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Air Force pilot makes Team USA in an unlikely sport

Capt. Dakota Lynch, a U-28A pilot with the 34th Special Operations Squadron, is a push athlete who is competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic bobsled team in 2022. As a push athlete, Lynch trains vigorously on sprinting and strength to accelerate a bobsled up to 24 miles per hour in close to four seconds while the pilot focuses on navigating hairpin turns in a choreographed chaos down the ice.

RYAN CONROY/U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO

By DAVE SOUTHORN | The Idaho Statesman | Published: January 30, 2019

BOISE, Idaho (Tribune News Service) — Like any great bobsledding story, Dakota Lynch’s tale begins in Africa.

OK, so maybe the setting is not typical, but then again, neither is Lynch’s path to earning a spot as one of 14 members of the USA national bobsled team.

Lynch serves as a pilot in the Air Force. It was last February during a deployment in Africa that a friend he was serving with noted how he had read a story about Nate Weber, an Army Green Beret who was bobsledding in the Olympics.

Lynch was a star athlete growing up in Boise, and had continued to stay in shape through his military service. His first experience on a sled was in August, and by the end of October he was named to Team USA.

“If this is as far as it goes, sweet, but I of course would like to go to the (2022) Olympics,” Lynch said. “It’s now in the realm of possibility, which is really crazy to even think about.”

Six months after the seed was planted, Lynch booked his ticket to his first combine in Park City, Utah, the day before the event. He figured he had friends in the area, so if it didn’t work, he at least could see them.

Well, it worked out pretty well. He took first place, then attended a rookie camp that coincided with what would have been a fifth deployment, but a friend took his place. Lynch made it worthwhile, moving on to the National Push Championships, then the team trials before making the team as a push athlete. He won two silvers and a gold in his first races at the North American Cup in January in Calgary.

For a pilot who has flown 1,000 combat hours, hurtling down an icy track at 90 mph provides a different kind of rush.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie, teamwork, it’s an extension of that,” said Lynch, who is the rear pusher on two- and four-man teams. “When you’re going into combat, you have to control your reaction, but in this you get to let that adrenaline be unleashed. It’s like being in a jet plane with a monkey ripping the controls around, dealing with an angry Mike Tyson.”

Lynch’s journey would be interesting enough, but there’s another twist — the guy who coaches him.

In the fall, Lynch met Nick Cunningham, who competed in the last three Olympics and is an Army National Guard sergeant. Oh, and like Lynch, he also is a Boise State graduate. Though their time at the school overlapped, they had never met one another.

“It’s wild how people get into this sport,” said Cunningham, who was a sprinter for the Broncos’ track and field team. “There’s people from all walks of life, but you tell me 10 years after we’re in Boise together, we’d meet in upstate New York bobsledding? It’s amazing.”

Part of Lynch’s next step is turning himself from a raw athlete into a bobsledder. He is stationed in Florida, where there aren’t exactly a ton of bobsled runs, so his focus is on developing his sprinting abilities. He hasn’t even had an offseason to work on it yet.

Cunningham said the pair quickly became friends with their Boise backgrounds, but he was impressed with more than Lynch’s abilities when a crash sidelined the rookie for a few weeks with concussion symptoms.

“We need more guys like him, because it wasn’t like he got hurt and we never saw him again — he was out at the track helping the guys who were out there get better,” Cunningham said. “He’s as green as anyone, but he’s fast, he’s strong, he’s a good teammate and those three components, if you have those, we can work with you. He’s a valuable asset, and if he keeps going like he has, he’ll go far.”

That bright athletic future was reignited after it seemingly was dimmed more than a dozen years earlier.

At Timberline, Lynch was a second-team all-conference linebacker in 2000 and, as a junior in 2001, was a first-team linebacker and second-team running back. On the first offensive play for the Wolves in 2002, he broke a leg. He’d forced a fumble on defense to give Timberline the ball.

Eight months later, he qualified for the 5A state track and field meet and took fifth in the 100 meters and third in the 200. But when he got hurt, he felt some pressure taken off and wasn’t worried about scholarships. Lynch said he was “hanging out with a lot of snowboarders and hippies,” so sports wouldn’t be in his collegiate future.

There was interest in him as a football player and, even after he was hurt, schools were in contact, including Boise State — likely to add him as a walk-on. But Lynch said he “just rejected all of it.”

“I was watching that first Fiesta Bowl (on Jan. 1, 2007), thinking, ‘I probably could have been on this team,’ realized I probably wasted a lot of potential,” Lynch said. “... If there’s a silver lining, everything that’s happened in these last few months, it kind of validated me as an athlete.”

Lynch has found a place for his abilities, even if it took longer than he would ever expect, in perhaps the last sport he would ever expect. He’ll next compete Feb. 15-16 in Lake Placid, N..Y, in a World Cup event, the next step toward a dream he never knew he had.

“I didn’t know what would happen, but there’s always been that competitive drive,” Lynch said.

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©2019 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)
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