By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun
7:05 PM EDT, July 2, 2013
John Bernstein never had trouble keeping track of what sport his daughter was competing in or the team on which she was playing. Ida Bernstein can't make the same claim for what she jokingly calls her "athletically confused career."
Ever since she graduated from Dulaney High more than a decade ago and was recruited to play soccer and run track at Syracuse, Bernstein's life on and off the field has been something of a blur.
It seems fitting, since one of the objectives for the now 28-year-old Bernstein is moving quite fast in her current passions — bobsled and rugby.
Bernstein is currently trying to earn a spot on the U.S. bobsled team for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. She is also hoping to return to the U.S. women's rugby team, which will make its Olympic debut in 2016 at Rio de Janeiro.
"I love what's happening in my life right now and I'm trying to find a way to sustain it," Bernstein said before a training session at a downtown Baltimore athletic club where she works out. "I get to pursue my career goals and also get to pursue my passion to make the Olympics."
Bernstein's career goals involve something far afield from either bobsled or rugby. She is pursuing a doctorate at Delaware State's Center for Research Excellence in Optical Sciences and Application.
She chose a field in theoretical research rather than being stuck in a physics lab because it allowed her to continue playing rugby for the U.S. national team before eventually switching to bobsled.
Recalling how she would often use Skype and scanners from far-off places to finish her assignments and talk to her professors, Bernstein said with a smile that "free McDonald's Wi-Fi is my friend."
John Bernstein, who wrestled at Virginia Tech and played recreational rugby for a team in Westminster when his daughter was growing up, said that when the two watch one of their favorite television shows, "Big Bang Theory," whose characters are doctoral students in physics, "She'll go after the remote and freeze the picture and start reading the equations on the white board that they're doing and say, 'Dad, they're real.' I say, 'Thank you for telling me that. It would ruin it for me if I thought they were fake.'"
Finding new sports
Ida Bernstein's athletic career seems to have as many twists, turns and bumps as the bobsled tracks she is now trying to navigate. It took her from being a soccer player and running outdoor track her freshman year at Syracuse to training for triathlons as a sophomore before trying rugby as a junior.
"Rugby," she said, "became a whirlwind. ... It was a fast girls' game."
One problem: Bernstein's first game as a member of the Syracuse women's club team nearly turned out to be her last. Not knowing technique, Bernstein pulled another player on top of her and tore the ACL in her left knee.
When she returned to school that fall to play soccer again, Bernstein had a note from her doctor saying that she had cleared to play "contact sports, excluding rugby." But the Syracuse team doctor said she had to sit out another six months.
"He said, 'You'll thank me later,'" Bernstein recalled. "I was like, 'No, I won't.'"
Encouraged by her roommate, the captain of the rugby team, Bernstein resumed her fledgling career — "I couldn't sit around and do nothing," she said — by using her status as president of the physics club to copy her doctor's note, with one significant editing change.
In place of the word "excluding," Bernstein wrote "including," meaning that she could resume playing rugby.
"It was very believable, my coach bought it and by the end of my college career, I was an All-American," Bernstein said.
She never told her mother she had been sneaking out to play rugby for a couple of local teams when she was home the previous summer. When a story on female rugby players was published in The Baltimore Sun — with pictures — Wendy Bozel noticed a familiar posterior in the background of one of the photos.
"My mom called me to say, 'You're in so much trouble, I'd recognize that butt anywhere,'" Bernstein said with a laugh.
Bernstein bought a bumper sticker that read, "Yes, mom, I still play rugby."
As a senior, Bernstein tried to resurrect her soccer career — briefly. After stiff-arming another player in practice en route to scoring a goal, Bernstein celebrated alone. She went back to rugby, staying an extra year at Syracuse in order to take Quantitative Physics II and become an All-American.
It led to an invitation to try out for the U.S. national team, which Bernstein eventually made. She wound up playing in the 2009 World Cup qualifier, as well as some other international competitions in Dubai and the Bahamas. It was around that time that she began getting recruited by the U.S. Bobsled Association as it geared up for Vancouver in 2012.
"I had been approached by different people who I guess either knew bobsledders or were previously bobsledders and they said I fit a profile," Bernstein said. "I had been told multiple times, 'You should be a bobsledder.' We got these recruitment emails because there's some similarities between how they build their national teams because people don't grow up playing these sports."
