Getting to Know…Savannah Graybill

(October 5, 2020) – For our 22nd installment of Getting to Know…we check in with USA Bobsled/Skeleton athlete Savannah Graybill! Savannah is a veteran of the USABS team, having competed internationally for almost a full decade. Over her career she’s won three gold medals on the Intercontinental Cup circuit to go with a pile of ICC and North American Cup medals, and in 2019 she helped give the United States a bronze medal in World Championships in the team competition.

If there’s a slider you’d like to get to know, drop a note in the contact form above or on Twitter: @thekenchilds 

Savannah Graybill (Courtesy IBSF/Viesturs Lācis)

Slider: Savannah Graybill
Team: USA Bobsled/Skeleton
Home track: Lake Placid
Hometown: Denver, PA, USA
Sponsors: Four Seasons Produce, Nitehawks Sports Club, Heart & Soul Crossfit, Foxchase Golf Club, The Graybill family, the Hecker family, and the generosity and moral support from many family, friends, local businesses and skeleton enthusiasts from around the country. “Thank you!”

We kick this thing off as we always do: What’s your favorite track and why?
My favorite track is Whistler. I love that track! I think it’s a very humbling track because it’s just so fast and it’s technical and there’s a ton of things coming at you at once so you have to be “on” to perform well there and to stay safe. I think there’s something about having a track like that that is challenging for me that wakes me up and I rise to the challenge, so I love that track!

Lots of people have used the word “humbling” when they talk about Whistler!
When it’s good it’s good, but when it’s bad it hurts! And it can get you into a lot of trouble, but man when you have a good run you feel it at the bottom and you know you’re cooking!

Unrelated to the track itself, what’s your favorite town to visit on the schedule?
I would have to say Innsbruck. I think that the city there is really neat and fun to explore. I’ve had a lot of opportunity to explore the area, and you have your favorite shops and coffee shops and things like that. Where it’s situation in the valley, we compete further up on the mountain in Igls, but I’ve had the opportunity to take the gondola to the other side of the mountain range and been able to look at the city there and it’s just incredible and so beautiful. I’ve been in Innsbruck for New Years Eve our tour was starting that very first week of January, and I just have such fond memories of hanging out with teammates. We were at an Austrian athlete’s house for New Years and looking into the valley, it’s the only night all year that they can shoot off fireworks, and just seeing all of the fireworks and it was beautiful. So I have a lot of fond non-sliding memories in Innsbruck!

Before skeleton you were a field hockey player who won all sorts of accolades (All-Conference 2nd team, Senior All Star team, Conference Player of the Week, etc), was it tough going from something you were so good at to a new sport that nobody is generally good at on the first go-round?
That’s the first time I’ve ever gotten this question! And it’s so true, you have the best athletes from their various sports coming in and just getting *wrecked*! I think it’s not something you ever really notice. At least when I came in we had a really big group of developmental athletes. We’d all come from our respective sports and we were learning how to slide, and I think that it’s not something you really think about. You’re doing this new sport that’s so exciting and so different, and poses a lot of risk for injury. If I’m tapping a wall I’m hitting that wall with no padding while going 50-60 miles per hour or more and there’s a real challenge there. So at that point I just remember trying to do the best that I could every day and ask all of the questions that I needed to ask and trying to be the best in my training group and work my way from there. It’s very much a sport that the more experience you get the better you get, but there’s definitely something to be said that when you are a newer athlete that you just let a lot happen. The mindset is “I’m just trying to get down as quickly as possible and if I hit that wall, I hit that wall.” And you can have some pretty quick times that way. But when you’re a more veteran athlete you’re aiming for perfection because you know where you should be and you shouldn’t be touching that wall. So I don’t recall thinking about how I really sucked at this but I was really great at my previous sport, I just remember embracing the challenge and being so focused on making it down, hitting the least amount of walls possible and having the least amount of bruises on my body compared to my teammates!

I think we’re all just really lucky that we have a sport like that here in the United States where a lot of us get that second chance to continue competing. A lot of us would probably retire from sport because of injury or maybe we weren’t quite good enough to reach the Olympic level at that sport. But I think that it’s so cool that there’s a sport where if you’re at your peak, you’re not done competing and you’re really looking for that outlet that for us bobsled and skeleton exists. It really does ignite that passion again, and it’s just such an exciting sport, there’s nothing like it!

