Olympic medalist Aja Evans may not be the driver, but she is always in control.
Evans is a bobsled brakeman who won Bronze at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi with teammate and pilot Jamie Greubel. As brakeman, her job was to maintain the bobsled, push it as fast as possible and pull the brakes. As an athlete, however, her career shows no signs of slowing down.
A Chicago-native and CPS graduate, Evans attended LaSalle Language Academy and Morgan Park High School where she honed both her athletic and academic talents. In school, she enjoyed physics and equations, which served as a strong foundation for her athletic training.
"It was fun to do bobsled because we need to know speed, velocity and the physics of it. Knowing the logistics made it easier," Evans said.
Though Chicago weather primed her for winter sports, Evans tried her hand at a number of activities, initially achieving success as a spring-sport athlete. "My mom let me wait until it was time for me to be serious. She didn't force me to participate. I fell in love with track and field in high school," she said. "Chicago has groomed me. Being a track and field athlete has also groomed me and trained me to know my body and to warm up."
Evans continued to excel in track and field at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she graduated with a BS in Sports Management and was a five-time Division 1 All-American, a three-time Big Ten Champion, and Big 10 athlete of the week numerous times.
"I grew up in sports," she said. "It was almost a given you'd see me in athletics."
Though modest about her athletic lineage, Evans comes from a family of world-class athletes. Her mother was a track and field star, her father was the first black swimmer to win a national collegiate championship, her brother is currently a defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings, and her uncle is former MLB player and coach Gary "Sarge" Matthews. Despite the family records, she never felt forced into sports and hopes other young athletes do not either.
"Young people should really use sports as an outlet – not just to go professional. There's a certain mentality that transfers into all aspects of life. In order to do sports, you need to be successful in the classroom as well and really pay attention to what coaches teach you," Evans said.
Evans maintains close contact with Derrick Calhoun, her track coach at Morgan Park, who played a very influential role in her development as an athlete. Soon after the Sochi Games, she returned to Chicago to take part in the South Side Irish St. Patrick's Day Parade alongside other Olympians and high school athletes, including her alma mater's State champion boys' basketball team.
"Those guys were so happy to see me and how far I've come," she said. "Growing up in Chicago, I was really well-rounded. Those Chicago schools helped me adapt to different cultures and people. Even when it came to sports, there were a lot of great athletes that came out of the Chicago Public Schools."
Though Sochi is just weeks behind her, Evans already has plans in motion for the future. She plans to complete her M.B.A and is poised to become one of only a handful of dual-sport Olympic athletes in the world. "I want to transition. I'm going into the heptathlon, which is seven events. I have background in most of the events, but I haven't done track in a while so I need to get the ball rolling," she said.
In whatever free time she can muster, Evans enjoys watching TV--particularly shows about the supernatural--and spending time with her family, especially her niece. A role model for many, she wants to encourage young athletes not only to work hard, but to enjoy their journey.
"Enjoy being young and vibrant and an athlete. Explore different sports and have fun with it. Wait until you find something you love and are dedicated to," Evans said. "Enjoy your experiences."
Evans seems to be taking her own advice. She will begin training in Arizona and hopes to make it to the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics. And after extensively training for bobsled in such cold conditions, Evans is looking forward to the change. But she has not forgotten her roots.
"You can never take the Chicago out of the girl," she said.