It has been quite a trip from Princeton to Beijing for Kelly Curtis.
She has gone climbing atop the Penn Relays podium, to walking people’s dogs, to roaming the Bayou with a cape and fangs, to joining the U.S. Air Force, to now representing her country on the world’s largest stage.
Curtis, 33, is the first Black athlete to represent Team USA in the sport of skeleton. And she hopes her story will show other Black athletes that competing in the Winter Olympic Games is possible.
When her flight lifted off from Los Angeles and headed for China last Thursday, Curtis knew it was all worth it.
Even if she cannot yet grasp it.
“It’s still surreal, it’s still sinking in,” Curtis said of making the U.S. Olympic team in women’s skeleton, the head-first sledding sport on a frozen track. “I’m still trying to take it all in. Every night when I go to bed I’m like ‘Wow, this is actually going on. I’m getting on a plane for Beijing.’”
In her first season on the World Cup team, Curtis qualified on her final slide in the final tour competition at St. Moritz, Switzerland on Jan. 14. It moved her ahead of teammate Megan Henry and into second place in the United States’ overall rankings. She will compete in prime time on Feb. 10 and in the early morning of Feb. 12.
Like the teams representing most countries this year, America’s women’s squad is limited to two skeleton competitors, which made Kelly’s last slide her last chance to go to Beijing.
“Everything had to go right for me that day,” said Curtis, who turned 33 on Jan. 25. “It was a track I’d never been to before. Thankfully, I was able to pick it up quickly. I placed sixth in the race, which was the highest I ever placed (in World Cup competition). My teammate was up 60 points with me going into it. She fell back and I beat her out by 12 points.”
Curtis will represent the U.S. along with five-time Olympian Katie Uhlaender, while Andrew Blaser, who came up through the ranks with Curtis, will be the lone men’s competitor. It is the country’s smallest skeleton delegation since the sport returned to the Olympics in 2002.
“Katie knows exactly how to prepare and get ready,” said Curtis, who did not start skeleton until age 26. “I’m pretty fortunate to have somebody like her. Andrew Blaser is also a newbie. We came up together in the sliding community, so it’s pretty fun that we’re both able to be here. We were both looking at us on paper coming in and we were both very long shots.”
Long shots that came in, thanks to sheer tenacity. Last week, speaking to NJ.com from the Olympic bubble in Chula Vista, Calif., Curtis discussed her rise in a sport that she began just six years ago. Her dad, John, a former Princeton High athletic director, chimed in from his Miami home.
JOIN THE CIRCUS, SEE THE WORLD!
As the youngest of four children, Kelly certainly has athletic ability in her genes.
John was an All-American receiver at Springfield College in Massachusetts and served as Princeton’s AD from 1993-2004. Her oldest brother, Jimmy, was a successful wrestler at Princeton and her brother Jay was a standout football player at Princeton and Springfield. Jay is now a middle school athletic director in Dorchester, Mass.
Her sister Kitty did not compete in athletics but, John noted with a laugh, “After seeing what Kelly is doing, she’s saying that maybe now she should have tried sports.”
Debbie, the family matriarch, worked at a fitness center in Princeton, where Kelly would go visit as an 8-year-old.
“Kelly grew up in that environment,” John said. “She was doing leg presses well over 200 pounds. People would gather around and watch whatever it was she was doing. Because her mom knew Kelly was not only strong but fast, she told her ‘Run away to the circus and you’ll make money there.’”
Curtis passed on the big top and went to school like everyone else. After finishing practice for whatever sport she was doing at John Witherspoon Middle School, the youngster crossed the street to John’s office and sat in the corner to do homework. She would watch coaches and parents storm in and out with their complaints.
“It was almost a chaotic situation at times,” John said. “She was able to process what was going on and was able to mention some things about it to me that had occurred that day. That’s the way she is.”
It showed at an early age that she could figure things out, quickly.
In high school, Curtis excelled in basketball and track and field. She qualified for the long jump in the Meet of Champions and was a clutch performer in hoops.
John was not surprised when she made the Olympics on her last chance.
“I knew when she was going on her final run at St. Moritz that she’d come up with a great performance,” he said. “One thing about her playing basketball back in high school, if you were an opposing player you didn’t want to see her on the line with a minute to go. I would wonder why she’d be clanging the ball off the rim in the middle of the game and she would just look at me. But she would process the importance of the event and come through in the end.”
Despite her athletic prowess, Curtis did not start out with much of a focus on reaching the Olympics.
“I think it’s every child’s dream when they’re playing youth athletics. You’d be like ‘I wonder what it would be like being in the Olympics?’” Curtis said. “But I did not think throughout my athletic career growing up in Princeton that it would be a possibility.”
Curtis graduated from high school as both the Athlete of the Year and Scholar-Athlete of the Year for girls. She attended Lawrenceville as a post-graduate for one year before enrolling at Tulane University.
After two years, Curtis transferred to her family’s old stomping grounds at Springfield and her track and field career took off.
