Using Athleticism to Star for PU Football, Track, Volker Switches to Bobsled, Makes Olympic Debut
MULTI-TALENTED: Charlie Volker ’19 distinguished himself as a two-sport standout during his career at Princeton University, starring as a running back for the football team, top, and as a sprinter on the men’s track team. Utilizing his athleticism, Volker made the U.S. bobsled team for the Beijing 2022 Olympics. Last Monday (Eastern Time), Volker and teammate Hunter Church competed in the two-man bobsled, sitting in 28th place after the first two runs. The competition was slated to wrap up on Tuesday. Volker will also be competing in the four-man bobsled which is scheduled for February 18 and 19. (Photo provided courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)
By Justin Feil
Charlie Volker played football and ran track at Princeton University, but he will be competing in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in his new sport, bobsled.
Volker, a 2019 Princeton alum, is slotted to be the brakeman who sits in the very back for the top four-man bobsled for the United States that will be driven by Hunter Church. He also teamed with Church in the two-man bobsled and the pair sat in 28th place after the first two runs last Monday. That competition was slated to wrap up on Tuesday with the four-man event scheduled for February 18 and 19.
“Even though I haven’t been in the sport for a long time, it’s something I’ve been working towards in a way my entire life,” said Volker. “I’d say I belong here. I fit in well. A lot of these other athletes have very similar dreams and a lot of the guys are in the sport because they’ve been snubbed elsewhere.”
Just like a bobsled ride, Volker’s rise to Olympian hasn’t been perfectly smooth. He’s tackled obstacles and overcome inexperience while utilizing some lessons learned at Princeton under football coach Bob Surace and track and field coach Fred Samara.
“They instilled in me that virtue of staying in the present and never looking too far ahead, never looking too far behind because it can be detrimental,” said Volker.
“If you’re in that present moment and you’re all there, it’s pretty cool because nothing else matters at that moment.”
Volker had hoped to get a chance to make the NFL out of Princeton. He was training for that opportunity when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and canceled the NFL minicamps that look at free agents. Without that opportunity to show off for an NFL team, a trainer with bobsled training experience suggested that Volker use his combination of speed and strength for bobsled.
In addition to his football prowess, Volker won a 60-meter indoor Ivy League Heptagonal championship and was part of the school’s 4×100 relay that set an Ivy record. On the gridiron, he was a star running back for Princeton’s 10-0 Ivy championship football team in 2018, and graduated as the school’s seventh all-time leading rusher with 1,994 yards.
“Luckily for me, I’ve been strength and speed training my whole life,” said the 6’0, 220-pound Volker.
“I was originally doing it for football. That didn’t end up working out. This was almost a better fit for me. I’m such a linear athlete. I don’t do very well side to side. When I started doing this, it instantly clicked.”
It may have clicked instantly, but no one could have imagined Volker growing so quickly into an Olympian. He didn’t try the bobsled until the fall of 2020, and still remembers his first ride and how raw he was in the sport.
“That push looked awful,” recalled Volker. “I’ve been afforded some good opportunities along the way and I’ve taken ahold of them for sure.”
Volker’s improvements came as he poured his energy into training for the new sport, and absorbed all the instruction he could. He shifted his athletic skills to apply to the new sport as a push-athlete, whose job is to give the bobsled its crucial momentum before its crew climbs in for a violent ride down the ice track. This year, he had the top push time for any American, 5.07 seconds.
“I’ve pushed like 500 reps in the Icehouse over the summer with these guys,” said Volker of the special training center built in Lake Placid, N.Y.
“Then you get on the line, conditions change, fans might be at one race, you may be a little tired, stuff changes all the time, but once you get in that race mode, it’s the same thing every single time. It’s like we’re machines now, which is awesome.”
Volker put himself in position to be named to his first Olympic team by focusing on each opportunity that he had. When he came down with a positive COVID-19 test one day before he was to leave for last year’s World Cup, he was forced to stay behind at the U.S. training center. But so was Church, who was disqualified, and a Church supporter remained to train specifically with the driver, as well as another push-athlete who could not get a release from the Army. Volker had begged the U.S. coaches to let him join the World Cup circuit, but staying home with that crew as a new push-athlete may have helped him more in the long run.
“I got my mistakes out of the way then,” said Volker. “I got all this race experience. We got to practice with these guys. Probably half of our races (this year) have been with that crew. It’s pretty cool that it ended up happening.”
Volker found like-minded athletes to train with and shared their strong desire to succeed and represent the United States in international competition. Bobsled fit his craving to compete and train for the highest athletic level.
“I felt like I was doing something I was meant to do all along,” said Volker. “That was cool. It was an awesome feeling. As I’ve gotten better in the sport, and been around more experienced guys, you pick up little tidbits of information to make you an even better pusher. With these guys, I’m learning to be an even better athlete overall, a smarter athlete and a better person. It’s super cool.”
It has been a steep learning curve for Volker, who starred at Rumson-Fair Haven before coming to Princeton. He has tried to absorb as much information as quickly as possible to give himself every chance to compete well internationally.
“There are a lot of aspects to this sport that a lot of people don’t know about, and I didn’t know about,” said Volker. “There’s a lot of small detail work that goes on in the garage behind the scenes. Even that, becoming a more useful person, is cool. I’m more handy. I’m having a great time. All the guys here, and all the coaches have been super good to me and brought me up the right way.”
Making leaps in the sport, Volker performed well through this year’s World Cup circuit to secure a spot for the Olympics. He acknowledged that there were times that could have been nerve-wracking, but tried not to think about the stakes of each race performance as U.S. selection committee evaluated its prospects for the Olympic team.
“That eats you up in a bad way,” said Volker. “Someone reminded me to control what I could and let the rest happen. If I ever get in that mindset where I’m worrying too much, I just try to control every little thing I can, and every little thing I can’t I just don’t worry about. Everything that will happen, will happen for a reason. I put in the work I need to, and I’m going to continue to put in the work.”
Seeking to brush aside any uncertainty over being picked for the Olympic team, Volker focused on his performance in each World Cup race. He was in Church’s sled when they took third at a World Cup event in Winterberg, Germany, that put them on the radar for a medal in Beijing. The U.S. was top 10 despite making changes to its bobsled crews throughout the season.
“I’ve been all over Europe this year — Germany, Austria, Latvia, Switzerland,” said Volker. “It’s super cool and things change but nothing really changes in the race. You’re always doing the same thing, which is fun because you’ve been drilling it so long. You get better at it every time you do it, which is cool.”
Volker is feeling even better about the Olympics after the sled driven by Church gained confidence after training exclusively together over the last few weeks. They have been fine-tuning their sled for the Olympics following the World Cup experiences.
“The more race reps you get with the same crew, the more solid you feel,” said Volker. “We’ve been switching things up this whole year. We’ve still had good results pushing, and I’m super excited about our chances. We have the potential to surprise some people at the end of this year and the start of next year.”
With his combination of power and speed, Volker is a key piece of the American bobsled’s chance to medal. The push is integral, and it is documented that he is among the best in the world at the short, fast start. Beijing has a long bobsled track that is unfamiliar to most of the teams, which opens up the competition beyond the favored Germans.
“The Germans own the sport,” said Volker. “They have all the technology. It’ll be a different story on a neutral track that people only have so many runs on. Then it comes down to the push and how well people can steer. I think it will be pretty interesting. I’m excited.”