Last season you were entirely self-funded. How was that different for you compared to other seasons where you had been fully funded?
There were definitely some pros and cons to this past season. Being self-funded is a challenge because you’re worrying about where that money is going to come from to pay for your lodging, and food, and everything week to week. And that’s an added stress that I had not experienced before at the World Cup level. On the USA team our World Cup team is funded and then money after that isn’t exactly there, but if there is they’ll find a way to distribute it amongst athletes. But fundraising in general is a very difficult concept. I’ve had season on Intercontinental Cup or North America Cup where I’ve paid for everything, but everyone there is essentially on the same playing field there. But when you’re on World Cup and you’re really trying to hone what you’re doing and being so specific, the stakes are higher and so are the competitions, it was definitely an added stress to figure out where we were staying every week and things like that. We booked a lot of AirBnBs because we wanted to cook for ourselves and obviously that’s a challenge too: When you’re staying in the team hotels they’re feeding you and where on tour we’d finish our day and we’d have to go back and cook for ourselves. It was hard to feel like I had these goals for myself but knowing that I’m at a slight disadvantage.

Starting in Lake Placid (SldingOnIce.com)

But what I will say was that I had a blast traveling with Andrew Blaser, who was the other self-funded athlete. We had a really good time and I think that we took it in stride! We booked everything that we needed to book and we set our schedules and that was it. So we got to really avoid some of the bigger picture things going on, and we were in our own little bubble. If it wasn’t affecting us, it wasn’t affecting us. If you’re staying in hotels with other teams or a full contingency of athletes there’s a lot of things that go on that you hear about or get dragged into and we didn’t really have to deal with that! We got to manage our own schedules and it wasn’t really dictated that “this is your meal time” or “this is this or that”. And we were really able to explore the areas that we traveled to, which was really cool. A lot of times on the World Cup tour you get to these towns, and you’re so focused, you have your race week and you never go to see really anything about the area you traveled to. So I will say that it was really nice that we got to see a little more and we really got to focus on what we wanted and needed with fewer distractions!

I didn’t always like staying away from the team like that. We had to, just because financially speaking it was the smartest decision we could make in terms of cooking and accommodations and splitting those prices. And it was challenging because it’s hard to feel like you’re a part of the team when you only see your teammates for only maybe an hour or so. So that definitely hurt, but there were a lot of lessons to learn about what I need in a race week and how I operate, and I didn’t realize how much some things were distractions from what I really needed. So it’s a lesson I’d prefer to not have to learn again and not have to pay to learn again, but at the end of the day there were definitely some positives out of it!

Tell us about your pets!
My family has two dogs currently, two vislas! My twin brother has a vizsla named Henry and my younger brother has a visla named Hank! They are adding to their dog family in a couple of weeks with a german shorthaired pointer. We’ve had vislas before, and we have always been a dog family. I love dogs and when I’m driving down the road in my car and I see a dog I will call it out. If there’s a dog that I see I will find a way to ask you nicely if I can pet it! I’m just a big, big dog fan!

When the season wraps up, what is usually your plan for relaxing for the first part of the off-season?
That is the time that I’m typically at home with my family. I usually train at the Olympic Training Center here in Lake Placid and usually I’ll get up here sometime in May to really kick things off. So that time at home is really just a little bit of decompression but also me getting things done that just need to get done. I get home and my taxes are not done so I have to figure that out, and otherwise just tie up loose ends from the season. My work things start to pick up around March with a few programs that I work on so I’m usually diving back into work. I’m also sleeping in, getting all of the rest that I need, going through all of my equipment and then otherwise just really enjoying time with family. So I don’t really do a whole lot of sliding-related things. I don’t really work out, I’ll go on walks and stuff or I’ll go for a run or if a friend invites me to a yoga class I’ll do it, but I stay away from any sprinting or lifting or anything of the sort to get my body back to a normal point! It’s really just some nice downtime to start the work schedule back up, I do work in-season, just less hours. It’s great that my company works with me for that, but it’s just nice to have a minute! It’s nice, too, because my family is so excited that I’m home and I don’t have anything going on so I can show up to pretty much anything!

Savannah and teammate Kendall Wesenberg (SlidingOnIce.com)

After your last training run, what is your routine like prior to your race?
That’s the most hectic day of the week! I’ll usually start some of my sled work immediately. Women tend to have the earlier training session; skeleton usually slides in the morning and on the last day of official training they split men and women. Usually the women race first so we get the earlier training time, so once we’re done with everything it’s not quite lunch yet. So I’ll start working on some sled work with taking things apart and prepping for that. I’ll have some lunch and then in the afternoon I’ll crank out the real sled work: Going through and making sure everything on the sled is okay, sanding runners, re-taping to make sure everything is as aerodynamic as possible, sewing bibs and things like that.

