‘I’m here for them.’ The highs and lows of life as a backup Olympic athlete

Briauna Jones fought back tears as she sat in the audience as members of the women’s U.S. Olympic bobsled team spoke from a stage about her unglamorous job at the 2018 Winter Games.

Jones, a 26-year-old Charlotte, N.C., resident, is the team’s backup athlete, meaning that she won’t compete at the Winter Olympics unless one of the four U.S. bobsledders is injured or ill.

She’s of the team, but not officially on it. Under International Olympic Committee rules for alternate athletes, she wasn’t allowed to march in Friday’s opening ceremony at Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, won’t participate in the closing festivities, and won’t receive a medal if the U.S. women bobsledders capture one.

"It’s really hard to be here and not be a competitor," she said after watching the U.S. team’s press conference Thursday. "There are things you come across as you go through this experience that remind you that you’re not competing, such as not being able to participate in opening ceremonies, and not being able to be up here on the panel with the rest of my teammates.

“Those are all reminders that I’m not an Olympic athlete,” Jones said.

But team members Elana Meyers Taylor, Aja Evans, Lauren Gibbs, and Jamie Greubel Poser say Jones is a valuable member of the team, even if she doesn’t receive perks and privileges that official Olympic athletes get.

jones headshot
Briauna Jones of Charlotte, N.C., is a backup athlete on the women’s U.S. Olympic bobsled team at the 2018 Winter Olympics. She won’t compete unless someone on the team gets injured or sick. Still, Jones says she’s enjoying her experience in Pyeongchang. Molly Choma

"She’s extremely composed," said Meyers Taylor, the pilot of one of the two U.S.women’s bobsleds in Pyeongchang. "Her first World Cup race in St. Moritz, Switzerland, she won it. She handled it like a champ, and that’s the biggest thing you need in an alternate. You need somebody who can come in a pressure-filled situation when things are chaotic, and handle it. And we are more than confident that Briauna can handle any situation that’s thrown her way."

Evans, a brakeman, marveled that Jones has come so far so fast in less than two years of bobsledding.

"I couldn’t think of a better alternate – she would be great in either sled," Evans said. "She’s so young and has so much potential to grow in the sport, so I think it’s great to have her here."

The unexpected praise from her teammates caused tears to stream down Jones’ face.

"Just to hear my teammates speak so highly of me really touched me," she said.. "Just to hear that they appreciate me just really spoke to me because I’m here for them, and just to know that they’re here for me, too, is really powerful."

Life as a backup is hurry up and wait. Jones said she practices and attends meetings with the team. She said the toughest part of the job so far was figuring out where to watch the Winter Games’ opening ceremony while her teammates marched into a packed stadium as the crowd roared.

Jones did manage to score at least one Olympic perk that’s usually not afforded to backup athletes: She’s living in the athlete’s village because a room became available.

"That’s been an amazing experience, being able to see first-hand all the amenities that the athlete’s village has and it’s been a really cool experience seeing all the other nations," she said.

Jones said her spirits have been buoyed by Charlotte residents and students and faculty at UNC Charlotte, where she was a track and field athlete. It’s where the seeds of her bobsled career were planted.

Charlotte 49ers Head track and field coach Bob Olesen
UNC Charlotte track and field Coach Bob Olesen suggest that Briauna Jones switch from track to bobsled. Olesen was a member of the 1998 U.S, Olympic men’s bobsled team. Charlotte 49er Athletics

UNCC track and field coach Bob Olesen, a former Olympic bobsledder, suggested to Jones that she try the sport after she failed to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro as a track athlete.

Olesen helped prepare her for a USA Bobsled and Skeleton combine — a tryout — in Columbia, S.C., in June 2016 that helped launch her bobsled career. Olesen continues to serve as a sounding board and a shoulder to lean on when things go wrong.

When Jones expressed her disappointment at being named a backup on the Olympic team Olesen reminded her that "only five women in the country are going to get to do this, so that’s pretty impressive on its own."

"It’s really crazy that my university and the city of Charlotte keep reaching out to me, sending me all these photos and articles that I’ve been featured in," she said. "It’s really cool because after the team was named, I was really down and I wasn’t really up to talking to people. But everyone was just reaching out and sending me their love. It’s been an amazing process."

Jones won’t be returning to Charlotte and her job in apparel at Dick’s Sporting Goods in SouthPark mall immediately when the Winter Games end Feb. 25.

Instead, she’s heading straight to Lake Placid, New York, and its Olympic track to begin transitioning from bobsled brakeman and to pilot. She wants to be in the driver’s seat at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

"I ran track for almost my entire life and I thought that was my calling," she said. "But coming into this sport for less than two years, I realize this is where I’m supposed to be."

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas