On paper they seem like polar opposites. Natalie (Pearson) DeRatt ’11, a native of Sheffield, England, sprints for five seconds at maximal velocity before hopping into the back of a 300-pound bobsled. Hurtling down an icy chute, DeRatt approaches speeds of 90 miles per hour—roughly 80 miles per hour faster than Greensboro-native Loring (Watkins) Crowley ’05 hits while racing in major marathons all across the country.
What both former UNC Asheville track and field athletes share in common makes the connection clearer—they both are chasing Olympic dreams.
For Crowley, the biggest race of her life has already taken place. In a field of 200 qualifiers, Crowley battled excruciating conditions to place 94th at the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in February. Held in Los Angeles during a freak heat wave, the runners battled sustained temperatures over 85 degrees with no shade on the wide city streets.
“The sad thing about the race was it tested your mental toughness more than all the training you did because of the heat,” says Crowley, who managed a 2:53:53 in L.A., well off her personal best of 2:40:57. “At some point you’re not really racing, you’re just trying to finish and enjoy it, even though you’re pretty miserable.”
Despite the conditions, getting to compete against America’s best distance runners with three Olympic spots on the line was well worth it. A miler and 5K runner in college, Crowley has worked with a Colorado-based marathon coach the last three years to bring structure to her 70-to-80 mile training weeks. She fits her training around her job as a project engineer for Schnabel Engineering. If that sounds like a heavy load, it’s nothing new to Crowley.
“It probably all started in college with learning to manage my time well and being efficient,” she says. “The time you’re putting in—be it work, running, whatever else—you’re making the most out of it and planning really well. That’s the key to being able to enjoy it and not just cramming it in. And I love marathon training, crazy as that sounds.”
While Crowley slowly moved her way up in distance, DeRatt found an entirely new sport. As a runner she was a two-time NCAA Championships qualifier and former Big South Conference Athlete of the Year, DeRatt reached her peak when she participated in the British Olympic trials in 2008 and 2012. Both bids came up short, and after 10 years of training at a national-class level, DeRatt felt physically and emotionally burned out. Her time in athletics appeared over until her college sprint coach, Brad DeWeese, made a wild suggestion—why not try the bobsled? One year later, DeRatt held a silver medal in her hand at the 2014 Lake Placid World Cup.
“It’s been a wild ride, about as far away from summer racing on the track as you can get,” DeRatt says. “Track might be my first love, but bobsled is a fun game to me. It’s kind of like a roller coaster with the adrenaline you get. It hooks you. You want to do more.”
Doing more is a challenge in the United States, where no year-round ice tracks exist. To stay ready for the winter racing season, DeRatt puts in 16-to-20 hours of training each week, much of it is on the same UNC Asheville track where she became a world-class athlete, only now the emphasis is on even greater raw speed and power.
“I haven’t run over 120 meters [hard] in three years,” she says with a laugh. “Sometimes I feel like I’m cheating because I’m not running very far. Then I remember I’m only competing for five seconds.”
In her first few years in the sport, DeRatt trained as a brakeman. A permanent resident of the United States, DeRatt was told her chances of making the U.S. Winter Olympic team were higher as a pilot. For the first time this year she’ll learn to drive a sled with an eye on qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. DeRatt trusts her abilities. Even if they don’t fulfill an Olympic dream, the sport has imparted some wisdom.
“Bobsled definitely teaches you patience,” she says. “There are a lot of things that can go wrong. You just sort of go into survival mode. You can’t really control what happens. You make it down to the bottom one way or another.”
Ristic, a native of Serbia, competed for the Bulldogs from 2012-13, and was a record-setting track and field athlete. Now he’s a Serbian national record holder in the indoor 60-meter hurdles and the outdoor 110-meter hurdle events, and has been a member of the Serbian national team since 2010. He’ll compete in the Olympics in the men’s 110-meter hurdles on Monday, Aug. 15.
"All the years of hard work, frustration, dedication has finally paid off,” Ristic said in an interview with the Asheville Citizen-Times. “I can't be more happier at this moment because this is not something that happens overnight, it needs a lot of time and hard work. Definitely well deserved.”