Medalist Aja Evans on Being a 'Role Model' as a Black Woman at the Winter Games: I Want to Inspire Others
"My mom has groomed me to just be a strong woman regardless, and so whatever I went for, I kind of went at it full-force and wanted to dominate"
Bobsledder Aja Evans already has one Olympic medal and very well may win another the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea — but regardless of the result at these Games, she has one definite post-competition plan.
“One thing I know for sure that I’m going to do and I’m excited about is going Bigfoot hunting,” she tells PEOPLE with a laugh in the mountains of Pyeongchang, a few days before competing.
Wait: Bigfoot. Really?
“I’m randomly like a Bigfoot enthusiast,” Evans says. “I swear I’ve seen every episode of Finding Bigfoot, and Bobo from the show [cast member James Fay] actually tweeted me and told me that we’re going to go Bigfoot hunting after the Olympics. So I’m excited about that because I’m really intrigued by Bigfoot and aliens and all these mysterious creatures and things that may exist in the world.”
Should she head into the woods after returning to the U.S. — “It’s big in Oregon, areas of Illinois, I have so many places I can go to kind of do it” — Evans is likely to be the only Olympic medalist on the hunt. But being first to head into something has not deterred her before.
A Chicago native and track-and-field star at the University of Illinois, Evans, 29, got into bobsledding through her college coach. She has recalled how, in 2012, she called her mother in 2012 after the first time she actually slid down a hill in a sled.
Rattled by the experience, Evans was comforted and reassured by mom Sequocoria Mallory.
Two years later, she won a bronze at the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, in a two-woman bobsled piloted by Jamie Greubel Poser.
Beyond that victory — and her frequent social media posts, including Instagram stories which provide a candid and charismatic peek into her life — Evans has earned notice for being one of few non-white athletes on Team USA at the Winter Games, where events have historically been nearly all white.
America’s bobsled team is particularly diverse, as detailed in a Boston Globe story last month.
“I definitely feel like I’ve taken on more of a role model case just from pursuing these Winter Olympic Games and my career in bobsled,” Evans, who is also part of Procter & Gamble’s “Love Over Bias” campaign, tells PEOPLE. “My mom has groomed me to just be a strong woman regardless, and so whatever I went for I kind of went at it full-force and wanted to dominate and perform well.”
“When it came to bobsled, I just went in with the same mentality that I went into everything else,” she says, “and I ended up getting so much love and feedback from African-American men and women across the world and how much I inspired them through my journey.”
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With that support came the realization, Evans says, “that I stood for something more than just being an athlete, more than just competing for a medal.”
“It’s bigger than that, and now that’s my main focus is continuing to inspire people, doing it for them, and helping us all to win,” she says.
Social media is one such way Evans stays “connected to everyone” — “especially the people from Chicago and where I’m from, I feel like they don’t get to see as much of the world and experience a lot of things.”
“So the fact that I’m from there, went to Chicago public school and did all these things there and now … I’ve kind of been in their shoes and now I’m doing all these amazing things,” Evans says. “I mean I’m here in South Korea and competing at my second Winter Olympic Games, I definitely want to share that and help inspire people and keep people connected. I have a lot of people rooting for me and wanting the best for me, so I love just trying to keep them updated.”
While Evans has yet to compete, she has been training at night with her team, soaking in the atmosphere (and seeing Black Panther) and cheering on her fellow American athletes, including friend Gus Kenworthy. She was also in the audience when ice dancers Alex and Maia Shibutani won a bronze medal alongside the rest of the U.S. figure skating team.
And “I definitely want to become friends with Lindsey Vonn, I love her,” Evans says. “I don’t know her that well, we’ve been around each other a few times, but I’m excited to watch her compete and dominate and I’m just a big fan of hers and would love to meet her.”
After all that and a possible return to the podium—yes, Evans will next go looking for Bigfoot.
“I’m a little nervous,” she says. “I’m scared, like really scared, but it’ll be fun.”
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.