Until last summer, Frank Del Duca’s only connection to bobsledding was viewing the Winter Olympics on TV.
“I would always watch it and say, ‘That’s pretty cool,’ ” he said.
Suddenly, Del Duca’s connection to the sport is far more hands-on. He now sits directly behind legendary driver Steve Holcomb on the United States’ top four-man bobsled team, competing on the World Cup circuit and chasing Olympic dreams of his own.
“It’s hard to believe,” said the 24-year-old Del Duca, who grew up in Bethel and graduated from Telstar High and the University of Maine.
Not bad for a guy who was waiting tables six months ago. So how did he rocket from novice to riding with the nation’s top bobsledders?
Del Duca was born in Florida and moved to Bethel in 2001. He played soccer and skied at Telstar High, but his greatest success was in track and field. Del Duca still holds school records in the 100, 200 and 400 meters and the 300-meter hurdles.
David LeClerc, a history teacher at Telstar and Del Duca’s track coach there, said Del Duca was a rare student/athlete.
Frank Del Duca of Bethel works out at Gold’s Gym in Bangor. At Telstar High School in Bethel and later at the University of Maine, Del Duca was a top sprinter and jumper. “He just has a lot of natural talent,” says his Telstar track coach, David LeClerc. “But he didn’t settle for that. Frankie works his butt off to get better all the time.”
“First, he just has a lot of natural talent – he’s coordinated, strong and has natural athleticism,” LeClerc said. “But he didn’t settle for that. You have a lot of natural athletes who settle for that. Frankie works his butt off to get better all the time.”
TOP SPRINTER AT UMAINE
At UMaine, he was one of the top sprinters and jumpers in the America East conference, winning the conference’s long jump title in 2014 as a senior.
One of the assistant coaches at Maine was Dave Cusano, now the head men’s and women’s track coach at Colby College. Cusano would tell Del Duca and others about his tryout with the U.S. bobsled team, how it was a way to transfer their track talents to another sport. Sprinters, with their years of training to perfect explosive starts, often are sought out as bobsledders.
Jimmy Reed, another sprinter and teammate of Del Duca’s at Maine, tried out for and made the U.S. bobsled team a year ago. He is now on the No. 2 sled, piloted by Nick Cunningham.
Del Duca wasn’t ready to follow Reed to bobsledding. So he took a year off after graduating and returned to Bethel to help his father, Frank Del Duca III, open a new restaurant in addition to the Crossroads Diner the family runs.
“He was doing anything I asked,” said Frank Del Duca III. “He would make pizza, deliver pizza, wait on tables.”
He was also earning certificates to become a strength and conditioning specialist. At about the time Del Duca decided to try to play football for the semipro Southern Maine Raging Bulls, he got a note from Reed asking him to try out for the U.S. bobsled team.
So he went to a combine, where his speed, acceleration and strength were all assessed. Team officials loved his strength and size. At 5-foot-10, 210 pounds, he’s not too big to be uncomfortable in a bobsled.
Next Del Duca went to a push camp, where he and others pushed a retired bobsled that has wheels and runs on tracks. Again, the staff was impressed.
“We really liked what we saw,” said Mike Dionne, an assistant coach on the U.S. bobsled team. “And we loved the other part about Frank, his personality and other traits. We thought he fit in with the team well, so we invited him back for October, to the national team trials, where he could actually get on the ice.”
Jimmy Reed, left, and Frank Del Duca were track and field teammates at the University of Maine. Reed joined the U.S. bobsled team a year ago and asked Del Duca to try out.
And that’s important, because, Dionne said, “We’ll find sometimes that athleticism doesn’t transfer immediately over to the ice. There are so many other things to think about when you’re on the ice, like loading the sled.”
Del Duca passed that test, too. Dionne placed him on the national team. “We named him to USA 1 with Steve Holcomb,” Dionne said.
Holcomb has competed for the United States at the last three Winter Olympics, driving the gold-medal winning four-man bobsled at the 2010 Vancouver Games and collecting bronze in the four-man and two-man events at Sochi in 2014.