I try to crank all of that out as early as possible because I don’t like leaving it to the last minute. I would have all afternoon and evening in theory to be done with it but I just want it done! At some point we’ll do some video from the last day of training, and then once that’s done try to relax. Usually there’s a team meeting thrown in there too to go over race draw and things like that.  We have Normatec pants to aid in recovery so I’ll try do to that, and my goal is to get to bed as early as possible. I’m someone who needs eight hours minimum of sleep, I don’t generally function very well with less than that. So I get to bed early, and I need to be awake about three hours before I’m expected to race. So if we have a 9:00 AM race I need to be up at 6:00 AM. I’ll usually get a quick warmup in the morning so when I get to the track it’s not my first warmup or movement of the day. That prep in the afternoon can be long or short depending on if you get into your sled and there’s something wrong, or sometimes I’ll despair over what runner I need to use! I would say myself and Kendall [Wesenberg] tend to get sled work done really quickly, we just want it done. Some of my teammates will take longer because they figure they have all afternoon and don’t want to exert all sorts of energy. So that’s generally what happens!

If you weren’t sliding what would you be doing with your life?
Man, that is the question isn’t it?! I love sliding, I love sport, and I love competing and I want to compete in the Olympics and that is my all-time ultimate goal. But I’m also excited for life after sport too. I feel like we all got a taste of that with March, April, May, and part of June with COVID going on. We couldn’t really work, or go to gyms, or whatever, and I got a taste of what that normal life is like.

I currently work in corporate communications with the Adecco Group N.A. and I enjoy my job. We’re putting people to work and it’s a great company! I look forward to possibly continuing in this role. I was a broadcast journalism major and I also have my MBA in business and marketing so I’m very excited to either keep my job or find a new job that really makes me feel that I’m both working for a great company and doing something that’s a worthwhile cause. But I love working in marketing, I’m a people person and I love being in front of the camera. I really enjoy storytelling, like Hannah Storm or the ESPN 30 for 30s, and I really love meeting and connecting with people and being challenged to tell their story. I could see myself doing something like that, but that is where I think I’m at with that right now.

I’m fortunate that in the United States through the USOPC we have the Athlete Career and Education (ACE) Program. It helps put athletes to work, helps with resume building, interview skills, they can find you flexible part-time work or if you’re an athlete who’s transitioning out of sport, they can help you make that transition to find a job that’s a good fit and prepare you for that. I got involved with them several years ago and I’ve had an internship through that and was able to get the job that I have now. We’re really lucky that athletes can start to work on that and do that now. I feel lucky and very excited about what’s to come because I have plans. But that question can be really scary for athletes because you get asked the question “What do you want to do after this?” and you think “I don’t know, I just want to go to the Olympics!” And it’s a very scary conversation, I think our team does a pretty good job because we come in at such an older age than some countries. Some people have worked out of college or most have college degrees so it’s just a matter of catching up to your peers at that point, but everyone here generally works or has some kind of plan.

What’s been your best memory of your sliding career? 
I have two: One is definitely sliding related, and the other is not sliding related at all.

My sliding one is definitely my first ever World Cup in the 2014/2015 season. I had won team trials that year and made the World Cup team and our first race was in Lake Placid. So I ended up placing fifth in my first World Cup and it was so exciting because I have stayed at the training center here for a very long time and the folks who work here really become your second family because they’re the ones you interact with all day in the cafeteria and the front desk and with housekeeping and maintenance. So you really get to know them, and when race week comes around and you’re getting ready they’re handing you your plates and are like “Your race day is today, we’ll be watching, we’re so excited!” So to be able to make a podium in my first ever World Cup, they were super pumped, and I’ve worked at the track for the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) before and everyone that’s there was super pumped. We were waiting outside just before the medal ceremony and I’d gone in to find my family and everyone inside the lodge was super excited for me! There were a lot of board members there and I just had so much support that race, to do that in my first ever World Cup race on my home track with friends and family there, it was just so exciting.  I made a big jump from like tenth to fifth so I got a lot of leader’s box time too.

Podium in 2014 (L-R: Rose McGrandle, Tina Hermann, Elisabeth Maier, Lizzy Yarnold, Janine Flock, Savannah Graybill)(SlidingOnIce.com)

Now I’m very good friends with [Australian slider] Jackie Narracott, and I went to her wedding last summer, and we are two people who don’t like to be stuck in hotels. If we can get out and we have a free afternoon we’re like “Let’s go explore!” That same season we were in La Plagne and there were tons of issues with that race. The men’s race turned into a one-heat race, we got basically one training day to go. We spent so much time prepping for that race because we’d had one day of training and I thought “Holy crap I’m going to get rocked out of these corners!” We show up and they cancel our race. So that’s pretty upsetting, because I’d done all that stuff to prep. Jackie and I were pretty bummed, and she was staying down the mountain in another hotel. She messages me at around 11:00 Am and she’s like “Check out this thing that I found!”

