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Meet Phaidra Knight: just your typical female rugby star who wants to make the U.S. Olympic Bobsled team (video)

Feb 19, 2013, 2:32 PM EDT

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Yep, another story about an African-American athlete from a small town in Georgia who was attempting to walk on with the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team but discovered rugby instead, made the U.S. women’s team in that sport and is now training to make the Winter Olympic women’s bobsled team.

Wait, you mean you’ve never heard of this before? Then let me tell you about it.

Meet Phaidra Knight. These days she calls herself a broadcaster, motivational speaker and business entrepreneur, but those are only three of the many hats she wears. Knight has just launched an Indiegogo campaign to help fund her quest to represent the United States in the 2014 Sochi Olympics … as a member of the Women’s Bobsled team.

A year ago you may have thought that a crazy notion, especially since Knight’s main athletic background is in rugby. But since the recent women’s bobsled success of Olympian runner Lolo Jones, Knight’s ambition to go fast on snow doesn’t seem so weird. And in fact, Knight began her bobsled training before Jones’ accomplishments in that sport made headlines, so it’s not like she was jumping on the bandwagon. She’s always been a non-traditional athlete.

“It all began when I was starting law school,” Knight told Off the Bench, beginning a sentence in a way that most rugby/basketball/bobsled athletes hardly ever do. “It was 1997, and I was trying to walk on with the basketball team at the University of Wisconsin, where I was attending law school. It was there that I met a lady who thought I would be perfect as a rugby player, and invited me to try out.”

As it happened, rugby was a perfect fit for Knight, who had held a secret childhood ambition to become a football player.

“I always loved tackling and running, but there were no opportunities for me to play football when I was a kid,” Knight said. “So I became a cheerleader for our youth football league in the small town in Georgia where I grew up (Irwinton, about 25 miles east of Macon). And the only reason I did that was so I could play football with the boys at the end-of-the-season league picnic.”

Knight was only 7 years old at then, but she’s retained that unconventional way of achieving her athletic goals. She’ll be 40 years old by the time the Russian Winter Olympics begin, but something as benign as a round number is hardly going to stop her.

Knight was a world-class rugby player for more than 10 years, making three appearances in the Rugby World Cup for the U.S., being selected as a member of the All World Team, and being named USA Player of the Decade in 2010.

She was first introduced to the bobsled in 1999, while participating in U.S. rugby training at Lake Placid, NY, which is also home to the U.S. Winter Olympic training facility. But it wasn’t until Knight decided that her U.S. rugby career was done that she decided to give two-man bobsled a serious go.

source:  “The thing that grabs you most about it is the ridiculous speed,” said Knight, who began serious training just more than a month ago. “And there’s a power aspect to it that reminds you of rugby and football. As the brakeman, you’re the motor of the sled. It takes athletic ability to push the sled and good timing to get in at the right moment. It’s challenging to explore the melding of those two things.”

But in many ways it’s a larger challenge to even get to the Winter Games. To fulfill her quest, Knight needs support and donations to help fund her training.

“It’s funny, because when I played rugby, a lot of times I’d talk to youth groups,” she said. “And sometimes the kids would say, ‘Wow, you play rugby for the U.S. team: you must be a millionaire.’ Little did they know that playing rugby actually cost me money. Sometimes there’s a lot of out-of-pocket expense involved in following your passion.”

And so it goes for most aspiring Olympic athletes. Knight is asking for help through donations with her training budget, estimated to be about $50,000 per year. She’s launched an Indiegogo campaign (an online donation source, sort of like Kickstarter), and can also be reached through Facebook, Twitter and her own site. (In the event that she cannot participate on the Olympic Team, remaining funds will be donated to the Women’s Sports Foundation).

Essentially she’s asking for people to invest in her and her dream. And although I’ve just recently met her, I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet.

Top photo: Dan Reshef.