Yalies make their mark as ‘human bullets’
Over 150 Yalies have been Olympic athletes. In a rare occurrence this fall, three Olympians in a sport that turns athletes into human “bullets” were on campus at once.
Kyle Tress ’22, a junior in the Eli Whitney Students Program, School of Management (SOM) student A.J. Edelman ’21, and World Fellow Simidele Adeagbo all participated in Winter Olympics competitions in skeleton. In the sport, an athlete sprints on ice before jumping headfirst onto a sled and steering it — using the head, shoulders, and knees — down a twisting frozen track at a speed of about 80 miles per hour. There are no brakes.
Edelman and Adeagbo separately made Olympic history in 2018: He for being the first Orthodox Jew to compete in the Winter Games, she for being Nigeria’s — and Africa’s — first female skeleton athlete. She is also the first black woman in the sport at the Olympic level.
Tress, a 2014 Olympian who won some 50 national and international skeleton competitions during a 16-year career, made his own mark, including leading a successful 2017 campaign to move the world championships out of Russia in protest of athletes’ doping in that country.
A moment of quiet
Tress, a 38-year-old Yale College student and former member of the U.S. national team, will never forget his first run down a skeleton track in Lake Placid, New York, in 2002.
First-time skeleton athletes typically begin halfway down the course and travel about 50 miles per hour. Tress asked a coach what he needed to do during his descent.
“Don’t let go,” was all the coach said.
“When you are just beginning, you can’t process anything at that speed,” Tress said. “As you get better, you learn how to steer the curves.”
Tress had participated in numerous sports growing up in New Jersey, but he knew nothing about skeleton until it was reintroduced in the 2002 Winter Games for the first time since 1948. Then, feeling directionless as a community-college student in New Jersey, he felt a rush of excitement about trying it.
“I clicked with skeleton immediately,” he said. “I love that it’s got speed, is an individual sport, and has a technical aspect to it. A run lasts a minute, and for me, it was a minute of pure quiet and focus. Anything I’m thinking outside the sport is gone for that time.”
He went on to become a member of the U.S. national team, and lived for most of his skeleton career at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center.
In the Sochi Olympics, Tress finished 21st out of 27 racers. He retired three years later and became head coach for the Japanese skeleton team. At Yale, he is majoring in applied mathematics, and, on the side, serving as head coach of the Belgian national team, which he will accompany to the world championships in Germany in February.
Tress plans to attend graduate school for aerospace engineering or a related field with the goal of becoming an astronaut.
“By the time I finish, I’ll be 42, so the odds are pretty low,” he said. “But the odds were low for the Olympics, too! Otherwise, I’ll be happy doing engineering or mission planning.”
For love of country
Almost nobody believed A.J. Edelman had a shot as a skeleton racer.
At tryouts, scouts reported that he’d never be competitive. Edelman was undeterred. The first Orthodox Jew to play varsity hockey at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he had learned about the dearth of Jewish athletes in college and professional sports, and was determined to change that.
The American-born Edelman was raised in Massachusetts, but had spent a year in a religious seminary in Israel and felt a deep connection to the country. He chose to compete in skeleton as an Israeli, setting his sights on the 2022 Winter Olympics.
At one of his first races, he overheard another athlete predict that he’d quit in his first year. According to Edelman, many skeleton racers do.
“I thought, ‘I won’t wait till 2022. I’m going to prove this dude wrong and make the 2018 Olympics,’” he said.
Unable to afford coaching, he trained himself, which included watching up to 12 hours a day of races on YouTube while working full-time as a project manager for Oracle in California. Tress, whom Edelman had met in 2015 while training in Lake Placid, also provided advice.
On weekends, Edelman travelled to Calgary, Canada, for practice sled runs. When forced to choose between money for those runs or a hotel room, he’d pick the former and sleep in his car, even in frigid cold.
“Everything was for the mission, and I was fanatical,” said Edelman, who eventually quit his job and became a four-time Israeli national champion.
At one low point, he decided to give up on his Olympic dream. But it occurred to him the dream wasn’t just about himself — it was about his country.
“I’d be a thief, stealing Israel’s chances,” Edelman recalled. “I owed it to Israel to finish this journey.”
He came in 28th out of 30 racers in the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. He retired immediately afterwards due to concerns about potential brain injury from the sport.
At SOM, Edelman is cultivating the skills and knowledge that will allow him to achieve his next goal: managing a nonprofit focused on supporting Jewish athletes. He is currently the development director for the Israeli Bobsled and Skeleton team.
A daily mantra he recited in Hebrew during his Olympic journey, he said, is as meaningful today: “For myself, for my people, for my country.”
Bringing in Africa
No African woman had ever competed in the Olympic skeleton division until Simidele Adeagbo did, and she had only 100 days to train.
A triple jump record-holder and four-time NCAA All-American as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky, Adeagbo had twice been unsuccessful in making the U.S. Olympic track-and-field team.
“The team is very competitive,” she said. “Statistics say you have a better chance of being struck by lightning.”
Born in Canada, Adeagbo moved as an infant to her parents’ native Nigeria before the family settled in Kentucky. After graduating from college with a degree in journalism, she began working in product marketing for Nike, eventually moving to South Africa to develop new markets in Africa, which has underrated human and economic potential, she believes.
“There is a gap between the way the world perceives Africa and what I saw living there every day,” said Adeagbo, who on her own time is helping young African girls build leadership skills.
She was trying for a slot on the Nigerian women’s bobsled team when a reporter mentioned skeleton to her.
“When I looked it up, I thought it looked terrifying and crazy,” Adeagbo said. “But the more I thought about it, I realized that competing in skeleton would not only allow me to achieve my dream to be an Olympian, but also to use my skills to move Africa forward in a meaningful way.”
Just five months before the Olympics, Adeagbo committed to skeleton. At the Games, she came in dead last out of 20 women.
She was not disappointed.
“I had a very short leadup in a sport that takes years to master,” she said. “It was wonderful to make history for Nigeria and the continent.”
As a World Fellow at Yale this past fall, Adeagbo studied Yoruba to become more fluent in a Nigerian language, and took part in leadership training.
“Being a World Fellow was a great opportunity to reflect about how to make the impact we want to make in the world,” she said. “Yale inspired in me the notion that you can do anything.”
She’s hopeful as she prepares at skeleton tracks around the world for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Beijing, China.
“Making history for Africa was cool,” Adeagbo said. “Winning an Olympic medal would be even cooler! I have as good a shot as anyone.”