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North Kitsap grad vying for spot on U.S. Olympic Bobsled Team
POULSBO — It was in the middle of the 2011 track season, during his senior year at George Fox University, when Dakarai Kongela’s running career came to an abrupt halt.
The All-American track runner was hopeful of a national appearance in the 100 Meter Dash. A pulled hamstring kept him from reaching that goal.
Kongela, a 24-year-old from Suquamish and 2006 graduate of North Kitsap High School, began brainstorming other ways to compete.
A friend of Kongela’s joked that the NK grad could join the U.S. bobsled team. But what was once a curiosity turned into a reality.
Kongela is vying for a shot at being a member of Team USA, on the Olympic bobsled team this year. He most recently competed in the national championships in Calgary, where Olympic hopefuls are narrowed down.
“Things are looking good,” Kongela said. However, there are still “a lot of question marks.”
The next step for the 6-foot-1 brakeman is team trials in October. Kongela is one of 15 remaining who could go to the 2014 Winter Olympics. Four more people will be cut. Eleven athletes will go to the Olympics.
“Basically, I need to survive one more cut,” he said.
Though he’s not officially a part of the Olympic team, Kongela participated in the national team camp, which prepares athletes for being on the team. The camp includes registering for a travel visa, sizing for team gear, participating in team-building exercises, and training for media interviews.
Kongela is a brakeman, whose role is to slow the sled down when needed. The brakeman sits in the back of the sled, and is the last person in the sled during push off.
Kongela joined the U.S. bobsled team in the 2011-12 season, but injuries kept him from much competition. He stuck with it and continued through the 2012-13 season, where he competed on two different teams in the North American Cup.
Kongela said the work keeps piling up.
What an observer of bobsled races doesn’t see is the amount of preparation teams do. For every minute on the track, Kongela said the team spends one to two hours prepping.
“There’s always stuff to work on,” he said.
Physical training is key, and includes weight training and cardio work. Kongela exercises about five hours a day, not including actual sled training and bobsled runs.
And it’s cold. The last time Kongela was training at Lake Placid, N.Y., it was winter and 30 degrees below zero.
“It’s just really, really long days,” he said. “It just wears on you after a while.”
Training also includes sled preparation. Unlike teams in other countries, team members do the mechanical work themselves. Maintenance includes everything from making adjustments to polishing the blade steel by hand.
Kongela was warned from the get-go that being a bobsledder wasn’t where the money is. A coach told Kongela and trainees in their first year that if they don’t like being poor, homeless, and in pain, to not get into the sport.
Having to do so much training, but not being paid, Kongela lives at the training center. He doesn’t have time to get a job. When he travels, Kongela just stays with other people, he said.
Though the bobsled athletes get little recognition until the Olympics, it’s worth it for Kongela.
“I don’t want to cheapen it by saying it’s on my bucket list, but it’s always something I’ve always wanted the honor of being a part of,” he said.
Kongela always wanted to try his hand in bobsled racing, but never thought it would become a reality. He saw it more like a dream that would never become more than that.
“There was a moment when I was a kid and I saw ‘Cool Runnings’ for the first and thought that would be really cool to do,” he said.
However, “It just seemed way too preposterous,” he said. “How does some track kid become a bobsledder?”
But after running track and playing soccer and football, Kongela is close to accomplishing what he only dreamed about after watching a Disney movie. He said he’s felt “guided” through his athletic career, and is thankful for the people involved.
“It’s not just been luck of the draw, even though it feels like that. God is just guiding things right now,” he said.