On their own terms
March 4, 2011
Two weeks prior to the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy, Valerie Fleming tweaked her back and it wasn’t healing.
Her long-time teammate, Shauna Rohbock, had a choice to make before the two-person women’s bobsled competition rolled around. Her coach encouraged Rohbock, the driver, to think about replacing Fleming, the brakeman. The coach worried Fleming’s back couldn’t hold up for four runs on the world’s largest stage.
"There’s a story behind every medal," Rohbock said.
This story had a storybook ending as the duo went on to win the silver medal in Torino after Rohbock took the reins and asked Fleming if she was able to go.
"We’re a team," Rohbock said. "I told my coach, ‘I’ll ask her,’ and I think I made the right choice, obviously."
Fleming added: "There’s trust and confidence in each other. It all adds up."
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After all the medals, wins, losses, injuries and extended travels of an eight-year career as a team, the Park City duo has written its final chapter, retiring from the sport of bobsled.
Fleming picked up another key injury prior to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, pulling a hamstring that would keep her out of competition. She didn’t want her illustrious career to end on a down note.
"I never thought I’d get injured and miss Vancouver," she said. "I always thought we’d be done together and I didn’t want to leave on an injury in an Olympic year."
The duo came back for one last hurrah for the 2010-2011 World Cup circuit and finished fourth overall. Rohbock and Fleming took home the silver medal in the World Championships held in Germany last month.
"I wanted to go out on top," Fleming said. "Lots of athletes can’t say they went out still on top. I did."
The list of accolades the duo has racked up is almost too long to list.
Since 2004-05, the team has finished in the top five on the World Cup circuit every year and won the overall title in 2006-07.
Go back to where it all started and you can see how the duo, also roommates, became one of the most successful women’s bobsled teams in U.S. history.
Rohbock was a track-and-field athlete at Brigham Young University as was Fleming at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The 2002 Olympics were the first Games that allowed women’s bobsled and after a women’s bobsled representative went to BYU looking to recruit potential athletes to try the sport after college, Rohbock figured she’d give it a shot. She did, and everything just took off from that point.
Fleming had just finished graduate school at Saint Mary’s College in California, and said she didn’t want to accept the fact that her time as an athlete was over with.
"I wasn’t really OK with being done," she said. "They said I should go try bobsled."
After accepting an invite to a camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 2003, she took the combine tests and was good enough to move onto Park City and work on making the U.S. team.
The two were paired together as teammates by the U.S. coaching staff and once they figured one another out, the driver-brakeman pair didn’t look back.
"They just kept us together," Fleming said.
Rohbock said, looking back, she would have never imagined all they were about to accomplish.
"Obviously, when you start, you don’t know what’s going to happen," she said.
The brakeman position takes a serious physical toll on the body as Fleming’s injury list shows and their ability to ride it out for eight years together is a testament to their commitment to one another on the track.
"You don’t see a lot of people staying together that long," Rohbock said. "Brakemen don’t last very long. It’s crazy because we were that good for eight years."
But the highlight of the pair’s career was winning an Olympic silver medal.
Rohbock said she thought they had a good chance of medaling and once she passed the finish line and seeing the board say "one," she knew they were guaranteed the silver medal.
"I kind of felt everything was there," she said.
Fleming added: "Winning a medal does, to an extent, make everything seem like its paid off. Everything falls into place. No one can take that away from me. It makes it all OK."
Now the 34-year-old Fleming and 33-year-old Rohbock turn their focus toward the next phase of their careers.
Rohbock said she’d like to get involved in coaching bobsled and helping build the U.S. program even higher. Fleming’s aspirations are similar. Rohbock is also a member of the Army National Guard.
"We’re stepping out of the athlete bubble," Rohbock said. "It’s obviously scary. But, at some point, you have to start your lives."
The two said they had planned to walk away together and wanted to do it strictly on their terms, no one else’s.
"Lucky it worked out," Fleming said.
On their final flight home, Fleming was tallying all the medals and awards the two had earned as a team as Rohbock watched in amazement.
In this case, two was stronger than one.