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Fred Samara, the longtime head coach of track and field at Princeton, is on the phone.
“I have a funny story for you,” he says.
His story predates his 47 Ivy League Heptagonal championships as the head coach, and the 64 total he’s won counting his time as an assistant. This is shortly before he came to Princeton, actually.
Samara was a decathlon in the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. After that, he was working in Northern New Jersey when a man came into his place of business and said he was working with USA Bobsled. Would Samara and his 1976 Olympic teammate Fred Dickson be interested in trying the bobsled?
“He told us he had the authority to guarantee that we would be on the 1980 Olympic bobsled team,” Samara says. “I thought, ‘this sounds great.’ Then I went home and told my wife, and she said ‘are you crazy? You’re not doing that.’”
And so began and ended Fred Samara’s shot at Olympic bobsledding. He’s right, it’s a good story.
He even laughs at the part where his wife said “are you crazy?”
Then, in the next breath, he follows up with this: “Charlie is perfect for it.”
The connection between his wife’s implication that you have to be crazy to try the bobsled and his own statement that “Charlie is perfect for it” is probably unintentional. It’s more of a reference to physical stature, natural athletic ability and work ethic.
With those criteria, and without the, well, craziness part, then yes, “Charlie is perfect for it.”
The Charlie in question is Charlie Volker, Princeton Class of 2019 and a dominant sprinter and running back during his days as a Tiger. Volker is another one of those athletes whom winning seems to follow, and his resume includes seven team championships between his two sports as an undergrad, not to mention track championships of the both the individual and relay variety and first-team All-Ivy League honors in both sports.
These days, he’s turned his focus to trying to get the top of a different mountain, or is that get to the bottom of a different mountain as fast as he can. While his college track coach never took the opportunity to bobsled, Volker has leapt at the chance.
Samara says he perfect for it. Bob Surace, his head football coach, echoes that.
“Does it surprise me that he’s talented enough to do this?” Surace asks. “Not at all.”
Volker had never been in a sled until earlier this fall. How meteoric has his rise in the sport been? This past Monday he was named to the U.S. national team, and he will be leaving just before the New Year to compete with his new teammates in Europe.
On the horizon? A shot at the U.S. team for the 2022 Winter OIympics in Beijing.
“I’m not someone who can sit behind a desk,” Volker says. “I want to live an adventurous life.”
That much is clear. He tried the desk thing – briefly – after graduation. It didn’t take.
“I’m not someone who can sit behind a desk. I want to live an adventurous life.”
At the same time, he was hoping for a chance at catching on with an NFL team for a training camp. A first-team All-Ivy League running back his senior year at Princeton, when the Tigers went 10-0, he ranks seventh all-time at Princeton in rushing yards.
He worked hard to get in the best possible shape for a possible shot at professional football, only to see the minicamps cancelled due to the COVID outbreak. As much as that was crushing for one of his dreams, it actually opened the door for his new one.
“I was working out right at the outset of COVID,” he says. “Then the minicamps were cancelled, and those are huge for guys like me. One of the trainers there had been a bobsledder, though, and he said to me ‘you know, you’re the right type of athlete for the sport.’”
Volker was 6-0 and 220 when he played at Princeton. He was bruising enough to want to run through people, and he was fast enough to win the Ivy League indoor 60-meter dash title and be part of the Ivy League-record setting 4×100 relay team.
He’s not the first football player or track runner (or both) to try bobsled. Among the others are Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker and Olympic gold medal hurdler Willie Davenport.
“He’s a big, strong guy,” Samara says. “And he’s a very fast guy. That’s what they’re looking for. They need someone with strength and speed. The start is the whole thing. That’s the key to bobsled.”
Samara is correct. And it’s the ability to sprint, on ice, that has “pushed,” to use a bobsled term, Volker to the front.
“They say a tenth of a second at the top equals three-tenths of a second at the bottom,” he says. “If you can shave an extra tenth off the top, that’s a three-tenth savings at the bottom. In bobsled, that’s an eternity.”
He runs on ice spikes (his are hand-me-downs), and it takes about 15 or 20 minutes to sand them so they’re as pointy and sharp as possible. There are 100 needles on each shoe, which makes it a much different shoe than a regular track spike. On the other hand, if you prepare them correctly, then running on the ice isn’t that much different than the track – or out of the backfield.
“Right before Thanksgiving, we had two-man team trials,” he says. “I pushed pretty well there. That was one of the things that made the coaches turn their heads. I pushed a 5.11, which is very competitive, and that was on slow ice. They said it would have been more like a 5.08 or so, and for two-man, that’s a world-class push time.”
Those races were followed a week later by the four-man ones. Again, he did well. All of this came not that long after he first started out.
His first step was at a combine of sorts, from which he became one of 15 or so rookies chosen for the next step, which was to go to Lake Placid and actually get into a sled.
“Lake Placid is one of the roughest courses in the world,” he says. “It has fast twists and turns. My first impression was of just getting thrown around, like I was in a washing machine or something. There’s a part of the track called ‘Devil’s Highway.’ That’s a lot of quick twisting. After the first run, Tyler [Hickey, the driver] turned around and looked at me smiling. I was dizzy. I almost fell backwards. But I said ‘let’s go again.’”
The more runs you get, the more you know when to brace yourself as you head down the mountain. The speeds can reach beyond 80 miles per hour, and the G-forces are also incredibly high. It’s a pounding on the body.
“Bobsled,” he says, “is track for the first 50 meters and football for the rest. The key is to push the lights out of the sled and then load cleanly. How you jump in the sled has to be practiced over and over. How low you get and how locked in you can be, and how little you can get thrown around.”
The physical aspects of the sport might have elements of what he did at Princeton. The mental benefits he got from being a Tiger were immense.
“Knowing Charlie, he loves competing,” Surace says. “He’s someone who wouldn’t be put off by doing something different. We knew he had rare measurables, with his size and speed. He’s such a competitor and so detail oriented that he just chipped away at any area he wasn’t good it until he could do it at the highest level he could. You have to admire guys like that. He’s also so humble. That was instilled by his family. He makes everyone better with his energy.”
The last test before the national team was announced came last weekend, when there were another round of two-man and four-man trials. After that the team was selected, and he finds himself now as one of 11 members, with two drivers and nine brakemen. He is in the USA II sled right now as he prepares to head off to Europe, which is extraordinary.
“It’s a wonderful story,” Samara says. “I’ve known a lot of German decathletes who’ve done it. He’s the first of my guys who’s tried it. His personality is a perfect fit.”
To pick up a sport so quickly, and to excel at this level, it takes more than the physical talent and the work ethic. It takes the ability to be coachable as well.
“More than anything else, Coach Samara and Coach Surace taught me to be a humble hard worker,” Volker says. “When I came to bobsled, it wasn’t just the physical assessment. It wasn’t just how fast you were or how strong you were. You have to be a good person. I’ve been around great coaches who’ve instilled in me what it means to follow a plan, to put your head down and have faith in the leaders. I’m the kind who’s going to show up, do what needs to be done and enjoy it. I think that helped with the bobsled coach’s final decision.”
The trip to Europe will include races at St. Moritz, in Switzerland, and at Winterburg, in Germany. That’s the biggest of the big time in bobsled – until the Olympics next season, where he hopes to represent the United States again.
Can he make it all the way to Beijing? He’s made it this far.
Hey, you’d have to be crazy to doubt him now, right?
by Jerry Price