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Willie battling ‘yankees’ for U.S. ice sport glory
Parker, FHS grad, looking to excel on U.S. bobsled teams


Willie Parker is “the southern boy with a drawl” in a sporting world foreign to most below the Mason-Dixon line — one of ice-tunneled lanes and snowmobile-like projectiles.

It’s the world of bobsledding, where Parker, a former Farragut High School track and field standout (Class of 2002), has dented the southern boy stereotype to earn a spot as one of bobsledding’s top 20 “push-men” nationwide looking to move up the U.S. Amateur Bobsledding ladder.

“I looked at the type skills needed — I was doing track at Middle Tennessee State, doing the throwing events,” Parker said about his junior year in the winter of 2004-05. “I initially got into it [when] one of my friends from high school, Chris Martland, he had done track at U-T, he was thinking about trying out and he never did. He told me he thought I would be better at it than him, so I looked into doing it.”

All-conference in shot put as an MTSU senior, Parker added he “kinda changed my workouts to incorporate more running. … Then I went through about a year where I was contacting the Bobsled Federation, trying to figure out a way where I could try-out and participate in the sport.”

Parker headed to Lake Placid, N.Y., site of two Winter Olympic Games, in April 2007 to do “initial testing,” he said. “They put us through, like, some sprinting and some jumping and things like that to test our athletic ability.

“I did pretty well there, I got second-place of a camp of about 26 invited [bobsled] athletes, potential recruits,” Parker added. “From then on I just saw the potential to be really good at it. I just wanted to pursue it as much as I could.”

As for the prototypical bobsledder, “They want guys that are heavier, that are pretty fast and real explosive,” the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Parker said. “That’s what’s been most natural to me when I’ve been doing sports. I was a little bit heavier guy from doing the shot put and discus and things like that. And I would do a lot running with sprinters at Middle Tennessee, we had a really good group of sprinters. … I could keep up with them for 40 to 50 meters before then would eventually take off and leave me.”

Bobsledding’s downhill inverted tunnel ice course, which averages about one mile in length, results in stretch run speeds up to 80 mph, Parker said. “To say I actually enjoy every aspect of bobsledding would probably be a lie. Like the rides are really violent.”

Parker found that out the hard way in October.

“I’ve been in a crash and had a concussion and had to sit out a couple of weeks,” the FHS graduate said of an Oct. 16 crash during training for the National Team Trails, an evaluation event in Lake Placid.

“Having a bobsled crash was probably the worst thing that I’ve had to go through in my life. It was absolutely horrible. … I kinda tweaked my hamstring during the first event of that. Kinda gutted it out through the rest of [the event] to put up good enough numbers to make it to national team trials.”

Still, “It was a tremendous setback,” Parker said. “With the injuries I’ve had I’ve really been put in a tough spot for this season.”

Now back near 100 percent health, “I’m going to be competing this year with a guy named Grayson Fertig, he is either the No. 3 or No. 4-ranked driver in the United States,” Parker said. “We’ll be competing in what they call America’s Cup circuit and Europa Cup races.” World Cup is top level.

Bobsled events, both two- and four-man competitions, have a driver and push-men, the latter includes breaking “where you pull up on these little handles and it digs a little metal thing into the ice and slows the bobsled down,” Parker said.

Currently a push-man, “my goal one day is to be a driver,” the FHS graduate said. “It takes a lot of time, experience and money to become a driver.”

Overall in terms of ranking the nation’s top push-men, Parker put himself “definitely in the top 20, more than likely in the top 15.”

Saying a few hundreds of a second can separate several team performances, Parker added, “On a given day I could be in the top 10.”

Parker’s ultimate goals are making the 2010 U.S. Olympic Bobsled team “and be the best push athlete in the United States — I don’t think that’s a far-out goal,” he said. “That’s the only thing that I’ve really got on my mind.

“I think that I will do it.”

But that’s before his first-ever competition, an international field including Canada, in Lake Placid set to take place in a few weeks.

As a push-man, “I don’t like not being in control of what’s going on,” Parker said. “But I really enjoy the workouts, it’s the part I actually enjoy the most.”

As for the southern angle, “I was the only southern guy I know of,” Parker said. “Some people make fun of my accent. … Some people say I have a southern drawl up there. There’s a lot of guys from California and Texas, most of the others are from the northeast.”

Intimidated when he first went to Lake Placid? “I was young, I was 22, I was probably undersized compared to these guys,” said Parker, now 23. “And when I first walked in the room I was intimidated. They were probably [age] 27 or 31, they had done a lot of good things in their athletic past. … I looked at every other guy there and thought, ‘wow, this guy’s going to be great, oh this guy’s going to be awesome.’”

In finishing second, “I guess I forgot to look in the mirror and tell myself how good I was,” he said. “Being in the shot put, that’s something that I’ve had to deal with, competing with people that are a lot bigger, a lot stronger, a lot older than me.”

Parker ended up in Park City, Utah last summer, “and we participated in a push camp, that’s where we push a bobsled that’s on wheels outdoors on like a little track,” Parker said. “We participated in that camp for about a week, and [I] did pretty good out there.”

Hardest thing about bobsledding? “Two things: the physical impact it has on your body,” he said. “It looks smooth on television, but it’s extremely violent.

“Number two, affording to do it,” he added. “There’s not a whole lot of money in the sport. It’s tough to maintain an income while you’re competing for three or four months at a time.”

Even at the professional level, “It’s not something you can live on, you have to pretty much get a job in the off-season,” Parker said.

“I’d say I’ve spent $5,000 of my own money so far … in camp fees, flights, workout fees, equipment.”

Parker received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from MTSU in 2006, but said he’s turned down a pair of job opportunities to pursue bobsledding.

Second thoughts about his bobsledding future? “Not yet.”

 

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