Sylvia Hoffman: unlikely Team USA bobsledder readies for Olympic debut | Winter Olympics 2022

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Three years ago, Sylvia Hoffman tried out for NBC’s second season of The Next Olympic Hopeful for one last shot at becoming an Olympic athlete. After tryouts, she laid on a foam roller, stretching out, when she heard two other athletes next to her talking: “The show last year was so great,” they said to each other.

Hoffman perked up. A show? She thought this was just a scouting camp. When she asked the two athletes, they told her, “Yeah, they’re going to make this into a documentary.” Still confused, Hoffman Googled what she had just signed up for. Sure enough, it’s a show with one season out already. “Wow. OK, cool,” she thought to herself. She had been so focused on the word “Olympics” that she didn’t care about anything else, much less that this was a documentary. “Well, good thing I tried my best,” she said.

Despite participating in but not winning the show, she was invited to train with the USA Bobsled team. Previously a collegiate basketball athlete and Team USA weightlifter, Hoffman had been briefly introduced to skeleton but knew nothing about bobsled. When the coaches asked Hoffman to push, she did. When she was invited to the rookie camp, she won the rookie push championships. When she was invited back to the national push championships, she won again.

A month later, she achieved the fastest push times at trials for Team USA, landing herself a spot on the team and a ticket to Canada, where she won her first international medal with three-time Olympic medalist Elana Meyers Taylor as her driver. After that, Hoffman went to Latvia, which led to a tour of Europe. Since then, she has won several World Cup medals, raced with Kaillie Humphries, and last week earned her spot on the team headed for the Beijing Olympics.

Sylvia Hoffman Photograph: Adam Pretty/Getty Images

“It’s been a crazy three and a half years but it’s somewhere that I feel like I should be,” Hoffman tells the Guardian. This might seem like an overnight success story, but that is far from true.

Born in Philadelphia, Hoffman was a very active child, always playing outside. From an early age, her dad introduced her to many sports, including soccer, basketball, and softball. “I just loved the fact that I could be good at whatever I did,” Hoffman says. Like many elite athletes, her Olympic dreams were sparked by watching the Olympics on TV as a child. Immediately, she fell in love with the idea of becoming an Olympian: “I think deep in my heart, I always wanted to represent my country,” Hoffman reflects.

Her family moved to Texas when she was four and by six, her parents had gotten a divorce, which led to Hoffman moving back and forth between Philadelphia and Texas, often switching schools. It wasn’t until high school that she got to stay at the same school, where her basketball team won state when Hoffman was a sophomore. She continued the sport in college, where she majored in computer information systems, but realized that while she could have played in the WBNA one day, it was not a dream of hers.

Eventually, Hoffman joined USA Weightlifting. “I ended up making my first international team within a year. I thought that was just something that was a little magnificent, and it was very unexpected,” Hoffman says. For the first time, Hoffman boarded an international flight. It was to Eilat, Israel, for world championships. “I thought that was the most awesome thing that I could ever do. I knew this was something I wanted to continue to pursue,” Hoffman says.

Not only did she love wearing Team USA gear, Hoffman grew a lot as a person during her weightlifting years. “I think weightlifting is a spectacular sport,” Hoffman says. “It not only supplies you with physical appearance, or stability, but it can also provide you with mental stability, something that’s overlooked in weightlifting.” Weightlifting, as Hoffman explains, is all about trying over and over again to complete a lift: “It’s the most rewarding feeling when you push yourself above and beyond and you’re like, ‘Wow, I’m stronger than I think.’”

At the same time, it taught Hoffman when to hit pause. “It’s knowing when to push on the gas, and then knowing when to pump the brakes. And for me, it was more of just getting over a bunch of mental hurdles,” Hoffman explains. It was her weightlifting coach, Zygmunt Smalcrez, who first pointed out that Hoffman may benefit from taking care of her mental health. “You’re very athletic but I feel like there’s something going on with you mentally to where you’re not able to focus,” he had told her.

A lot of Hoffman’s mental challenges traced back to her childhood, when seeking health for mental health was far from encouraged. “I remember back in the day, if you even talked about a psychologist, that was detrimental to anything in your career,” Hoffman recalls. Now a Team USA bobsledder, Hoffman is thankful for the sports psychologist that works with their team. “Dr Mara Smith has been amazing. She’s in tune with all the athletes, she checks up on us. She’s in our group chats when we’re competing overseas,” Hoffman explains.

Hoffman discovered NBC’s Next Olympic Hopeful when she was working from home one day. She worked as an engineer for her day job until the pandemic hit and her company had a huge layoff. “I can’t wait to get back into the workforce after the season,” Hoffman says. The past two years, she’s solely focused on her sport, but she loves her job, too. “I like the work life balance. Everyone has their thing, and computer science is my thing,” Hoffman says.

For now, though, her focus is the Olympics. Hoffman wears a pendant with the Superman logo around her neck, paying tribute to her nickname, Superwoman. “Providing people hope is what the symbol really means and is something that resonated with me,” Hoffman explains. The necklace used to be silver but has since been switched to gold to match her current goals. “I’m going for gold these days. I feel like it should match the tone in which I’m trying to compete at,” Hoffman explains. “I’m competing to be number one. That’s my number one goal, make the Olympic team, and go for gold,” Hoffman says.

The engineer and athlete’s ambitions translate even to musical instruments. Hoffman is currently teaching herself how to play the piano. She had originally taught herself in college, but stopped when she noticed that what she gained in piano skills, she lost in Guitar Hero ability. “I don’t think Guitar Hero is going to come up anytime soon, but if it does, just let me know in advance,” Hoffman jokes. While she may not go down in history for her video game skills, NBC’s Next Olympic Hopeful may finally achiever her lifelong dream of becoming an Olympian very soon.

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