Zaccardi: Meet Team USA’s bodybuilder-turned-bobsledder

Hakeem Abdul-Saboor

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker once converted to bobsled. So did Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Chelios. And Edwin Moses, who won two Olympic 400m hurdles titles with a streak of 122 straight victories.

Now, there’s Hakeem Abdul-Saboor. He isn’t as accomplished as any of those names but has his own unique story to tell.

Abdul-Saboor is the first U.S. Olympic bobsledder since at least 1998 (perhaps ever) to convert from another physically demanding exercise – bodybuilding.

OK, not exactly bodybuilding.

“I call it bodybuilding, but I do physique,” said Abdul-Saboor, a 30-year-old born in New Jersey. “It’s not like I’m up in a Speedo in there. It’s what you try to aspire to look like at the beach, so I’m wearing board shorts [in physique competitions].”

Abdul-Saboor said he did five shows and won three titles (one is usually eligible for multiple physique titles at one show).

That was before he was introduced to bobsled in 2015 and made the U.S. Olympic bobsled team this season.

Abdul-Saboor’s athletic story began as a basketball, football and all-around track and field athlete at Powhatan High School in Virginia, about 30 miles west of Richmond.

He went on to play running back at Division II University of Virginia at Wise. Abdul-Saboor said he ran a 4.30-second 40-yard dash.

But his football career ended four games into his senior season in 2009. Abdul-Saboor said he tore an ACL one week too late to receive a medical redshirt for the season.

“Hakeem is probably the best all-around athlete I have ever coached,” UVA-Wise coach Dewey Lusk once said

Abdul-Saboor stuck around campus for a while doing what he loved – hitting the gym. One of his friends was a bodybuilder and suggested Abdul-Saboor enter a contest.

He submitted photos and made the cut. Abdul-Saboor flew to Boise, Idaho, for the 2012 Bodybuilding.com FIT USA Event. He had to pay for everything except entry fee.

“Flight, hotel, spray tan,” he said. “I think they picked 16 or 20 of us from the nation. I ended up winning the people’s choice award. So that was everybody over the nation voting for which contestant they liked, their physique the best. That was before the show. I ended up placing fourth in the total competition.”

Abdul-Saboor said he performed well enough in shows to be invited to bigger competitions.

“But I never had the means of doing a national show because of the funding,” he said. “The pros get sponsors and everything, so they make pretty good money if you become a pro. At one point, I did think I would like to pursue that, but I would need to have found a job to help me start that, or a sponsor.”

Abdul-Saboor found a job in Knoxville, Tenn., as a speed, agility and quickness coach and personal trainer for Performance Training, Inc.

That’s about 100 miles west of East Tennessee State University, where a number of U.S. bobsledders, including the late Steven Holcomb, have spent off seasons training.

Word spread to ETSU of this physical specimen in Knoxville.

“An undergraduate student on campus brought my attention to a video of a young man (Hakeem) performing a vertical jump and touching his head to the [10-foot] ceiling of a Knoxville-based fitness center he was personal training out of,” Dr. Brad DeWesse, a former U.S. Olympic Committee head of physiology and current ETSU associate professor, wrote in an email. “Having coached a large portion of Olympians in the sport, it was obvious that Hakeem had the power and physical build to be successful in bobsled.”

DeWesse tracked down Abdul-Saboor through Facebook and invited him to Johnson City for a dryland bobsled combine.

“Needless to say Hakeem had a perfect score in each event, even after becoming ill from nerves halfway through the test,” DeWesse wrote. “Since then, I have had the honor of coaching Hakeem to 3 national team designations and finally to an Olympic team. In short, you never know who is watching.”

Abdul-Saboor started as a push athlete on the minor-league North American Cup in fall 2015, but by January 2016 competed in three World Cups.

This season, he was in veteran Nick Cunningham’s sled for the last seven races since Dec. 1. That included a pair of North American Cup wins and a fifth-place finish in a two-man World Cup in Austria, the best result for any U.S. sled outside of an American track this season.

No surprise he’s in Cunningham’s sled for both two- and four-man events in PyeongChang.

Abdul-Saboor thought his sports career was over when he tore the ACL eight years ago. Now, he plans to continue bobsledding beyond the Olympics and maybe even return to physique, though he would have to drop 20 bobsled pounds.

He does not consider physique a sport, even though it’s sweat-inducing.

“You get pretty nervous, and before you go on stage, you’re back there getting a pump,” he said. “We’re like working out backstage to make your muscles look good.

“We don’t have to pose like bodybuilders, but we do have several poses like one hand on the hip. You have to kind of look like a model up there. That’s how they judge us.”

It’s the judging that sometimes confused Abdul-Saboor.

“There are bodybuilding teams that come to one of the show, and usually someone from the team is in one of the top places, which feels like the judges are biased towards them,” he said. “Several times, there are times that when I didn’t win a show, and I go out into the audience to talk to fans and people watching the show, they don’t understand why I did not win.”

The only judging in bobsled is done by coaches and officials determining who goes into the sled.

Most of the famous athletes who converted before Abdul-Saboor never made it to an Olympics – including Chelios, Moses, Renaldo Nehemiah and Willie Gault.

“Bobsled is definitely harder [than bodybuilding],” Abdul-Saboor said. “It’s just such a unique sport. You get athletes out here who you would think would be able to push fast and do well in bobsled. They might be fast but not strong. Or strong but not fast. Or even both but just don’t have the technique to push the bobsled. You have to have the total package in order to become a good bobsledder.”