One of the ski resorts there is called Colorado Luge and it’s 11 Euros and you get two runs down this sledding hill. I figure I’ll try anything for $10 so we went and got our tickets and hop on a ski lift to where this thing starts. We go up two stops, we get up there and into this little hut. Now France is great because there’s basically no rules. The risk is inherent and you know something could happen but it’s on you! There’s a tiny shed and there’s these longer plastic sleds that you can sit in, just cheap plastic, but they have two handles on either side of them and you pull them a metal spoke goes into the ground and it’s supposed to help with steering and braking. It’s an illusion, you can’t actually steer these things very well. So we’re looking at the thing and all of the rules are in French, and it looks like the only rule is that the sleds have a leash like a surfboard would, and it the only rule is that you have to have that leash on. We’re like “Okay, that seems silly but whatever.” But I now understand why you need the leash.

We took the sleds down, and it’s pretty legit! It’s this big sledding course and it’ll be a little flat then it’ll go downhill hard and take a hard turn! So you start going and get the speed wobbles because you’re hauling ass and then you try to steer this thing and that’s just making it worse! And you had to have the leash on because I ate it so many times! I had snow in every possible pocket you could possibly imagine. So we’re racing each other, but then she’ll eat it, then I’ll eat it, then she’ll eat it! And this thing is steep and winding and by the time we’re at the bottom we’re like “holy crap!” We went back up and took our second run, and it was just so much fun, and I just remember that I hadn’t crashed so much in my entire life doing anything, but that thing was wild!

So we get finished, we have snow everywhere and are sopping wet and we went back to her apartment she was staying in. We got a bottle of wine and some snacks and just hung out, drank some wine, and dried off and ate snacks. And it was just so much fun, and I remember having a huge smile on my face by the time I got back to the hotel. My teammates were asking what I was smiling about, since our race had been canceled. I was like “Man, you should have seen the thing I just did!”

We were in La Plagne this season but we didn’t really have time to go check it out, so I’m excited to go back sometime and get back out there!

Other side of that: What’s been your toughest thing you’ve been through in sliding?
I would say the 2017/2018 Olympic season was really hard for me. Spoiler alert: I didn’t make the Olympic team, we only sent two and I was number three.

Graybill high-fiving fans (SlidingOnIce.com)

That season as a whole was a real challenge because I had lost my grandfather that summer, and he was my guy. He was my go-to person, we were very very close and he was my biggest supporter. When I’d go to the airport to fly to races he was the one who took me. I didn’t call someone else, it was always him. We’d lost him in June and it was right in the middle of training, I’d left team camp to go home for what was happening. I didn’t really have a lot of time to process that because everything had happened and we were in the middle of summer training for the Olympics and I knew he’d want me to continue training and that sort of thing. I came back up here and probably wasn’t emotionally ready for that, but I went through team trials and that’s always the most stressful part of the year because you’re trying to make the World Cup team and trying to make sure you’re ready for the season.

I remember that whole season I just couldn’t get anything to click. It was by far one of my worst seasons, and obviously there’s the added stress of trying to compete and make an Olympic team. The time comes and I don’t make the team, and I had to compete in one final World Cup after the team was named and that week was just so hard to navigate. Obviously I’m excited for my teammates who did qualify and I don’t want to take away from their experience, but holy crap that hurt so much! I just remember getting home after that and wanting to get that comfort and support from my grandfather and he wasn’t around. So I just know that whole year and whole season, not making the Olympics and the racing notwithstanding, was so challenging to manage all of that. Looking back on it I definitely didn’t do a good job, but when you’re in that moment you’re doing what you can to manage what’s happening to you and what you’re feeling. So that definitely wasn’t fun for me.

Guest question from Luke Farrar (Luge GB): IF you could have any exotic animal from a zoo, which one would you get and why?
I haven’t been to a zoo in a while, so I’m trying to think about what they’ve got there! Maybe a capybara! I saw one of those for the first time when I went down for Jackie’s wedding, and they snooze the whole time! They were very, very cute and I feel like that’s something I could manage, because when I retire from the sport could totally get visla and have the time to take it for a walk but right now I do not have that. And I just like something that will snuggle up and cuddle is what I’m really looking for.