As a junior, she won the New England Division 3 Indoor Championship in the pentathlon and finished 13th in the NCAA Division 3 Championships. In outdoor season, Curtis won the heptathlon at the Penn Relays and earned All-America honors by finishing fourth in the NCAA heptathlon.
The following year, she repeated as New England indoor pentathlon champion and became an All-American by taking seventh at the NCAA championships. She finished her career with a fifth-place heptathlon finish in the NCAAs.
Her dad recalled that final meet.
“She was really primed, ready to go,” he said. “Then she came down with bronchitis. The first day of competition, she said ‘Dad, I’m really not feeling well.’”
Curtis gutted it out and was in second place after one day. A strong javelin throw on day two put her in first, but she had to run the 800 meters with bronchitis beating her up all the way around the track.
“It was never really her favorite event,” John said. “But she could barely make the last 200 meters. I was there at the finish line, and she said ‘I’m sorry, Dad.’ I gave her the biggest hug and just said how proud I was of her.”
John figured he had witnessed his daughter’s final competitive event as an athlete.
She earned a master’s degree in educational leadership from St. Lawrence University in New York with hopes of going into the sports administration field. During her time at St. Lawrence, Curtis served as a graduate assistant track coach and appeared ready for some sort of career in sports as a non-competitor.
While Curtis was at Springfield, team doctor Dan Jaffe and track coach James Pennington both suggested she look into the U.S. bobsled combine. Dr. Jaffe had done a skeleton sliding camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., and knew that Curtis had the strength necessary for it. Pennington recalled a former Springfield heptathlete, Erin Pac, who won a bobsled bronze medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
“At that time I wanted to get into running,” Curtis said. “I wasn’t that good at running. So I was just looking for something to keep me active and in shape. I never thought I would find something that would one day lead me to the Olympics.”
Curtis took Pennington’s advice and headed to the 2014 bobsled combine. She did well enough to be invited to team trials and was chosen for the tour.
But she didn’t impress herself.
“I liked it, but I didn’t love it,” Curtis said. “From there, I found the skeleton and I loved it.”
John Curtis remembers laughing when Kelly joined the combine after thinking he had seen her final competitive event in college. If he was surprised by the bobsled, he hadn’t seen anything yet.
“She had worked her way up to the number three two-woman bobsled team in the country and had been in a couple competitions, and I’m thinking she might just be in the Olympics,” John said. “Then she said ‘I think I’m gonna stop bobsled and start training for skeleton.’
“I said ‘What? That’s where you go down headfirst, right?’” Curtis recalled. “So her mother and I just gave her our best wishes and I basically told her to keep chasing her dream.”
THE SKELETON RUSH
Kelly did not initially harbor Olympic dreams with the skeleton. She just thought it would be cool to try. But her friends wondered why.
Skeleton is not for the faint of heart. The riders lie face down on a flat sled with their head leaning forward and streak down a mountain while accelerating up the surrounding walls at over 80 mph.
The skeleton competition took place in the 1928 and ‘48 Olympics before being deemed too dangerous. It returned in 2002 and has been held at every Olympics since.
“I’ve seen some of the videos from the early days on the old Lake Placid tracks,” Curtis said. “And I would not be sliding if the track was still like that.”
The question is, why even do it now?
“It’s like an extreme slip and slide,” Curtis said. “I grew up loving roller coasters and water slides, so I was really intrigued by how intimidating it looked. I still look at it and I’m like ‘Wow it looks crazy.’
“But when you’re on the sled and you get to feel everything around you – you get to see very little because your head is buried – it’s a very different feeling. You just have to embrace whatever’s going on at the moment and block everything else out. I think that’s the effect I love most about it.”
Curtis initially tried it in February of 2015 and her first full year came in the 2016-17 season. Kelly noted that in those early years “I was getting exposed to it and trying to figure out if I can make this work.” She gained ice time three weeks at a time at either Lake Placid or in Park City, Utah.
Financial help came from her friends and family during her first season, but not as much the next year.
“They’re like, ‘Well, if you’re not wearing gold, I don’t care,” Curtis said with a laugh. “It wasn’t actually that harsh, but you want to be able to put up results to show your progress. That second year was probably my most difficult. I wasn’t getting any competition, it was just the grind of showing up at the track every day trying to figure out how to get better. I was still on equipment that was outdated compared to my competition.”
And with student loans to pay, she needed money, and the skeleton was not providing it.
DOGS, DICK’S, VAMPIRES, MOTLEY CRUE & MARRIAGE
Like so many athletes training for a goal, there was no time for a full-time job. Thus, Curtis had to cobble together some unique odd jobs.
“I had to make a living wage,” she said. “When I was living in New Jersey, I took whatever jobs I could get. I did dog walking, I worked at the Princeton Recreation Department, I was a substitute teacher.”
Curtis also worked for the Dick’s Sporting Goods Contender’s Program, and she appreciated the fact Dick’s allowed her to relocate three different times and stay on the payroll. The program was created to provide potential Olympic and Paralympic athletes with income from an in-store job with hours flexible enough to accommodate the chaotic schedules of training and competing.
