GRAY — Emilie Sanborn called for her parents to come watch television. The Sochi Winter Olympics were on and she didn’t want them to miss the skeleton race.
“Mom, Dad, come watch this,’’ said Sanborn, a sophomore at Gray-New Gloucester High School. “My coach does this.’’
Yes she does.
Sherri Emery, a 2008 Gray-New Gloucester graduate and the girls’ outdoor track and field coach, is a member of the U.S. Skeleton development team. She participates in a sport in which competitors slide down a track of ice at up to 80 mph while lying face down, their chin inches off the ice, on a 70-pound sled.
Some day she hopes to compete in the Olympics, perhaps as soon as 2018. For now, the 24-year-old Emery is making big strides.
Last month, she finished third at the national championships, her first major podium finish. “We see a lot of potential in her,’’ said Brian McDonald, a coach on the U.S. national team.
These days, she is back in her home state and at her alma mater, hoping to impart some of the lessons she’s learned to help her athletes not only set goals for sports, but life.
“I ran track and field here and have very good experience in setting goals and developing my skills,’’ she said before a practice last week. “That’s probably the reason why I’ve been able to go where I have in sports. If I didn’t have the experience I had here, learning how to become a stronger athlete, I probably wouldn’t have the strength to pursue what I’m pursuing. They gave me a pretty good base here.’’
While at Gray-New Gloucester, Emery dreamed of competing in the Olympics as a sprinter. But she knew she didn’t have the speed to do that, so she turned her attention to the Winter Games.
While watching the Torino Olympics in 2006, bobsled and skeleton – two events in which speed at the start is critical – caught her eye.
She chose the skeleton because, she said, “I wanted to compete in a sport that was more individual. I wanted to make my own fate.’’
Two weeks before she graduated from high school, she attended a skeleton camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. She was hooked. “All my plans the last six years have pretty much been around it,’’ she said.
Asked if she was frightened the first time she went down the track, she said she didn’t have time to be scared.
“I missed the safety precautions meeting,’’ she said. “I showed up an hour late because I didn’t receive an updated email with new times. So when I showed up at the top of the track, they told me I missed the meetings but ‘We’re going to push people down anyway.’
“It’s really not that dangerous. Whatever I missed, it was no big deal. They just told me to keep my arms in. The only thing on the first run was that I hit my ankle on the ice wall and it really hurt. But it was fun and, obviously, I went back on top of the mountain again.’’
Unlike bobsled and luge, skeleton sleds have few steering mechanisms. Riders either turn their heads, press their shoulders or knees into the sled, or tap their feet (on which they have spiked shoes) into the ice when they want to move. “We just kind of adjust ourselves on the track,’’ said Emery, who is completing her education through online classes at California University of Pennsylvania and is nearing her degree in sports management and fitness and wellness.
Emery comes back to Maine to train in the offseason for several reasons. One is to see her family and friends, who support her unconditionally. Another is to raise and/or save money.
She does everything she can – including living with her brother, Eric, at his home in New Gloucester – to save money so that she doesn’t have to worry about fundraising during her training.
“I have found ways to live on hardly any money in the summer,’’ she said. “We don’t get paid for this sport. I have to put money away and make it last for a fairly long time.
“It’s important that I put away money because if I’m distracted with trying to find out how I’m going to get money (in season) it would take away from my training and competing, and I need to be 100 percent there to get the results that I want.’’
To raise money for her training, she has set up a profile on the website gofundme.com where people can make donations. She hopes to raise $5,000 in two months.
SHARING HER KNOWLEDGE
Todd Mercer, now Gray-New Gloucester’s boys’ outdoor track coach, was one of Emery’s coaches when she competed in high school. That she is now trying to make the Olympics is due to her drive to get better.
“She was a very determined athlete, worked very hard,’’ he said. “She wasn’t a standout, one of those kids you see as a freshman and say she’s going to be a state champion. She wasn’t that kid. She was the kid that worked really, really hard so she could qualify for the states. She worked incredibly hard at everything she did.’’
And now he sees her passing that work ethic, and the training techniques she learns at the Olympic training centers, along to her athletes.
“It’s fantastic to have her back,’’ he said. “The girls’ team, in particular, the athletes on the team, respond well to her. They appreciate her determination and they listen to her stories of how she was just like them in high school.’’
Kierstin Stritch, a junior javelin thrower, called Emery “an inspiration because it shows me that someone from such a small school can come out and be good athletically.’’
Sophomores Chloe Hedrich and Sanborn said Emery has taught them many things: weight training, sprinting techniques and what to do after a workout.
“One thing I’ve learned from her is how to want to win, the drive to win,’’ said Stritch. “That means a lot in competition.’’
Emery talks to her athletes about setting goals and working toward them. Her next goal is Pyeongchang, South Korea, and the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“I wanted to go to Sochi,’’ said Emery. “Like everyone on the team, we all want to go to the Olympics. But to do that, we have to find out the things that are holding us back, and we don’t always necessarily know what that is.’’
This year, she found out what was holding her back – her mental approach.
“I was focused on what other people were doing, not on what I was doing,’’ she said. “I was watching the clock at practices and in races and that caused extra anxiety. In our sport, it’s so much about relaxation. If you have a wrong steer, a sudden shoulder move, it’s impossible to race.’’
Finishing third at nationals “gave me a better mind-set going into the summer,’’ she said. “I needed to know I could put it all together on the right day.’’
The U.S. team is highly competitive – Noelle Pikus-Pace won the silver medal in Sochi and Kate Uhlaender finished fourth – so Emery has to be at her best.
McDonald, the U.S. coach, said she is close.
“She is starting to show she has a natural ability to go fast on the sled and that’s something you can’t coach,’’ he said. “And she’s hungry. We have a lot of people in the sport who want to go to the Olympics but don’t want to learn the sport. She wants to learn. She’s always asking questions; she’s the one person who does that more than anyone else.
“Time will tell how well she does. But she’s got the drive and the will and you can’t ask for anything more than that.’’
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at: