Five years ago, Nicole Brungardt was listening to a Christian radio station and realized that her days as a competitive athlete weren’t quite over yet.
Although the 27-year-old Wayne State graduate and All-American track and field athlete had not competed since her days as a Wildcat ended in 2012, the idea of getting back into competitive athletics last summer led her to a rather unusual opportunity — bobsledding.
“It was really random,” she said in a recent phone interview. “There was this interview with a former Olympic track star (Vonetta Flowers) who got into bobsledding. I’d told my dad about it and we found out there was a training combine that summer in Utah, so he booked the flight and I started training.”
Brungardt and her dad, Tim, soon found themselves in Park City, Utah, site of one of the U.S. Olympic tracks. She was scored in timed sprints of 15, 30 and 45 meters, as well as a standing long jump and an underhanded shot toss, and scored well enough to get invited to a “rookie camp” last August in Lake Placid, N.Y.
“It was a week-long camp there and we learned the fundamentals of bobsledding,” she said. “We learned techniques and got tested on max power cleans and squats to see who the ‘A-list’ athletes were.”
At the end of the camp, the rookies had a push-off, with the top three invited to continue. Brungardt finished second, and wound up on the United States developmental team.
It’s quite a change of pace for Brungardt, who came to Wayne State in 2008 after earning statewide Athlete of the Year awards during her high school days at Norfolk Catholic, where she led their basketball team to a state title and won multiple gold medals in track and field.
Wayne State volleyball coach Scott Kneifl recruited Brungardt, who also excelled in volleyball at Norfolk Catholic, to play for the Wildcats. He remembered seeing a very unique young lady the first time he saw her as an athlete.
“I had the chance to work with her in a camp at her high school when she was a sophomore, and she worked her tail off and wanted to be the best at everything,” he said.
“She was just one of the most dynamic athletes Northeast Nebraska has ever seen. We recruited her pretty hard and were fortunate that she chose us.”
Although basketball was where she won a state title, she proved a quick learner on the volleyball court as well and was a starter her last three years as a Wildcat.
“She played back row and was very athletic didn’t let balls land,” Kneifl said. “For not playing a ton of volleyball, she picked up a lot really quick. Her athleticism was just freakish. She did things in our strength and conditioning program that I have yet to see again, and don’t know that I’ll ever see again.”
Not content with just playing volleyball, Brungardt added track and field to her Wildcat experience and was a four-time All-American for Wayne State track and field coach Marlon Brink.
“We knew about Nicole as a high school athlete and when she came here she wanted to focus on volleyball the first couple of years,” Brink said. “Scott was really good about letting her do both sports, and as she got older and physically stronger, she got into the weight room and made some great strength gains when she was there.”
Before all was said and done, Brungardt earned three All-American honors in indoor track, finishing fifth in the 60-meter dash and long jump and eight as part of the 1,600-meter relay team; then went outdoors as a senior in 2012 and placed eighth in the 100-meter dash. She holds school records in the two individual indoor events, as well as the 100 and 200-meter dashes outdoors.
“Everything there (at Wayne State) helped me prepare for this,” Brungardt said. “Being disciplined and dedicated to what you’re doing and having fun with the team made me want to be back in athletes. I had the time of my life there and wouldn’t trade the world for that.”
Most Olympic bobsledders were successful athletes in other sports, so the fact that the Wayne State grad had zero experience when she began this quest last summer is of little consequence. She has worked with a number of trainers, and was able to compete as part of the North American Bobsled Team, which is the team just behind the World Cup team that usually represents the United States in the Olympic Games.
For now, she works her training in around her career as a field engineer for CenturyLink in Omaha, and she has received a ton of support from her employer.
“They’ve went above and beyond for me,” she said. “They’ve allowed me to work remotely and even raised funds for me to pursue this.”
Thanks to her new venture, she has already competed overseas in places like France, Switzerland and Austria and has trained on some of the top bobsledding tracks in the world.
“It’s been absolutely amazing,” she said of the experience. “I spent Christmas in Europe, which was just an experience of a lifetime.”
The 2018 Olympics in South Korea begin soon, and Brungardt is focusing on Beijing, China, host site for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
“I’m 100 percent definitely in it for the next one,” she said. “That’s my goal.”
(NOTE: You can follow Nicole Brungardt’s Olympic quest on her website. If you’d like to donate to her training efforts, a GoFundMe page has been set up to receive financial contributions.)