Homegrown Olympian continues to inspireFeb 16, 2021 02:43PM ● By Sarah Morton Taggart
Bill Schuffenhauer speaks during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Olympic Cauldron Park near Rice-Eccles Stadium in October 2002. (Sarah Morton Taggart/City Journals)
By Sarah Morton Taggart | [email protected]
Bill Schuffenhauer admits he isn’t a big fan of playing outside in the cold these days. Which is funny considering that he’s a three-time Winter Olympian and took home a silver medal for four-man bobsled in 2002.
Schuffenhauer is known for overcoming a challenging childhood of hunger and homelessness. But he also has happy memories as a kid growing up in Midvale.
“It’s weird to drive by there now because I went to Midvale Elementary and it’s no longer there,” Schuffenhauer said. “My uncle and my cousins lived literally right across street. I remember playing at that park all the time with my cousins and hanging out at recess. Playing around in the wintertime and all that fun stuff.”
He also spent much of his childhood barely surviving on the streets of Salt Lake City when his parents struggled with addiction. Schuffenhauer has recounted his story many times, in general conversation and now as a motivational speaker. He remembers eating food out of garbage cans and watching his mom do drugs.
Schuffenhauer was moved in and out through more than a dozen foster homes before finally finding a home with his grandmother in Roy, Utah at age 12.
“Seventh grade, that’s when I started doing track, went from being a troublemaker to hopefully doing something better and have an opportunity to change my stars,” he said. “When I started doing track I wondered, how far could you take this? Honestly, I didn’t get the idea of going to the Olympics until high school. But I was like, ‘Yeah. Let’s just do it.’”
Schuffenhauer continued excelling in track and field through high school and also played football. He was awarded a scholarship for track at Weber State University and stood out in nearly every event.
Schuffenhauer’s chances for going to the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia were looking good until an injury during the 10-day qualifying competition changed the trajectory of his life.
“I was ranked top five in the world for decathlon,” Schuffenhauer recalled. “Then I got injured and made the switch. Right before bobsled tryouts I had an open invitation to try out for the Orlando Predators, a professional arena football team. I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll check out this bobsled thing first because it’s right here (in Utah),’ and it all worked out.”
Schuffenhauer gave bobsled a try and was hooked. He spent a year training to be a pusher, a member of the team that uses explosive strength and speed to propel the bobsled forward before jumping in and riding at speeds faster than most cars.
“Just imagine driving down the highway at 95 mph,” Schuffenhauer said. “And your dog sticks its head out the window and his tongue is flapping and you can see he’s having so much fun. That will kind of describe it. It’s fun. Very exhilarating.”
His four-man team ended up winning silver in 2002, the first medal for U.S. men’s bobsled in 46 years.
“Salt Lake City was obviously the best Olympics for me,” said Schuffenhauer, who went on to compete again in 2006 and 2010. To have that opportunity, to grow up the way I did here, and be able to turn around to get to go to the Olympics in my own hometown.”
In 2002, Schuffenhauer became the first native Utahn to medal in the Olympic Winter Games and two of his teammates became the first African-American men to medal in a Winter Olympics.
“During the Olympics everyone thought I was Black,” he said. “I’m actually Spanish/Puerto Rican/Italian.”
The summer after his silver medal win, Schuffenhauer’s extended family threw a party in his honor at Midvale City Park.
“I get emotional thinking about being a kid who grew up in Midvale and being able to come out of my life situation,” Schuffenhauer said. “I still drive through there and it makes me feel happy and proud.”
Schuffenhauer finished his degree from Weber State University and now lives in Sandy working as a consultant, mentor and motivational speaker.
“It’s an honor, honestly. A blessing to have gone through all that and found a way to get out of it. To find success and more importantly, to share that with the world,” he said. “For other people who might be down on their luck, to hopefully look at my history and my career and see that as a positive experience and adopt that into their life and hopefully help them out.”
Schuffenhauer is president of the Utah Chapter of the U.S. Olympians & Paralympians Association, and would love to see Utah host the Olympics again.
“It would be another dream come true to have it come back to Utah,” Schuffenhauer said. When asked what his role would be, Schuffenhauer is modest. “I would drive the athletes around in vans, I don’t know.”
As for participating in winter sports at this point in his life?
“I grew up skateboarding as a little kid, so snowboarding makes a lot of sense to me. I talk about it every year. I say I should go snowboarding and I don’t,” he said with a laugh.
Does he still think about his first Olympic games that took place 19 years ago this month?
“I still get butterflies thinking about Salt Lake and also my whole career,” Schuffenhauer said. “The opportunity I had to not only represent the world and my country but (also) Utah. It doesn’t get old, I promise.”
Schuffenhauer lost touch with his mother, but was able to reconnect with her several years before her passing in December 2020.
“I encourage those people out there who are striving for something or they’re struggling with something—it’s only temporary, and they can overcome it,” Schuffenhauer said. “Dreams are only dreams until we take the actions to ignite them.”