During Black History Month, the Women’s Sports Foundation will be highlighting some of the African American female champion athletes, coaches and members of the media who are leading the way for the next generation of black girls and women.
Aja Evans traded in competing on a dry track with her sprinting spikes and shot put for rushing down a track of slippery ice with bigger spikes, a helmet and a two-woman sleigh. It may seem like a drastic change for most people, but Evans only saw new opportunities to continue pursuing her Olympic dream through the sport of bobsled.
WSF caught up with Aja as part of our month-long celebration of black achievement to discuss her athletic career and competing as one of the only women of color in a predominantly white sport.
WSF: How did you become a bobsledder?
AE: I started off as a track and field athlete in Chicago and received an athletic scholarship to the University of Illinois to be a sprinter and shot put thrower. I had a very unique power-speed combination, and my coach at the time told me about the sport of bobsled, as he thought I would be a good fit for it. I initially pushed it off because I thought my Olympic dreams would be fulfilled through the sport I grew up doing. However, about a year and a half later, I didn’t end up pursuing track and field on a professional level. I was working at a gym, helping athletes and clients really accomplish their goals, but I didn’t feel like I gave myself the same opportunities. That’s when bobsled came back into the picture. I stayed up one night researching it and found out there was a combine in Lake Placid, which was the first step to getting into the sport.
WSF: Black people tend to represent a small minority of the athletes at any given Winter Games. What motivated you to pursue a sport that does not traditionally have many black participants?
AE: Me being a black woman, overcoming these obstacles coming from the south side of Chicago in bobsled—it doesn’t sound right, honestly. [However], my mom always taught me to really be very determined. I didn’t see boundaries or barriers, so I was coming in as the same determined woman and athlete. I didn’t even realize at the time that I stood for so much more.
It wasn’t until I started receiving a lot of love and support through social media from people all across the world did I realize it was about more than me being an athlete, more than me pursuing this Olympic dream, it was about me being the inspiration for people across the world, girls in my city, girls from the same neighborhood I’m from.
WSF: Speaking of your mom, you come from a family of athletes — how did she influence you throughout your athletic career?
AE: My mom has had such an amazing impact on my life. To have someone as strong as her in my corner — I never saw my mom weak, I never saw her cry and I never saw her down. She’s always very powerful. There were so many times even as an adult doing bobsled that I just did not want to do it anymore. I was not motivated, I was discouraged, I was hurt, I was going through things. My mom didn’t force me to do anything, but she would hear me out, then say I get to take my day to figure things out, and after that we’re moving forward.
WSF: How did you feel about black people around the world turning on the Winter Olympics for the first time because they heard you were representing in Sochi?
AE: With USA Bobsled, I came in not only as black women, but as a force to be reckoned with, and that was the best part. We are all competitive teammates — all of us African Americans came into this sport and we dared you to try us. It’s so fun to see the culture change. There are more athletes across the world pursuing this sport. It really opens people’s eyes to opportunities and there are no barriers.
WSF: How did you handle being one of the few black females competing at Sochi 2014?
AE: It can be intimidating, and I think we let it intimidate us — but we are born to stand out. Once I realized that, and I accepted it, then it became more empowering. [During the Games] people from all different countries wanted to embrace [the new diversity]. It wasn’t about me just being this black girl in this sport, it now became I’m this athlete in this sport like everyone else. We are all striving to be successful. You could feel a shift — everything changed and it was all about the competition.
WSF: How is sport evolving for black women in 2019?
AE: I feel like African American women are really embracing their Black Girl Magic, and it’s so empowering. It’s exhilarating to know that you can still be successful when going into a new territory or new environment. You see all these countries with more black women coming into the sport. The world needs to continue seeing that development — people from where we’re from need to see that — because that’s how we create hope and that’s how we continue to be better and change society.
Want more Black History Month content from some of the top women in sports? Check out these other women talking about the celebration (the list will be updated throughout the month):