Determination stands out
With the help of Jamie Gruebel, a more veteran bobsled pilot (driver) who Bernstein said put her through "bobsled boot camp," the former soccer, rugby player and track star had found yet another sport. Gruebel, who was a decathlete at Cornell and has been a bobsledder for five years, said Bernstein's best attribute goes a long way in her new sport.
"It's definitely her determination," Gruebel said Monday. "Bobsled is a hard sport to maneuver in [off the course]. It requires a lot of money and just a lot of believing in yourself when other people don't believe in you right away. A lot of people believe in you when you've made it. It definitely takes a lot to push yourself and believe in yourself and find money to get the equipment that you need. I definitely see that Ida never wants to give up. I think she'll do well."
Many who saw Bernstein play rugby compared her both in physique and fearlessness to Heather Moyse, a former track star and rugby player who won a gold medal for Canada as a bobsledder in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. She has recently resumed her rugby career.
While the Sochi Olympics might be a longshot for Bernstein, she credits Moyse's fast rise with even being given a chance to learn the new sport, first as a brakeman — the one in the back who does most of the pushing at the start — and eventually as a pilot.
"When Heather came on the stage and set a new world record in pushing, people took notice," Bernstein said. "I think she paved the way for what I am doing now. They are recruiting more athletic pilots."
Bernstein understands the importance of role models. She believes she has to be one for her two much younger half-sisters, Alex and Katrina Bozel, ages 18 and 12 respectively. Alex Bozel is following her big sister to Delaware State to study science, while Katrina, who according to Bernstein is "a spitting image of me at the same age" is more the athlete.
"I know I have shortcomings," Bernstein said Monday. "I'm very aware of the fact that I have younger sisters, so when I'm on Facebook and tweeting, I know my sisters are watching. I try to be a good example for them. It's important to me. It's also important they find their own path. They're definitely way cooler than I was."
If Bernstein's training regimen wasn't crowded enough, she also added football to her athletic resume this spring. Bernstein is currently a member of the Baltimore Charm of the Legends (formerly Lingerie) Football League.
Along with the possibility of having the Charm help sponsor her in order to defray the cost of her Olympic pursuit (about $30,000 annually), Bernstein said the intensity of the practices and physicality of the games have enhanced her skills for both rugby and bobsledding.
"When I'm rushing the quarterback, I'm thinking about pulliing the sled," Bernstein said. "I also think it's helped me in rugby. It's been a really good experience."
Applying physics to sports
Similarly, Bernstein said that she has used her academic experiences that she hopes one day will lead her to help detect breast cancer using optics to what she does on the bobsled track.
"You need to be able to problem solve and not panic," she said. "There's a lot of physics in driving, too.'
Peter Bagetta, an assistant coach on the U.S. women's rugby team, said Bernstein's bobsled career has helped her playing rugby. Along with the extra muscle she has put on to push the bobsled that has made her "bigger, stronger and faster," Bagetta said it has helped Bernstein develop mentally.
"In bobsledding you're always racing against some type of clock, so there's always this inherent pressure of performance, and I think having to deal with that when she comes back to rugby [helps] because I think she can handle adversity on the rugby field a lot better," Bagetta said.
What hasn't changed is Bernstein's inner drive.
"The thing that's interesting about her is she's one of the most dedicated, hardest-working athletes I've ever been around," Bagetta said. "Once she's committed to doing something, she really devotes her heart and soul into that."
Bernstein admits that trying to achieve at multiple high-level sports at the same time can be a bit confusing.
"It's a critical time in my bobsled career. I'm either going to be preparing for the Olympic Games in February," she said. "But I haven't given up on rugby. I played in a tournament last weekend and did really well."
For now, rugby might have to run second behind bobsled as Bernstein trains for the set of Olympic qualifying trials and combines that start in Calgary in August and eventually go to Lake Placid, N.Y.
Bernstein believes that Sochi "is still a possibility" with a stronger chance for 2018 in Pyeongyang, South Korea as a pilot. Bagetta said Bernstein should be in the mix for the U.S. women's rugby team going to Brazil in 2016.
"In the beginning, I think it was a form of cross-training, but as she's become more successful, I think that challenge is going to be how she balances the two," Bagetta said. "She has the potential to do that, but I think in the future she is going to have to make some really tough choices."
Bernstein is not ready to make a decision.
"Right now I'm focusing on bobsled," she said. "I love going fast."
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