When he was growing up in Texas in the 1990s and early 2000s, Sam McGuffie made sure he never missed the gymnastics events in the Summer Olympics. He’d sit in his living room every four years and watch all of the routines, just like millions of other Americans.
But what McGuffie did between the routines separated him from the casual viewer. He’d get up from his seat and do gymnastics routines of his own, with a few flips here and a few cartwheels there. He loved listening to the patriotic music that accompanied the Olympics on television, and he envisioned a day when he would be one of the athletes on TV.
He’d tell his dad that he was going to be in the Olympics some day, so his dad asked a natural follow-up: What are you going to do?
“I don’t know, whatever,” he’d reply.
McGuffie never would have been able to guess his most likely path to Olympic glory.
For most of his life, McGuffie had been a football player and a track and field athlete. He played running back at Michigan in 2008 before transferring to Rice to play football and run track and field.
But last week, McGuffie became a member of the United States bobsled team. It wasn’t a scenario he ever envisioned, even as recently as last spring. While he still has about two years until he can qualify for the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, he’s as close as he possibly could be at this stage.
“It’s something you don’t grow up saying, ‘I’m going to be a bobsledder,’ ” McGuffie, 26, said. “It’s kind of something that just happened.”
McGuffie spent the 2014 football season playing for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League after bouncing around the NFL in 2013. After he left Winnipeg, McGuffie returned to Rice to work out with former Rice track and field assistant coach Casey Thom. His primary plan for the offseason was to work on his speed.
But then Thom, who had worked with McGuffie during his college career, brought up a topic he had mentioned to McGuffie during his time at Rice: What about giving bobsledding a try?
Thom knew what a successful bobsledder looked like. He crossed paths with a few future bobsledders during his college years at Nebraska, including Vancouver 2010 gold medalist Curt Tomasevicz, who was a walk-on football player for the Cornhuskers.
In Thom’s mind, McGuffie’s skillset resembled that of an Olympic bobsledder.
“He just was a very explosive athlete, his build is stocky and I thought he just looked like he could be very successful at it,” Thom said.
McGuffie, listed on the Blue Bombers’ roster at 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, mulled over Thom’s recommendation and eventually decided to give it a try. His athletic gifts had almost always been nearly unparalleled. When he was in high school, he became known nationally for his football recruitment video, which featured him hurdling defenders. The video accrued more than three million views on YouTube. The talent displayed in the video placed lofty expectations on McGuffie, and he showed glimpses of that ability at Michigan. In his lone season as a Wolverine, he garnered 486 rushing yards before leaving Ann Arbor in a somewhat controversial move.
McGuffie continued to show his wide array of athletic ability at Rice. Though he was primarily focused on football, McGuffie ran track and field, too. But because of the time constraints that football and academics imposed, McGuffie rarely practiced with the team. In 2009, during his year off from football because of NCAA transfer rules, McGuffie placed in the top 10 in Conference USA in six different events. In his final season at Rice in 2012, one in which he played football and ran track, McGuffie finished third in the conference in the heptathlon, a combined track and field competition made up of seven different events.
But still, despite all of his athletic acumen, McGuffie was surprised by his rapid rise in bobsledding. He went from a complete novice to a member of Team USA in less than three months.
It began in Park City, Utah, where McGuffie attended a USA bobsledding combine on Aug. 21. There, McGuffie was tested in six different events: the 15-meter sprint, the 30-meter sprint, the 60-meter sprint, the 30-meter fly, the broad jump and the shot toss. Each of the 21 male competitors was assigned a score from zero to 100 in each event based upon his individual performance.
McGuffie placed first in five out of the six events, finishing the combine with a score of 573 out of 600. Ten others finished with a score of more than 400 points, but nobody came close to McGuffie. The second-place finisher scored 471.
After competing in the USA National Bobsled Push Championships in Lake Placid, N.Y., it was time to prepare for the national team selection race. He practiced working as the brakeman, the last person to hop into the sled.