‘DESTINED TO BE AN ATHLETE’
Del Duca was stunned at first. And grateful for having Reed there to not only push him, but show him the way.
“He was there, asking me how my training was going,” Del Duca said. “We would brainstorm a lot on what types of exercises we should be doing. When I got there, he gave me a tour of the Lake Placid facilities. He was there for my combine. To have that support from a teammate and friend was really special.”
Del Duca’s rapid ascent in the sport doesn’t shock those who know him.
“I was surprised when I heard that Frank was doing it,” said Mark Lech, the UMaine track coach. “I’m not surprised that he made the team.
“He had a really, no-holds-barred, go-after-it attitude. He put everything on the line and went full speed ahead. Because of that attitude, he had some off-and-on injuries here. But when he was healthy and on, he was like a locomotive. You couldn’t stop him.”
Bobsledding can be an adrenaline rush. The sport is contested in either two-man or four-man sleds. (Women only compete in a two-person sled.) The crews push at the start, jumping into the sled and then sliding down an ice-covered track which includes at least 15 curves and one long straightaway. Speeds can reach up to 75 mph.
Del Duca got a taste of how fast it can be when he competed in a two-man sled with Holcomb in Konigsee, Germany, in December. He was a last-second replacement for an injured teammate and he was in the second run. The team finished seventh. “It was an experience I’ll never forget,” he said. “It’s hard to describe. It just felt amazing. It was fun to be in the sled. It was intense and I enjoyed it.”
The next Winter Olympics are in 2018, in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Del Duca appears to be on the right track to get there.
“We’ve seen a lot of athletes over the years and I think he has all of the right things,” Dionne said. “Is he ready to go to the Olympics tomorrow? No. But he certainly has the potential to go to an Olympics in the future.”
Frank Del Duca III is not surprised that his son has made it this far.
“Frankie was destined to be an athlete,” he said. “It runs through his veins. His blood is of a different blood of normal people.”
‘I LIKE RACING ANYTHING’
Del Duca is in Europe now in the final leg of the World Cup season, with a race in St. Moritz, Switzerland, this weekend. So far he has competed in five four-man bobsled races – one with Cunningham in the No. 2 sled – and two two-man bobsled races. Holcomb’s sled is ranked 12th in the world right now. Cunningham is ranked 10th.
The best finish so far for Holcomb’s sled has been a seventh at Park City, Utah, on Jan. 16. The week before, at Lake Placid, the sled finished eighth. The difference between a podium finish (top three) and seventh place is often less than a half-second. Holcomb and veteran Carlo Valdes join with rookies Del Duca and Sam McGuffie (a former wide receiver who was on the New England Patriots practice squad in 2013) in the No. 1 sled.
“We’ve been narrowly missing the podium,” Del Duca said. “We want more. … I know I want to be pushing Holcomb to the podium every week.”
Frank Del Duca of Bethel trains in Park City, Utah.
His job in the No. 2 seat after he jumps in is simple, he said: “First I lock in the guy behind me, I push back into his head to lock in. Then I stay off the driver’s helmet so he is nice and comfortable in the sled. We can hit over 5Gs at a time, which is fast. If I hit him hard, it’s just not good.”
Some day he may be doing the steering. Dionne said team officials have asked Del Duca if he’d be interested in driving. “He’s very young, which is what we look for,” Dionne said. “It takes a lot longer to develop drivers in terms of the path they travel. I think we’ll give that a try at the end of the year.”
Del Duca has some experience driving race cars with the Cumberland Motor Club. He likes to go fast. “I’m a gearhead,” he said. “I like racing anything.”
But now “my focus is just learning as much as I can about bobsledding and being as good a teammate and as good a pusher as I can,” he said.
After all, there are still times he wonders how he got this far this fast.
“I think it’s finally settled in,” he said. “I’m very grateful for this opportunity, but I’m very focused and think I’m getting better every day.
“But sometimes I land someplace and say to myself, ‘Man, I just landed in Germany.’ ”