U.S. Olympian Johnny Quinn, who finally competes in four-man bobsled Saturday and Sunday, has experienced the very definition of “going viral” since arriving at the Sochi Games.
His reaction to finding himself stuck in a bathroom at the athletes’ village after taking a shower Feb. 8 started it all.
When attempts to gain the attention of would-be rescuers failed, the buff bobsledder from McKinney and former UNT footballer, burst through the middle of the door.
The image of the gaping hole — as if the Green Hulk had punched the door — on Twitter made Quinn, 30, an instant celebrity during the early days of the Olympics. Because of widely reported trouble with Russian accommodations, #SochiProblems became a running theme.
Ironically, days later, Quinn and fellow bobsledders became stuck in an elevator.
“From a social media standpoint, my gosh,” Quinn, a.k.a. Johnny Bobsled, said in a recent update via phone from the Sanki Sliding Center. “It’s been pretty wild.”
The bathroom-door snapshot has garnered national and international attention — Quinn is now Twitter pals with actor William Shatner, has had his biceps admired by former figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi and will take up Denton SWAT’s offer to learn proper door-breaching techniques when he returns home.
But Quinn’s backstory, before all the door fuss, stands on its own.
The former University of North Texas football standout at receiver went undrafted and then was cut by the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers and the Canadian Football League’s Saskatchewan Roughriders by the age of 26.
Quinn, who moved to McKinney from Pennsylvania at age 6, grew up watching football, dreaming of playing in the NFL. Quinn had always found ways to compensate for being a couple inches too short, a bit too slow. If he was destined to be labeled an underdog, Quinn, 6-0, 220, has never seen himself that way. Was it really time to let football go?
“I watched Cool Runnings growing up,” Quinn said of the 1993 movie on the first Jamaican Olympic bobsled team, “but my goal and dream was the NFL. My professional career did not go the way I anticipated. … I never had an ambition to be a bobsledder.”
But an opportunity in the unlikely sport lured him. Bobsled could fill Quinn’s competitive void — even if he initially needed Dramamine to make it through the twisting runs.
“Did you ever think that you weren’t meant to be an NFL player?” said Quinn’s mom, Terri, from the family’s McKinney home, recounting a fateful 2010 conversation with her son. “What if you were meant to be an Olympian?”
Try and try again
The Packers waited until the final cut to let Quinn go in 2008. He’d been with the franchise from February through August, played in four preseason games, developing an ongoing friendship with quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
But he was cut. Buffalo had released him before training camp the year prior and the Roughriders would do the same in May of 2010.
He had played with Saskatchewan in 2009, making 13 catches for 218 yards and a touchdown, before tearing his ACL. He came home to McKinney to rehab at the Michael Johnson Performance Center, earning medical clearance in just 51/2 months. But the Roughriders still said no thanks.
And Quinn’s agent’s phone wasn’t ringing.
Quinn had experienced something similar coming out of McKinney High. Though he led Class 5A in receptions, he didn’t earn a Division I scholarship until two days before signing day.
“He was on our board the whole time,” former UNT coach Darrell Dickey told the Denton Record-Chronicle. “We were going to take one wide receiver. I kept asking if there was a taller or faster guy.”
UNT did offer Quinn a scholarship at the last minute. Quinn became the program’s all-time leading receiver, leading the team in receptions each season from 2003 to 2006 and compiling 2,718 yards. He’s a member of the Mean Green’s All-Century Team.
Quinn also walked on to UNT’s track team, running the 100 and 200 meters, and eventually anchoring the 4x100 relay. Quinn — whose younger brother Daniel was a long and triple jumper at Arkansas — didn’t love track. But he knew he needed it.
“I wasn’t the fastest,” Quinn said. “Playing receiver you have to have speed. I knew I had to increase my speed. I walked on to give myself an advantage over other football players.”
Quinn’s father, John, said Johnny was always willing to work to overcome weaknesses. And he had an inherent passion.
“If there was a ribbon to be won, a piece of gum, some kind of prize,” Terri Quinn said, “He was going to get it.”
‘Never pushed a sled’
The idea of switching to bobsledding hatched, even while Quinn hoped a call from a football team-in-need would come.
Quinn’s agent represented Olympic bobsledder Todd Hays, a Texan and former football player. And Quinn’s mother worked at Stryker, the same Fortune 500 company as Chuck Berkeley, who had just competed in the 2010 Vancouver Games. Why not Quinn?
Quinn, encouraged by his parents, sent video documenting his speed and acceleration training at Michael Johnson Performance to Berkeley, then accepted an invitation to travel to Park City, Utah, that November to essentially learn the sport.
But before he could go, Quinn got a surprise phone call. Driver Cory Butner’s sled at the U.S. trials in Lake Placid, N.Y., was overweight. The team needed Quinn to compete. Immediately.
“I’ll come,” Quinn responded. “But I’ve never pushed a sled in my life.”
Quinn’s first run came during the competition. Quinn slipped and went face-first over the sled before using his strength to recover and get himself in — barely.
Quinn felt mortified, Terri recounted, until his new teammates high-fived him at the end of the run.
The team would end up placing third.
“The rest,” Quinn said, “is history.”
Bobsled looks for former track and football athletes, a la Herschel Walker, and Quinn excelled in making the physical transformation.
“The psychology was so strong that the physiology was easy,” said Lance Walker, Global Director of Performance at Michael Johnson Performance, who has worked with Quinn since his initial efforts to make an NFL roster. “It would take a normal person tremendous change … not Johnny Quinn.”
