Internship takes UW-Eau Claire grad on Olympic journey

| Judy Berthiaume

Like many sports-loving Blugolds, Lauri Miller Bausch was beyond excited as she settled into her seat to watch the spectacular opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.

The difference?

Lauri’s seat was in PyeongChang’s Olympic Stadium, where moments earlier, she had marched in with the hundreds of Olympic athletes who were to compete in the games.

A 2008 graduate who earned her degree in kinesiology, Lauri coaches Akwasi Frimpong, the only athlete from Ghana to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics and its second-ever Winter Olympian.

Lauri Miller Bausch, who earned a degree in kinesiology from UW-Eau Claire, marched in the Parade of Nations alongside Olympian Akwasi Frimpong during the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Lauri Miller Bausch, who earned a degree in kinesiology from UW-Eau Claire, marched in the Parade of Nations alongside Olympian Akwasi Frimpong during the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

As the smiling Akwasi — who competes in skeleton — carried his country’s flag, Lauri was among a handful of people who walked in the Parade of Nations with him.

“Ghana happened to be the first country out after Greece, which is always first, so we actually settled into our seats pretty quickly and watched the other 90 countries that followed us,” Lauri says of participating in the opening ceremony. “Though we had been in PyeongChang for a couple days and had already gotten the first day of training in, the opening ceremonies really were the kickoff of the Olympics. It was when we were realizing Akwasi was about to compete at the games and become an Olympian.”

Participating in the 2018 Winter Games fulfilled one of Lauri’s longtime goals, though not exactly in the way she had first dreamed.

For several years, she successfully competed internationally as a skeleton athlete, building a career that she hoped would culminate with an opportunity to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Unfortunately, an injury derailed her plans.

UW-Eau Claire grad Lauri Miller Bausch coached Olympian Akwasi Frimpong during the Winter Games in South Korea.

UW-Eau Claire grad Lauri Miller Bausch coached Olympian Akwasi Frimpong during the Winter Games in South Korea.

While disappointed, Lauri quickly found new avenues for pursing her passions through coaching.

“It was kind of bittersweet at times when I realized Korea was hopefully going to be the highlight of my own sliding career,” Lauri says of being part of the recent Olympic Games. “I had thought I potentially would retire from the sport after competing in these games.

“Still it was rewarding to be there to watch my fellow competitors and teammates from another perspective. My goals were not all achieved while I was an athlete in the sport, but my participation has evolved in ways that I have been able to get others closer to achieving their own.”

Just how do you become an athlete and coach in an obscure sport that most people only hear about every few years?

“Honestly, my involvement in skeleton was as unexpected as is my career,” Lauri says. “After my UW-Eau Claire coursework was completed for my bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, I wrapped up college with an internship through the U.S. Olympic Committee as a strength coach at the Olympic Training Center.

“I nearly elected one of the other training centers, but on a whim, decided to accept a position at the Lake Placid, New York, facility since I doubted I would otherwise work with such unique sports.”

Lauri was nearing the end of her internship at the Olympic Training Center when she decided to give the bobsled and skeleton sleds a try.

She had no idea when she flew down those ice-covered tracks for the first time that her spontaneity would change her life’s journey and lead her to the Olympics 10 years later.

“Right as I was preparing to relocate to continue my education, I tried bobsled and skeleton for fun,” says Lauri. “The driving aspect came so naturally to me that they invited me back after my one-day debut.”

Immediately hooked on the sport, Lauri quickly unpacked her bags and set aside plans for graduate school so she could stay in New York for a year of skeleton training at the Lake Placid track.

A year later, she competed in her first National Team Trials, ranking fifth, which allowed her to race on three of the four international circuits during her first competitive season.

Her goal from the start of her skeleton career was to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

After struggling to recover from her 2014 hamstring injury, she knew she had to let her dream go.

“I medaled in the final three races of my career in Germany and Switzerland, and I had momentum going in the right direction,” Lauri says. “But 10 months of recovery did not leave me healed enough to begin sprinting by the following season.”

While disappointed, Lauri stayed active in the sport by accepting a coaching position in the Lake Placid development program, and coaching with the North American Cup, Europe Cup Tour and the Youth Olympics.

Through her coaching, she met future Olympian Akwasi Frimpong, the skeleton competitor from Ghana.

“Akwasi had just begun skeleton when I was coaching in Canada during some races that he was participating in and, quite frankly, struggling through,” Lauri says. “He was dedicated to showing a presence for his birth country, but never had the time to develop outside of a race atmosphere.”

During a break in his season, Akwasi went to Lake Placid to complete training runs.

“I helped him go back to the basics of sliding so he could move from just trying to get down the track to finding speed, improving his time, and ultimately, a competitive edge,” Lauri says. “The U.S. coaches all acknowledged his athleticism and work ethic so we agreed to give him attention so he could progress better.

“His goal was the 2022 Olympics, but this winter he met the qualifications for a continental bid despite being only 1 1/2 years into his skeleton career.”

Weeks later, Lauri was in South Korea coaching Akwasi in his first Olympics.

“We were the underdog at the Games given his limited experience, but it still was stressful at times,” Lauri says of coaching in the Olympics. “His first day on the ice, he did surprisingly well, out-sliding a few in the field, so that made us hungrier to compete and not just represent.”

However, Akwasi’s inexperience in high-stakes races quickly caught up to him so they had to shift their expectations again, she says.

“He just had to remember to go out there and do his best, enjoy the ride and be grateful for the opportunity to participate,” Lauri says. “It was funny at times how much attention he received compared to a large part of the field. He is so positive and smiling that his energy caught the crowd and media's attention easily.”

Experiencing the Olympics as a coach and a spectator was incredible, Lauri says.

“From opening ceremonies to the dates of competition, being a part of my athlete's experience was moving enough, but there was a day that I was awarded spectator tickets as part of a lottery,” Lauri says. “That was a nice way to be a part of others' Olympic moments.”

She was especially excited that her spectator tickets got her into watch the U.S. women’s hockey team win the gold medal.

“It was incredible to watch,” Lauri says. “During overtime and the shootout, a different side of the U.S. women's team came out — they almost appeared to have more energy at the final moments of the game. Watching the emotion erupt in the stadium was something to see.  While they frequently medal, it was 20 years since they got gold.”

That same night, she also attended three short-track speed skating final events, a new experience for her.

“I couldn't take my eyes off the athletes; I didn't know it would be so engaging,” Lauri says of speed skating.

What advice does Lauri have for current Blugolds who are contemplating their own futures?

Work hard, embrace opportunities and take chances, Laurie says.

At UW-Eau Claire, Lauri played rugby, studied abroad in Australia, spent a semester volunteering as a rugby coach in South Africa, worked at a behavioral group home and was a strength coach for a local sports fitness center.

In addition, there was the internship that changed her life by introducing her to skeleton.

She credits UW-Eau Claire and her kinesiology professors with creating experiences that helped her stand out when applying for the prestigious internship.

“While some people thought the internship through the USOC was a long shot to apply for, my early involvement in professional conferences plus the strength coaching opportunities stacked my resume,” Lauri says.

Her UW-Eau Claire mentors also encouraged her to do what she loves.

“I encourage everyone to find something they love to do and to embrace it,” Lauri says. “Even if you wind up doing something unrelated to it professionally, find the time and way to have passion for something. It will make your days better and make you better.”

Top photo caption: Blugold Lauri Miller Bausch coaches Ghana’s Akwasi Frimpong as he begins a skeleton race during the 2018 Winter Olympics.