Kelly Curtis made her stamp on running tracks as a heptathlete at Springfield College. Now, she's looking to leave her mark on an ice track. The Princeton, New Jersey, native and former Division III student-athlete will represent Team USA at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games in skeleton — a sport she was initially reluctant to try.
"I didn't think I would continue my athletic career post-collegiately. I thought I would become an athletic director and contribute back to sports in that capacity," said Curtis, who is a member of the Air Force's World Class Athlete Program. "So for me to be going to the Olympics and representing not only Team USA but also the U.S. Air Force is a lot more than what I expected. I think I have the best job right now."
Long before her skeleton days, Curtis was setting track and field records as a student at The Lawrenceville School in the triple jump. She also competed in the long jump, high jump, hurdles and javelin. From there, she began her collegiate athletics career at Tulane, later transferring to Springfield at the end of her sophomore year. Curtis recalls the highlight of her college athletics career: finishing first in the women's collegiate heptathlon at the 2011 Penn Relays. After her Division III career ended, Curtis pursued a master's and coached at St. Lawrence University.
While she may have thought otherwise, her days of competition were far from over.
Dan Jaffe, a strength and conditioning coach at Springfield, saw Curtis' strength on display in the weight room one day and mentioned that she would probably do well in the bobsled combine. Curtis' track and field coach, Jim Pennington, suggested that she consider the bobsled combine, too. It was Curtis' strong and explosive physicality that reminded her coaching staff of Springfield alumna and heptathlete Erin Pac, who brought the U.S. a bronze medal for women's bobsled as a driver during the 2010 Vancouver games.
"You look at bobsled, and it's a pretty intimidating sport. I just did not want to try that, especially right after college," Curtis said.
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It wasn't until Curtis' second year of graduate school that she gave bobsledding a try, admitting she initially hoped to just do the combine once, be told "no" and then move on. But the invitations back just kept coming, she jokes.
Curtis plunged into the sport. She and pilot Katelyn Kelly earned silver in their first race and bronze in their second race at the 2014-15 Women's Bobsled North American Cup in Lake Placid, New York.
"I kept falling farther and farther down that rabbit hole," Curtis said. "And once I found skeleton, I fell in love with it during my very first slide and just decided that was something I wanted to pursue."
To be successful at skeleton, athletes need to be as fast and explosive as possible over the first 30 to 35 meters pushing the sled and then propel themselves onto the sled. Curtis still does her track and field warm-up exercises when getting ready to push a sled because it demands all the same angles be hit.
"Skeleton athletes train like short sprinters and Olympic weightlifters. They try to become as explosive as possible, while still maintaining those optimal ankles while pushing a sled. And with the skeleton push, you're in such deep hip angles, as well," she said.
From 2017 to 2018, Curtis competed in the Women's Skeleton North American Cup. She took gold at Whistler, silver in Calgary and gold in Lake Placid.
While Curtis is eager to compete on the Olympic stage, she also looks forward to serving her country in more ways than one.
As a member of the Air Force's World Class Athlete Program, Curtis is focused on training and remaining ready to compete in her sport. The WCAP provides elite athletes the opportunity to train and compete in national events to make the Olympics.
"I never thought I'd have the opportunity to serve my country in that capacity until I found out about WCAP. From the start, they have been very accommodating and very encouraging for their elite-level athletes," Curtis said. "There are about 25 of us that were gearing up for Tokyo and Beijing, and I believe I'm the only one that made it to Beijing."
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An active-duty airman, Curtis looks forward to returning to work on the airbase in Aviano, Italy, after Beijing. She also aspires to remain in higher education and potentially pursue a doctorate.
For student-athletes considering the transition from their college sport to another like Curtis has done, she recommends they embrace the challenge something new is going to provide.
"If you're entering a new sport, you're most likely going to be really bad at it for a while. But if you approach it with a mindset of curiosity, you can figure out ways to get better, and it becomes easier," Curtis said. "Without judgment, you have to put that ego aside. Especially in a sliding sport, everyone's bad when you first learn. Just approach it with a mindset of curiosity."