Quinn switched from football-specific training to bobsled preparation. He focused on initial starting strength and speed, overcoming the inertia of a sitting sled. Previously, 50 percent of his training had honed the change-of-movement skills that had helped him run routes as a receiver. Quinn gained 20 pounds of lean mass.
Walker said Quinn is meticulous about following through a workout plan and never misses a workout, similar to Dallas’ legendary Olympic track star Michael Johnson, who Walker said is one of Quinn’s biggest fans.
Quinn analyzed the data of U.S. pushman Steve Langton, who won a bronze medal with driver Steven Holcomb in two-man bobsled Monday, hoping to emulate him.
Quinn recently, by the way, set a record at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center, with the first power clean lift of more than 400 pounds.
Quinn’s dedication to training paid off in being named to the Olympic team — and yes, busting out of the bathroom.
Closing his eyes
Quinn soon found to adjust to his new sport he’d have to deal with the motion sickness and discomfort he felt on the 90 mph trips down the curving, icy track.
“It was traumatic for him,” Walker said. “He showed tremendous courage — throwing safety to the wind.”
Dramamine did the job for a bit, then Quinn started closing his eyes on the runs.
Fortunately, Nick Cunningham, not Quinn, is the driver of Quinn’s sled in Sochi, called Night Train, or officially, USA-2.
As a push athlete, Quinn’s job is to get the sled to accelerate as fast as possible at the start. He’s the third team member to hop into the four-man sled, which includes fellow Texan Justin Olsen of San Antonio.
Quinn has learned to accept that crashes can happen. That’s been difficult for Amanda Hall, Quinn’s fiancé, and the rest of his family who set alarms at 2 or 3 a.m. in the states to watch his World Cup races in Europe via the Internet.
“I’ve had eight crashes in my career,” Quinn said. “You don’t want any of them. When you’re going that fast and the sled goes on the wrong side, it doesn’t feel too good. But that’s part of the sport, part of pushing limits.”
As a rookie, Quinn had been instructed to rotate his head and shoulder off the ice in a crash. But when it happened, in Italy in 2011, he left his shoulder on the ice.
“It started to get really, really hot,” said Quinn, who wears a Kevlar burn vest when competing. “I kicked out of the sled, checked my limbs…took off my uniform and vest. I had about a quarter-sized hole that was burned down to the muscle.”
He’ll always have the scar as a bobsled badge of honor.
Sochi cheering section
Several of Quinn’s family and friends will be in Sochi to watch him compete in four total runs on Saturday and Sunday. They had been wary of security concerns leading up to the Games.
Quinn said he’s been able to attend the events of other U.S. Olympians and watching them win medals has pumped him up to finally get his turn.
When it’s all over, Quinn will return home to the McKinney townhouse he and Hall share to finish wedding planning — the big day is May 3 in Anna.
“There have been times when you wonder, ‘Is this going to work out?’” Hall said of Quinn’s bobsledding career. “But it’s so rewarding for me to see his hard work pay off like this.”
They’d just met when Quinn first took up bobsled. Since he’s gone for essentially half of every year, video connections via Facetime and Skype are necessities. Quinn spends the off-seasons training and working to gather sponsorships to help fund his seasons.
Quinn also runs The Athlete Watch, his company that helps high school athletes be proactive in their recruitment, born out of his own experience. He is getting his MBA online through the Keller Graduate School of Management. He also spends 30 minutes a day learning Spanish through Rosetta Stone. He does have weaknesses — he has a sweet tooth, Hall said, perhaps appropriate as Quinn once managed a doughnut shop in McKinney.
“Johnny’s the most passionate person I know,” Hall said. “When he does something, he puts his heart into it.”
Quinn has been adamant that he’s in Sochi for a medal. It’s the other U.S. sled, however, piloted by Holcomb, that will be among the favorites. Holcomb’s sled won the gold in 2010.
Quinn’s new fame may lead to broadened opportunities, no matter how the race unfolds. Quinn said his agent has projects in the pipeline that could build off his door-busting fame.
“I thought maybe I’d get a couple retweets,” Quinn said. “Nothing like this.”
Quinn has done so many interviews — from the Today show and CNN in the U.S. to talks with New Zealand and Japanese outlets — that he’s recognized and even teased by other Olympians of all nationalities.
While all the conversations started with the tale of the fractured door, Quinn said he hopes the rest of his story will inspire someone or go beyond the hot, and typically short-lived, viral fame.
“It’s been cool that then we get to bring awareness to bobsledding,” Quinn said. “I’ve been able to share my path. The door to my dream closed [in football] – and now at 30 years old, I’m an Olympian.”
College football: UNT receiver, 2002-2006
Pro football: Buffalo (2007), Green Bay (2008) and CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders (2009)
Bobsled: Oct. 2010-present
When to watch four-man bobsled
10:30 a.m. Saturday, NBCOlympics.com
3:30 a.m. Sunday, NBCOlympics.com
For TV listings, check SportsDay
Winning by #Quinning
Some of the highlights of McKinney Olympic bobsledder Johnny Quinn’s Russia visit since he broke through a jammed bathroom door Feb. 8 at the Sochi Games:
#Quinning became a verb on social media, as in breaking out of a bad situation or busting through something.
Quinn’s Twitter followers soared to more than 26,000
Interviewed by personalities including Ryan Seacrest and Piers Morgan
The Wall Street Journal posted a humorous re-enactment of the door-breaking on its website; NBC had Quinn film a mock how-to in breaking out of a bathroom.
Follow Kate Hairopoulos on Twitter @khairopoulos