Not every assignment in the United States Air Force involves piloting a jet, but Airman 1st Class Kelly Curtis ’08, who only completed basic training in 2020, is already flying.
Downhill, that is.
Curtis was named in January to the U.S. Olympic skeleton racing team to compete in the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. One of the two top-ranked U.S. women in the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) standings, Curtis also races as a representative of the Air Force’s World Class Athlete Program, or WCAP. Curtis is believed to be the first Lawrenceville alumna to compete in the Olympic Games.
Skeleton is aptly named. Solitary sliders speed down an ice track face-first on a sled notable for its sparse structure. Races begin with the sliders taking a running start before diving onto their sleds, with sliders at the world-championship level reaching speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour. It’s intense, but Curtis says any fear leaves her once she starts a run.
“Every single time I slide here, I still get a lot of nerves right before I go,” she said during a break from a November practice in Innsbruck, Austria, just days before a World Cup race. “But then once you get going, your senses take over and you don’t really think about how crazy it looks. You’re just trying to get down as best as possible.”
As swiftly as Curtis zooms downhill on her sled, her ascent in the sport has been just as rapid. In the United States, skeleton lacks natural entry points for young people, unlike more mainstream activities such as figure skating, which begins drawing competitors once they are old enough to stand on their blades. By the time Curtis was introduced to sliding, she was already in her mid-twenties.
“I didn’t find it until I was in grad school,” she says of her time at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, “so I had a late start, especially compared to the European competitors, who usually start between about 12 and 16.”
The athletic Curtis, who came to Lawrenceville after graduating from Princeton High School, left in possession of the Big Red record in the triple jump, one she still holds. A versatile track-and-field performer, Curtis also competed in the long jump, high jump, hurdles, and javelin. Three years later, she won the heptathlon at the 2011 Penn Relays, competing for Springfield College in Massachusetts after transferring from Tulane. At Springfield, track coach Jim Pennington and strength and conditioning coach Dan Jaffe observed that Curtis’ strength as a heptathlete was in her physical power more than her ability to run distances. To them, she was reminiscent of Erin Pac, a former Springfield athlete who transitioned successfully to the bobsled and won a bronze medal at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
“So, [Jaffe] said, ‘you should probably think about doing this bobsled combine when you’re done competing in track of field,’” Curtis says. “At first I was like, ‘absolutely not. It looks crazy.’”
Curtis admits she knew almost nothing about bobsled – “I’ve never been exposed to it and it looks really intense,” she thought – but decided to try out for a combine, almost on a lark, when she was at St. Lawrence. She performed well enough as a brakeman on a four-woman team to be invited to a driving school.
“From there, I just fell down the rabbit hole and kept on getting invited back,” she recalls.
Although she found driving a bobsled exhilarating, the training also offered Curtis her first exposure to skeleton.
“Everyone else in the camp who was sliding skeleton looked like they were having a blast, so I thought, 'I want to try that at least once,'” she says. “On the very last day, I was able to try it and instantly fell in love. Then I was like, ‘how do I come back to this?’”
Curtis began sliding and found immediate success, posting competitive times, but her breakthrough came once she acquired a quality skeleton sled near the end of the 2017-18 season.
“The equipment made all the difference in the world,” says Curtis, who as a member of Team USA would capture the North American Cup circuit two times as well as the IBSF Intercontinental Cup.
Curtis says her Olympic skeleton spark was lit watching Katie Uhlaender on television during the 2014 Sochi games, when she missed the bronze medal by just hundredths of a second. Now, eight years later, Uhlaender and Curtis will be the only two women sliders to compete for the United States in Beijing.
“It’s just crazy that I’m here with her now,” Curtis says. “I think, ‘I was just watching you on TV a couple years ago, and now here we are as teammates!’”
Uhlaender was also influential in Curtis’ decision to pursue the support of the Air Force through the World Class Athlete Program, which requires athletes to be nationally ranked for consideration. Although Curtis enlisted in the service for the standard four-year commitment, her participation in WCAP essentially freed her to train for a chance at Beijing once she completed basic training.
“You’re pretty much set free to do whatever you need to do to compete and represent the Air Force at the highest level,” says Curtis, who moved in September with her husband, Jeffery Milliron, a 2016 Olympic hopeful in the discus, to Aviano Air Base in northeastern Italy. Located at the foot of the Southern Carnic Alps, its proximity to the tracks Curtis needed to train paid off in her Olympic nomination. Had she missed the January 15 cut for the games, Curtis’ time in WCAP would have ended until February 2023, when the program starts up for the 2026 Games in Milan and Cortina, Italy. As it is, she will return to her base for active duty, where she intends to pursue the office route, at the conclusion of the Winter Games in February.
“Once I’m out of WCAP, then I’ll just be like any other enlisted airman, showing up to my job every day,” Curtis says. “But as of right now, it’s been a dream come true being able to represent the U.S. in more than just one uniform.”
Photo credit: Roman Koksarov/Associated Press
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