Shaffer: NC weightlifting champ vies for Olympic bobsled

jshaffer@newsobserver.comJune 30, 2013 

NEWPORT As a little girl, Gillian Mounsey Ward would muscle through rounds of sit-ups in her bedroom at night, blaring the soundtrack to “Rocky” on her cassette deck.

By the time she reached high school, she could perform 81 pull-ups in a row – more than 20 times the requirement of a male Marine.

But her Supergirl moment came when she notched more than 500 push-ups without stopping, flattening her classmate Brad, the reigning male champ. After that feat, the local newspaper published a feature story under this headline: “Is She Human?”

“I’ve always been regarded as something of a freak,” Ward explained. “My high school boyfriend would get beaten up.”

Ward can’t pinpoint the moment she decided to make a life out of physical fitness, only that exercise made her feel like she was flying, and she never wanted to stop. In 25 years, she hasn’t skipped more than a week’s workout. Once, with an injured ankle, she tried to perform a handstand on crutches.

But now she’s got a chance to branch out into an extreme new world, a fresh payoff for the hours spent pitting muscle against cold metal.

She’s been invited to try out for the U.S. Olympic bobsled team, and if the tryouts go well, we might all be watching her zoom around the Black Sea in February, topping 100 mph.

“I’m a total chicken,” she confessed. “I’m not afraid to try out. I’m afraid to actually jump in the sled.”

A native New Yorker who married a Marine, Ward has never actually stepped inside a bobsled.

If she makes the team, she’ll be the one running along behind, shoving the sled like it’s a car with a stalled battery – “the brute in the back,” as she puts it.

That she’s a stranger to sled sports hardly matters. As a potential Olympiad, the job requirements range from her time in short sprints, her distance in the broad jump, her squats, her clean-and-jerks and her shot putting.

And at 35, the owner of a Crystal Coast gym, Ward’s list of iron-woman exploits reads like the resume for Rosie the Riveter’s tougher sister.

She took third place in the 2008 CrossFit Games, having practiced only three months.

She nearly appeared on “American Gladiator” as a character named Chaos, losing out only because a producer considered her too short at 5-foot-5.

She broke the world bench-press record in her weight class, lifting 281.1 pounds. Even if she doesn’t go to Russia for the Olympics, she’s going to Hungary for the world weightlifting championship.

“You only get one life,” she shrugs. “Why shouldn’t I try a lot of things?”

I’ve met female bodybuilders before who look like they’ve spent an hour attached to a bicycle pump. But there’s nothing freakish about Ward’s appearance. No wildly inflated biceps. She looks exactly like what she is: an athlete who spends two hours a day lifting weights.

I think it’s because she craves balance. She’s focused so hard on winning tournaments that losing caused her to slip into depression. Between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., she’s locked in so tightly that you could blow up the building and she wouldn’t notice. But after that, she’s in her office drinking a cup of coffee, listening to her bulldog Millie snore.

So she’ll try hard to be a bobsledder. But she doesn’t carry false hopes. She’s got plenty of irons – heavy ones – in the fire.

The hardest thing about trying out, and competing if she makes it, will be the absence of her husband, Mac, who is deployed on his fourth tour in Afghanistan.

But when she straps on her helmet and starts down the icy track, I bet she’ll manage fine on her own, the trumpets from “Rocky” playing in her ear. or (919) 829-4818

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