sports scouting for talent that year was bobsled.
Being a brakeman for bobsledding is all about combining size, strength and speed. Williamson’s combination of quickness in a 6 foot-1, 215-pound frame caught the coach’s attention.
“Most people that come in can do one or the other, and it’s about becoming better at what you suck at,” he said. “I worked on my sprinting a little bit and I was good enough at it when I got there, so I was more of the full package to begin with.”
He ended up being one of the eight winners of season one of the Next Olympic Hopeful and began competing with the national team the following summer.
Of course, there were nuances to learning a new sport, but it wasn’t any technical skill or getting used to going down a track at over 80 mph that was the biggest hurdle for Williamson. It was traveling internationally for the first time.
“I didn’t even have a passport,” he said. “You want me to go where? And how long is that flight? I had never been on a plane for more than a couple hours, and then I was taking a flight to Japan.”
Williamson got the passport situation figured out, and then started climbing the ranks in the new sport. He raced in the junior world championships the following winter and the senior world championships in 2019. By the 2019-20 season, Williamson was a regular at the world cup level, competing 11 times on the sport’s top circuit.
Following the interrupted pandemic season of 2020-21, he’s back on the world cup this season, pushing primarily a four-man sled for Hunter Church.
After opening the season with back-to-back top-10 finishes in Innsbruck, Austria, Team Church bounced around the teens and low 20s in subsequent races. Everything they do, Williamson said, is working toward that goal of being at their best in Beijing.
It’s a daunting task, but one that drives Williamson. He boiled it down to training an entire four years for four minutes of racing, describing the four runs each team gets at the Olympics. It means that no matter how well or how poorly a team has competed during the season, the only thing that matters are the two days of competing this February in Beijing.
A good example of the unpredictability of sliding sports at the Winter Olympics is Austria’s David Gleirscher. He won gold in the men’s luge in PyeongChang 2018 after never being on a single podium during his world cup career.
All Williamson and his teammates can ask for is a spot in the competition. If they qualify, they know they’ll have a shot to be the best on those two days in February.
“That’s our goal,” he said. “No matter how this season goes, [our goal] is to put our best team together, go to the Olympics and throw down and try to represent this nation as best we can.”