SOCHI, Russia — Wearing a dark warm-up suit with "USA" emblazoned on the back, Katie Eberling helps carry the 400-pound bobsled to the starting line and places it down on freshly sanded blades.
She gives a reassuring nod to teammate Elana Meyers, her offseason roommate and the talented pilot with whom she has won two medals at world championships. She also smiles at Meyers' new brakeman, Lauryn Williams, a former track star who has only been racing for seven months.
Eberling, a Palos Hills native, watches them as they start down the ice, following their progress as the sled slides into the first curve. Her gaze cannot and does not linger long. There are two more American sleds that need to be moved to the track. That is Eberling's responsibility.
As an Olympic alternate, Eberling doesn't have time to dwell on her lost Olympic dreams. She's too busy helping other people realize theirs.
"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't extremely hard and that I wasn't still trying to heal from it," she said, forcing a small smile. "But you can't focus on that, not when other people are depending upon you."
Eberling, 25, agreed to serve the American cause a few days after the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation's surprising decision to leave her off the Sochi roster. Her parents had urged her to stay home. It seemed a tempting refuge, but she ultimately believed she had a responsibility to her teammates.
Her new role tests both her character and her emotions on a near hourly basis. Eberling lives in an alternate's limbo, a frequently lonely place where she is not considered an Olympian but is no mere spectator either.
She is not staying in the athletes' village. She was not allowed to walk in the opening ceremony. Beyond her team uniform, she didn't get any free clothing, not even one of those divisive Ralph Lauren sweaters.
And unlike most Olympic alternates, Eberling doesn't sit around waiting for a teammate to roll an ankle or come down with flu. She works. She spends hours at the track and in the workroom, helping to carry the squad's three massive sleds, sanding the blades to make them faster and taking training runs to give the three U.S. brakemen some rest and a scouting report at the bottom.
"I was never under the illusion that it would be an easy role," she said. "But ultimately I am part of something bigger than myself and I think that has helped me move forward."
Indeed, Eberling seems to have found a fledgling peace in the Caucasus Mountains, where she has embraced as much of the Olympic experience as her schedule allows. In the Games' first week, she visited Olympic Park, watching pairs figure skating and witnessing the thrilling U.S. hockey victory over Russia.
There have been rough moments, too.
She cried watching the opening ceremony when the high-definition difference between her role and the Olympians' experience was broadcast directly at her.
She has shared a residence in the mountain village of Krasnaya Polyana with bobsled alternates and the family of skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace, a silver medalist here. It's a beautiful home, Eberling says, and one made especially lively by Pikus-Pace's two small children.
"It has been a lot fun to have the kids around," she said. "And Noelle is just such a positive person. It has been so good for me."
Her teammates have noticed her lightened mood since arriving in Sochi, as well. She laughs more, they say. Her smile seems genuine again.
"That's the Katie I know," Meyers said. "Anytime that kind of disappointment comes your way, it might take a second to recover. But Katie has done a great job bouncing back and has really been a team player."
Eberling — a former standout volleyball player at Western Michigan — had been considered a lock for the U.S. team in Sochi after finishing second with Meyers at the world championships last year. She medaled three times in four races on the World Cup circuit this season and finished second at the national push championships that clock how fast athletes can thrust the sleds off the starting line.
But the federation passed over Eberling last month in favor of track stars Williams and Lolo Jones. The two brakemen are poised to become only the ninth and 10th U.S. athletes to compete in both the Winter and Summer Games.
On the World Cup circuit this season, Jones won two silvers to Eberling's three bronzes, but one of her medals was with Meyers, the world's No. 2-ranked pilot. Eberling did not race this season with Meyers, with whom she made the world championship podium in 2012 and 2013.