IOWA CITY - Jean Prahm was a 13-year-old daughter of a Michigan auto worker when a team of U.S. winter Olympians discovered she had a knack for luge.
It was summer, and the athletes were touring the country looking for fresh talent. When they reached her hometown, Prahm's mother signed her children up for a daylong luge camp.
"I remember asking mom, 'What is luge?' " said Prahm, 35, who was Jean Racine at the time. "I had no idea what it was."
Knowledge of luge - a small one- or two-person sled on which a person rides face up and feet-first down an ice-covered track - made no difference to the Olympians. They were looking for raw, athletic ability. Prahm caught their eye.
"I was fairly athletic and competed in a lot of sports," Prahm told the Iowa City Press-Citizen . "I was also an adventurer and a thrill-seeker, and I recognized an opportunity to do something no one else was doing."
A month later, Prahm received a packet in the mail. She had been selected as one of 50 youngsters from across the country to be considered for the U.S. junior Olympic team. The next step was a two-week camp at the Olympic training center in Lake Placid, N.Y. Though her family had limited resources, Prahm's parents made the trip possible.
Prahm made it through another two cuts and onto the junior Olympic team. She spent her high school years traveling and competing around the world. At 18, Prahm changed sports, joining the U.S. women's bobsledding team, even though it was not an Olympic sport.
In 2002, women's bobsled made its Olympic debut in Salt Lake City, and Prahm was there - the gold medal favorite. Two months before the Games, Prahm and her coaching staff made a decision to change her longtime bobsledding partner, known as the brakeman. Prahm and her new brakeman, Gea Johnson, who competed with an injured hamstring, finished fifth.
Prahm was slammed by the media for changing her partner and the negative attention was tough to handle. Also, a year before the Games, Prahm's mother died from complications from scleroderma, a connective tissue disease.
"In bobsled, the maneuvering of brakemen is quite common," Prahm said. "Unfortunately, this is not known to those outside the sport."
To this day, she is confident her decision was the right one. Prahm made a second run at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, where her bobsled team placed sixth.
Despite the struggles, Prahm would not trade her Olympic experience for the world.
"It is definitely a huge part of who I am," she said. "To be involved in it, it gives you wings."
Prahm now lives in North Liberty with her husband, Ryan Prahm, and their three children. She works as a clerk at the University of Iowa while her husband, once a baseball player at the University of Iowa and later a pitcher in the minor leagues, is an attorney in North Liberty and Iowa City.
Jean Prahm is traveling to Austria today, where she will participate on a six-person committee to select the U.S. women's bobsledding team for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Back when she was competing, athletes picked their sledding partners. The decision now is made by the Olympic Selection Committee and Strategic Planning Committee, which is composed of coaches, administrators and former athletes.
"It would have been nice to have had a selection committee in place, as we do now, to make the final decision and take a little heat off of me during a very important time in my life," Prahm said. "I don't think it is ideal to have athletes carry the additional burden of deciding who makes the Olympic team while at the same time preparing for the Olympics themselves."
Prahm said participating on the committee - this will be her second Olympic team to help select - is a validation of the decision she made leading to the 2002 Olympics.
"I believe that the athletes and the organization's governing body respected my decision and my ability to put our team's best interest above my personal feelings," she said, "which I believe led them to request my continued involvement."
Greg Sands, who coached Olympic athletes for 15 years in the sports of bobsled and skeleton, said he's known Prahm since she was on the junior Olympic team and believes her input on the selection committee will be important.
"Jean knows the sport as well as anyone in the game," he said. "There is no doubt she is qualified."
Sands said that ultimately, the team selection will come down to who performed the best overall and who has the potential to do the best on a track like the one in Sochi.
Ryan Prahm, who watched his wife compete in the 2006 Olympics, said the level of Olympic competition is daunting.
"I was probably more nervous than she was," he said. "I never had Katie Couric show up at any of my games."
Prahm believes there is something magical about the Olympic Games.
"There is something beautiful and hopeful about the Olympics," she said. "I came from humble beginnings. I learned it doesn't matter where you come from; it's where you are heading.
"Through the Olympics, I had a chance to pursue something great," she said. "They really do make dreams come true."
Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen, www.press-citizen.com/
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