On the last Thursday of every April, Kelly Curtis’ father, John, would take her to the Penn Relays for the annual Take Your Daughter to Work Day.
A former athletic director at Princeton High School, he would give Kelly, then in grade school, the chance to watch some of the nation’s premier track-and-field athletes at Franklin Field.
“She had no idea what was happening on the track,” he said. “She just loved being in the environment.”
Fast forward to 2011 when Curtis, as a track star at Springfield College, won the women’s collegiate heptathlon at the Penn Relays.
“I didn’t win a single event, but I was able to score enough points and just hold on for the 800 meters at the very end,” she said. “That was a magical moment, probably one of my father’s proudest as a parent as well.”
Her father confirmed, adding that Curtis told him that she could “feel the presence” of him in the final 100 meters.
“That was kind of emotional for me,” he said.
Curtis, now 33, is representing the United States in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, as a member of the skeleton team. The skeleton competition is scheduled to start Thursday.
Her path from track star to Olympian is about as winding as the frozen skeleton track.
After graduating from Springfield, Curtis moved to Canton, N.Y., to be a graduate assistant for the St. Lawrence track team.
“I thought, if I am going to be in the cold, I might as well do something fun,” joked Curtis.
With the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center only 2 hours away in Lake Placid, Curtis, with no previous sledding experience, participated in a bobsled combine before her second year of graduate school.
“I felt that I still had something left in the tank [from college] and I wanted to pursue something else,” she said. “I did well enough in the combine to get invited to driving school.”
Her dad was supportive, happy that his daughter would continue to compete, albeit in a different sport.
“I told her, ‘Sure honey, go chase your dreams,’ ” he said, laughing as he recalled the conversation. “Meanwhile, I said, ‘What? Is that where the kids are going down the track at like 95 miles per hour?’ ”
It was during training that Curtis realized that skeleton, rather than bobsled, was more her calling.
“I saw all of the skeleton sliders and thought that looked fun,” she said. “So I tried [skeleton] and fell in love as soon as I started sliding.”
Curtis made the change official in 2015, focusing solely on skeleton racing. The learning curve, for herself as a rider and even for her father as a supporter, was steep.
“[Skeleton] is not a natural thing at all,” she said. “It probably takes like four years just to be able to understand what you are doing on the sled.”
In the seven years since the shift, Curtis has only competed for five years. This season was her first participating in the Skeleton World Cup, a race series that spans from November to January each year.
Heading into the World Cup’s final race last month in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Curtis was the third-ranked American, 60 points behind the second-ranked American, Megan Henry. To qualify for the 2022 Winter Olympics, Curtis had to be in the top two. She needed a nearly flawless race.
“I was able to soar down the St. Moritz track and take advantage of other people stumbling a little bit,” she said, referencing her career-best, sixth-place finish. “It was after that race that I was talking to the media person and she ran the numbers and said, ‘So, you qualified.’ ”
Curtis thought the official was joking.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” she remembers saying.
While attending the Olympics is a dream come true for Curtis, she admits that she was “fortunate that one day” in Switzerland.
“The first couple of years, you have your village that gets really excited about your journey,” said Curtis. “But they don’t understand how small the margins are between watching the Olympics on your couch and going to the Olympics.”
Along with the slim margins, there’s a financial burden of competing in a unique sport like skeleton. Curtis has held a series of part-time jobs, including tutoring and dog walking.
“Figuring out how to make it work [financially] as a skeleton rider is the hardest part,” she said. “Once you get to the top of the track and you figure out how to slide … you aren’t worried about anything else. But right after [sliding], you are like, ‘How am I going to pay for dinner tonight and how am I going to pay my bills?’ ”
One way Curtis was able to alleviate money-based anxiety came from the U.S. Air Force. In 2020, she enlisted in the World Class Athletes Program — one of the first civilians to enroll — after hearing about the program from other sliders. Her brother also served in the Air Force.
“Right now, I feel like I have the best job in the Air Force,” she said.
After completing basic training, Curtis was assigned to Aviano, Italy, where she will be stationed until 2026. An added perk of her new Italian home? She will only be hours away from Milan, the host of the 2026 Winter Olympics.
“I will have that structure right after [the 2022 Olympics] so I won’t have that Olympic hangover you hear about from so many people,” she said.
Curtis, who hopes one day to become an Air Force officer, will be serving her country during and after the Winter Olympics.
“Hopefully I give my friends and family a look into what really makes me happy for the majority of the winter,” she said.
She knows millions of people from all around the world will watch her compete, an opportunity she won’t take for granted.
“To have so many people from so many parts of the country having a familiar face to cheer for in this crazy sport like skeleton, it is pretty exciting,” said Curtis.
One of those people will be her father, saying that he will be “beaming with pride.”
“It’s more than a dream come true,” he said, stopping momentarily to collect his thoughts.
“I am just so proud of her.”