Bobsledder Hunter Church's Journey Comes 'Full Circle' with Olympics: 'Incredible This Is Where I Am'

The third-generation bobsledder will make his Olympic debut in Beijing, after nearly quitting the sport in 2018 and making a hard-fought comeback

Hunter Church
Hunter Church. Photo: Hunter Church/Instagram

Hunter Church knows he belongs at the Winter Olympics.

So when the third-generation bobsledder found out he was the only member of his four-man team left off the Team USA roster in 2018 and a coach told him it might be time to consider retirement, Church found himself at a low point.

"It was painful" Church, now 25, tells PEOPLE, sighing as he discusses the "post-Olympic depression" he felt for weeks.

Church carries an extra pressure: a bobsleigh heritage that runs through his great-uncle's career in the 1940s and his own father Thomas' amateur career in the 1970s and 80s. He always felt like it was the Olympics or bust since taking his first ride down an Olympic track at Lake Placid when he was just 7 years old. And being told he might not be cut out for the sport he dedicated his life to left Church "crushed."

"I was kind of kicking rocks for a couple of weeks, feeling bad about what I could've done differently," he says. "I was thinking, 'Who's to know this won't happen again in four years?' There was a lot of doubt about whether I should continue."

But he did.

"I said, 'I want to finish writing my story on my own terms,' " Church recounts. "While it was a great honor helping those guys qualify for 2018, it's not how I wanted to be remembered. I want to be remembered as one of the great and successful pilots who came through the U.S. Bobsled program."

In Beijing, Church will finally have the chance to write the first chapter of his Olympic legacy as he pilots both Team USA's two- and four-man bobsled teams. Both teams are looking for their first medal finish since the late Steve Holcomb, one of Church's mentors, won silver in both events at the 2014 Sochi Games.

Hunter Church
Hunter Church, Joshua Williamson, Carlo Valdes and Charles Volker of Team USA compete in the four-man bobsleigh. Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty
Hunter Church bobsled
A young Hunter Church and his father Thomas Church. Hunter Church/Instagram

Church says the U.S. team is ready to shock the world and make it back to the podium in the coming years, poised to give the world's most dominant teams from Germany, Russia, and Austria a run for their money. No matter what those teams do, Church says he's focused on his own performance in Beijing.

"It kind of just feels like I'm heading to another race," he says. "I just feel a sense of calm. Maybe that's part of the relief of all these years of work and knowing that I have made it."

Hunter Church
Hunter Church. Kerstin Joensson/AP/Shutterstock

The road to Beijing wasn't an easy one.

After not making the 2018 Olympic squad, Church went back to the development circuit and finished in the top 13 of the world's four-man rankings. But then he was left off the U.S. national team and told it might be time to find a new career.

"I came back to write the story the way I wanted to and now I'm told I've wasted my time and it's time to leave," he recalls. Then, less than 48 hours later, a pilot on the national team pulled out of the IBSF World Championships and Church got called up, making best of the opportunity and finishing the season ranked fifth worldwide in four-man. He helped the U.S. capture bronze at the world championship — the country's first international medal since Holcomb's team in 2017.

Church's team repeated as bronze medalists at the world championships this January, proving neither his nor Team USA's turnaround were flukes.

"Within a year (of considering retirement), it was this pivotal point in my career where it seemed like all that hard work finally paid off and a new page was turned in the chapter," he says over the phone, days out from flying to Beijing. "And now here I am today."

The Cadyville, New York, native's mom, dad and girlfriend of four years, Courtney, will be watching him as he etches the Church family name into Olympic history books from home. And although his loved ones can't be there, with international fans not allowed at the Games because of the ongoing COVID pandemic, Church tells PEOPLE that his family's history with the sport is never far from his mind.

"My lineage is what continued to motivate me throughout this entire journey," he says. "It had a special place in my family's heart — from my great uncle to my dad and the great sacrifices he made for me. For me to come full circle and be the first of my family to make the Olympic team and cement our legacy in the sport, it was a huge driving factor. It's incredible this is where I am."

To learn more about all the Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, visit Watch the Winter Olympics, beginning Feb 3, and the Paralympics, beginning March 4, on NBC.

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