Utah bobsledder used sports, military service to overcome stutter

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 8 2013 3:19 p.m. MDT

U.S. Olympic Winter Games bobsledder Chris Fogt poses for a portrait at the 2013 Team USA Media Summit on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, in Park City.

Carlo Allegri, Associated Press

PARK CITY — When Chris Fogt was struggling to survive junior high, he thought he might be able to avoid the barbs of bullies if he could just hide the fact that he stuttered.

So the American Fork alum spoke as little as possible.

“I really withdrew because I think that’s when kids are the most brutal,” said Fogt, who was named to the bobsled team’s USA 1 after winning the U.S. push championships in August. “I got really quiet, so it got worse.”

What the newest member of the famed Night Train found was that the only way to conquer the speech impediment was to keep talking.

“It’s definitely been a challenge,” said Fogt. “It’s always been a frustrating thing. I feel like it’s so simple, like how can I not speak. It’s just speaking, one of the simplest things. I feel like I’ve been to college, I’m educated, I’ve traveled the world, I’ve been to the Olympics, I’ve been in the Army, how can I still stutter? It’s embarrassing to tell you the truth.”

The Utah Valley University graduate was introduced to bobsled when coaches saw him at a college track meet. His speed and strength, they said, made him the perfect candidate for the sport. After an impressive training camp, Fogt joined the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, which allowed the captain to compete for the U.S. while serving his country as a soldier. He made the U.S. Olympic team in 2010 as a member of USA 2, just 10 months after taking up the sport. That bid for a medal ended in a crash on the first day of four-man competition. Immediately after returning home after the Games, he was deployed to Iraq as a military intelligence officer.

“It was amazing going from the glitz and glamour of the Olympic Games, walking into opening ceremonies, everyone wanting to shake your hand, take pictures with you, and going to just being a regular Joe,” he said.

But the soldiers who served with Fogt in Iraq loved hearing his stories. They put Olympic rings on their Humvee and told everyone they met about their bobsledding first lieutenant. It gave them something to talk about, something hopeful and something far from the dust and danger of war zones.

“It was a lot of fun,” he said, adding that the soldiers he served with still follow his career and laud his accomplishments. “I have had a lot of support.”

Before serving in Iraq, Fogt said he felt some trepidation about splitting his time in the Army between being a soldier and being an athlete.

“I almost chose not to keep bobsledding because I love being in the Army so much,” he said. “I love serving my country that way. (The Olympics) seemed a little superficial at the time, coming from a war zone, coming from Iraq, guys are dying, guys are serving, and I’m going to go slide down the hill with my friends in spandex.”

Fogt knows it sounds silly, but he struggled with representing his country when he could be serving it.

“You almost feel a sense of guilt,” he said. “I almost felt like I’m letting soldiers down, I’m letting my friends down. (They) are waking up at 5:30 or 6 and either working out, getting bombed or going on a convoy. And I wake up in Lake Placid at 8:30 in the morning and I lift weights for a living. You have this sense of guilt, this lack of purpose. Once you realize what you’re doing, you gain that perspective back that this is still a great thing, and you’re representing your country in a different way.”

It was conversations with his boss — a 30-year Army veteran — that convinced him to keep his Olympic dream alive.

“I saw the light it brought to some of the soldiers,” he said. “It was just great to be able to talk about it with them. … They loved it, and it’s a great inspiration to them.”

Fogt said being moved into USA 1 with pilot and Park City native Steve Holcomb, who drove the Night Train to the first U.S. Olympic gold medal in 62 years, has given renewed hope of earning an Olympic medal, which will belong, in part, to those soldiers he represents.

“After winning the push championships, I was really hopeful it would happen,” he said of being named a member of the Night Train. “I get to start the season with USA 1, which is awesome. I’m very excited.”

Holcomb said Fogt’s earned his spot in the country’s top sled.

“He’s an incredible athlete,” Holcomb said. “He’s stepped up this year, and he’s shown in his testing, he’s the fastest guy on the team right now, both in sprints and in pushing. … He’s been in consideration for my team for a long time, but it’s just been a matter of making that jump.” Fogt said more time off to train allowed him to enter the August camp in top physical condition. His year in Iraq has given him confidence, perspective and focus. And on Aug. 31, his life gained another dimension when he married his longtime girlfriend, Rachel, in the Salt Lake Temple.

Fogt admits that it is frustrating that after all he’s done and dealt with, he still struggles to speak — especially in crowds.

“I don’t know why,” he said. “I had speech therapy throughout middle school and high school, but I quit in high school because I was embarrassed to go.”

Independent and determined, he thought if he tried hard enough, he could overcome it. But the more he wanted to express himself, the more unwilling his mouth seemed to be.

“I think it’s an anxiety thing, for sure,” Fogt said. “It’s tough as a kid to really speak your mind. And other kids are ruthless. You get made fun of, yeah, I got made fun of, but at the same time, I had sports as an outlet.”

Sports became his refuge. It was the place where people tried to help him and where they respected his desire to fight through it.

“My teammates were my friends and they understood it was something I dealt with,” he said. “It was still frustrating. I used to run in all the plays for football and I stuttered. I had to come up with hand signals because it was so bad.”

The worst, however, was in junior high when he withdrew because “kids are so brutal. … People want to make themselves look good, they need an outlet, so they’re trying to laugh and make fun of you.”

His advice to kids struggling with a speech impediment is simply to embrace the very things that are most difficult. People still make jokes, sometimes they still laugh. He is just no longer worried about what people think.

“Don’t be embarrassed about it,” he said. “Just try to remain confident throughout the process. It’s tough because you will fail. I’m 30-years old and I still stutter. But it’s gotten better, and it will get better.” And nothing helps more than finding a passion, a purpose.

“It would have been a lot harder without sports — and the Army,” he said. “That’s the thing, find something that you’re good at, whether it’s athletics, science, whatever, and that way you’ll find friends. Once you have something in common with them, they’re less likely to make fun of you. It’s hard to gain confidence when you stutter. You can’t express yourself; you feel dumb. But don’t let it get the best of you. Just keep talking.”

Twitter: adonsports

Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

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