As he familiarized himself with bobsledding, McGuffie attempted to master all of the intricacies of the sport. At first glance, McGuffie said, the sport seems simple. Casual viewers think of the movie “Cool Runnings,” where a group of Jamaicans start bobsledding and instantly become stars in the sport. Despite McGuffie’s quick rise in bobsledding, he says the movie isn’t rooted in reality. Bobsledding, McGuffie says, is violent, just like football.
“There’s way more stuff going on than just hop in a sled and you go,” McGuffie said. “You’ve got to make sure the alignment’s perfect on every single run. You’ve got to do that, every run. Every time you go down, you have to have perfect riding position. You’ve got to load in the sled perfectly, you’ve got to lean into the curves, you have to know the tracks, you have to have a good hit on the sled, which is the initial movement off the block. You’ve got to hit it good and drive it down the track before you jump in.”
McGuffie spent most of his time leading up to last week’s event with Team USA’s No. 3 sled in Park City, but he soon caught the eye of Steve Holcomb, the driver of the No. 1 bobsled. Holcomb has won three Olympic medals, so McGuffie didn’t hesitate when Holcomb asked him to move to his sled.
The move worked out well for McGuffie, whose new bobsled team finished first in the national team selection race, comfortably earning him a spot on Team USA. The top three sleds in the event earned spots on the national team.
Though he admits he still has a great deal of room to improve in the sport since his career is so new, the idea of being able to wear the American flag while he competes is an appealing one to McGuffie.
“I haven’t competed yet, but when you have the USA (emblem), I can imagine, it doesn’t matter what it is — if it’s checkers, or if it’s tiddlywinks, you put the USA label on it, you’re going to go hard and you’re going to be amped up and you’re going to be ready to rock,” McGuffie said.
McGuffie will get his chance soon enough. Starting later this month, Team USA will be traveling all over Europe to compete. McGuffie feels as though he still has a long way to go before he secures a spot on the 2018 Winter Olympic team, but his end goal is within sight.
“You’d be dumb to ignore the fact that you could be in the Olympics at some point in your life if you had the opportunity or you had the talent or the skillset or the drive to do that,” McGuffie said.
McGuffie has always been a man of eclectic athletic interests. Though he plans to focus only on bobsledding for the foreseeable future, he does not view the sport as his only path to the Olympics.
Rugby sevens, a form of rugby played with seven players, will be added to the Summer Olympics starting in 2016. Team USA officials asked McGuffie to come out for a combine at the end of November. Bobsledding put those plans on hold, but rugby is something he would like to try in the future.
There’s always track and field, too. McGuffie sometimes wonders what would happen if he put all of his time into the sport, something he was never able to do in college.
“He did the decathlon a little bit for us,” Thom, the track coach, said. “If he was able to focus on it full time, he could have been very competitive at the highest level at the NCAA level. If you’re competitive there, then you can be competitive at the international level as well.”
Of course, he still thinks about football, too. McGuffie still loves the sport he played for 15 years, and he won’t rule out a return.
Sometimes, he thinks back to his time at Michigan. He holds great respect for his running backs coach, Fred Jackson, and he says he “loves” former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, even though McGuffie was not pleased with how his time as a Wolverine ended. McGuffie, all of these years later, says the main reason for his transfer was to be closer to his family in Texas. At the time, Rodriguez placed much of the blame on McGuffie having a concussion problem, something McGuffie says was not a factor.
McGuffie still roots for Michigan, saying he loves everything about the school. Things just didn’t work out back then. He didn’t feel like the Wolverines’ spread offense was the right fit, and he was just a young kid tasked with replacing Mike Hart. He faced enormous expectations due in large part to one recruiting video.
He didn’t lose that talent when he left. It just took him a while to discover the best way to use it, and with more than two years until the 2018 Winter Olympics, maybe he still hasn’t.
But now, in his next career, McGuffie has the chance to fulfill a childhood fantasy. He never thought he would be a bobsledder, never thought he would make the Olympics in this way. But he wants to find out what could happen if he tries.
“I don’t want to be the what-if guy. I kind of want to see what I’m capable of,” McGuffie said. “I want to see how far I can go, what I can do.”