While back in Jersey, Kelly met Jeff Milliron – fittingly – on the Princeton University track in 2014. Milliron was a Tigers graduate assistant coach and made the Olympic trials for discus in 2016. The two eventually married.
“Here I was thinking I would have two coaches in the family,” John said. “The two would come stay with us and have skeleton videos going and Jeff would be breaking down Kelly’s stops compared to other competitors. I had no idea what they were talking about.”
The two moved to New Orleans so that Jeff could earn his master’s degree. And if dog walking seemed like a different kind of job, it was about to get nuttier.
“My favorite job was background extra on movie sets,” Curtis said.
She appeared in the AMC show “Preacher,” which ran for four seasons.
“I played a vampire wannabe,” Curtis said. “I walked around the streets of New Orleans in my vampire costume, to and from the set, and nobody thought any differently. Nobody even took a second look because it was New Orleans.”
Curtis also dressed as a concert goer in the 2019 Motley Crue movie “The Dirt.”
“That was pretty cool,” she said. “I was just making ends meet.”
Those jobs did not last, however. Kelly had other worlds to conquer.
THE ROAD TO BEIJING
Entering her third year of skeleton in 2018, Curtis knew she had to invest in order to keep up with the competition. She purchased a new sled and runners that totaled $7000 and hit family members up for loans.
“I just had to see,” she said. “I knew I had potential, I was like ‘Alright, I’ll put out this financial commitment and if I don’t make progress to my standards I’ll move on and close that chapter, knowing I made all the effort I could make.
“So every single time I was like ‘Alright, this will be the deciding race’ and I would win the race and I was like ‘OK, I guess I’m going to keep going down the slide.’”
In her quest to make the U.S. National Team, Curtis began on the North American Tour level, which was for developmental athletes.
“You earn the least amount of points,” she explained, “but you’re able to go through the procedures of what it is to race.”
Curtis had what it took, winning the North American Cup each of her first two years competing. She made her first National Team the following year and joined the Inter-Continental Cup tour, which she also won.
“I was able to show coaches that I could pick up tracks rather quickly,” Curtis said.
Kelly had originally tested the combine just to see where she was physically, but by 2019 she had begun to harbor Olympic hopes. The next step was making the U.S. World Cup Team in March, 2021. The competition consisted of two races in Park City, Utah, and two in Lake Placid. Entering the final race at Lake Placid, Curtis’ only hope to make the team was to win the race.
Her effort was a foreshadowing of what was to come.
“I never won a race before. I never even had top-three before in a national trials race,” Curtis said. “I ended up winning the race. I was completely overwhelmed. I knew I could do it, but to actually come through and do it, I was overcome with pride.”
Curtis continued to work and progress with U.S. Driving Coach Jack Thomas during the past year and it came down to her final slide in St. Moritz. Uhlaender had one U.S. spot secured and, with Henry ahead by 60 points, Kelly needed the best ride of her life.
“Everything had to go right for me,” she said. “It was a track I’d never been to before. Thankfully, I was able to pick it up quickly. It came down to the final second of that final race.”
Just as she did in Lake Placid a year earlier, Curtis rose to the occasion. She finished in sixth place for her highest finish all season and was able to eke past Henry.
“I’m still comprehending it,” Curtis said. “My head coach ( Tuffy Latour) was at the bottom with me and I asked him ‘Did I just qualify?’ He said ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what the point totals are looking like.’ I said ‘I’m pretty sure I just qualified.’”
But not entirely sure.
“I got on the phone with our media person,” Curtis said. “She said ‘I think you just got into the Olympics,’ and I said ‘I’ll believe it when I see it on paper.’”
She finally saw it. Kelly Curtis was a U.S. Olympian.
THE WILD BLUE WONDER
Curtis is not only representing her country, she is serving it.
Following in the footsteps of her brother Jimmy, Curtis joined the U.S. Air Force in the summer of 2020. Jimmy saw active duty for four years and Kelly was impressed by his travels.
“There are some places where I’m still like ‘How did you ever get in there?’” she said. “But it changed his life for the better. They have a great reputation for taking care of their people. I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity because I’ve always been involved in sports.”
Kelly was supposed to work in cyber security but, due to her schedule, is currently doing knowledge operations technical school remotely. Curtis is the first civilian brought through basic training and immediately entered into the military’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP).
“Their traditional way is training their cadets from the Air Force Academy into World Class Athletes through their WCAP,” Curtis said. “I was the first one where I was already on the National Team and they could more easily turn me into an airman than they could turn their officers into Olympians. They’ve had a number of successful Olympians in the past. I’m just honored to join that list.
“When I made the World Cup team, a few Air Force bobsledders said ‘You’re the only one.’ I’m like ‘Oh no.’ This was my first year on the tour, I’m just trying to make it down the track. Now I need to do well for the Air Force’s sake. No pressure there!’”
If Curtis has shown anything in her athletic endeavors, it is that pressure brings out the best in her.
She is hoping for more of the same in Beijing next week.
“I would like to make things interesting, give the people something to cheer for,” Curtis said. “I’m really looking forward to getting back on that sled and showing people what I can do. Whatever happens, it’s been a great ride.”
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