Interview with Kellie Delka: Skeleton Racer

Delka stands by her Skeleton racing gear at Eastside bar in Denton, Tx. Photo by Sabrina Abdul Ghani

Delka stands by her Skeleton racing gear at Eastside bar in Denton, Tx. Photo by Sabrina Abdul Ghani

Outside of East Side Bar in Denton, there are people throwing bean bags into wooden boards in a game known as cornhole. It is 11 am on a Saturday, and the Texas heat is in full force. Closer to the outside entrance of the bar, on a table, there is a sled, a helmet and shoes. The owner stands close-by shaking hands, posing for photographs and trying to raise money. Some people may be confused as to why there is a sled used for an ice sport on the deck of a Texas bar, but there is a pretty good reason. Her name is Kellie Delka, and she wants to compete in the Olympics.

A cornhole contest taking place. Photo by Sabrina Abdul Ghani

A cornhole contest taking place. Photo by Sabrina Abdul Ghani

After she graduated from the University of North Texas in 2011, she saw a post on her Facebook feed about a local UNT football legend, Johnny Quinn. He played for the Mean Green back in the early aughts, and after a few stints with some NFL teams, he left the game. He resurfaced in 2012 when he made the U.S. Men’s Bobsled team for the Sochi Winter Olympics. After seeing that post, Delka went to Lake Placid in upstate New York to check out Bobsledding, but she ended up staying for three months to do skeleton.

“I was like ‘I'll give this a go and then I ended up doing skeleton. I wasn't quite big enough for bobsled at that time and then I was like yep, s [skeleton] is my thing,” Delka says. “I've always wanted to go to the games and this was my way.”

Delka is in the process of qualifying for the upcoming 2018 winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea in the skeleton discipline. Skeleton is an individual and thrilling high-speed sport where the racer, on top a small sled, goes at speeds up 80 mph and experiencing four Gs of force down an ice track. Racers compete by putting the best times going down an icy track one at a time.

“It would be like if you're on a roller coaster with no seat belt. It's exhilarating; I’m not too scared, and that's probably why I love it,” says Delka. “I’ve been black and blue on my whole side like for months. I’ve been just beat up because, I mean, when you think about it, you'll hit an ice wall going 60 miles an hour, and you're wearing just a tiny speed suit.”

While she was a student at UNT she was cheering on the Mean Green Eagles as a cheerleader for two years and was part of the track and field team for four years as a pole vaulter. Delka says she’s always been active and that she loved being outside when she was a kid, she even has a scuba certification. Before Delka even heard of skeleton she graduated with a B.S. in Kinesiology, which she says, helped her understand her body better.

 “My degree is going to help me tremendously because I understand it [her body] scientifically and,” says Delka, “It's a good baseline, but I feel like I've learned just from my hands on experience through track and looking at all the training I've done.” Training with other Olympians has helped her a great deal in getting better at the sport and knowing how to train.

Skeleton training can be grueling—on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays she wakes up early to. Then she moves on to working on her sprints, which requires, “either pushing a sled or pulling a sled, inclined sprints, downhill sprints and regular sprints,” says Delka. All of this is before lunch.

Once she has lunch, it is back to working out, but this time she hits the weights. She says it is all about finding the right balance—too strong and it will lower you speed, so she finds that middle ground between track and weight lifting because muscle is not always your best friend.

“I have to find the balance because I have been at the point where I've been too muscle-bound where I feel like I'm a turtle in peanut butter because I'm so strong, but it's going nowhere,” says Delka. “I'm really strong, but I'm also really quick, so it's a happy balance.”

That training, although hard, can also be expensive with professional sleds costing thousands of dollars. While the training can be all consuming, the stress of financing can be overwhelming especially when the Olympic trials are only a short time away. Delka doesn’t have a job, and she doesn’t consider skeleton her job either, but as much as she loves the sport she needs money to fund her dream. Up to know, her parents have supported her dream, but with plane trips and gear—sled, helmet, and body—it can get to be too much, which is why today she is at East Side on a Saturday morning.

She knew she needed to cover her expenses, so she reached out to Mark Miller, a member of the UNT Alumni Association, and he set up the event—a cornhole tournament and raffle. Miller is a passionate supporter of UNT athletics in the Denton community and helped Delka set up a GoFundMe page just a few months ago. “At this level of trying to qualify, the Olympic Committee [USOC] for her, so we’re just a bunch of people that decided, ‘hey, you know, this is a great kid, and she needs some help,'” Miller says. “It’s just a bunch of local folks trying to help out a local kid.”

The United States Olympic Committee funds athletes only after they have qualified, but unlike other nations, the USOC is privately, and not federally, funded. Once an athlete qualifies, the USOC will pay for airfare, lodging, and food.  The USOC may give them a stipend, but it varies by sport, with athletes in more popular spots receiving more money. Some athletes are not paid at all, and many fund themselves like Delka, with a GoFundMe page and her parent’s support.

Delka takes a picture with Upventur CEO and founder, Craig Pettigrew and UNT Alumni Mark Miller. Photo by Sabrina Abdul Ghani

Delka takes a picture with Upventur CEO and founder, Craig Pettigrew and UNT Alumni Mark Miller. Photo by Sabrina Abdul Ghani

But earlier in the day, before the cornhole tournament, she gave a brief speech all in the name of supporting her dream.

Qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympics for skeleton all depends on the amount of points a racer accumulate during the international 2017-2018 season. The event will have 50 racers from all over the world, and only six from the U.S.—three men and three women. The U.S. team will be named on Jan. 15 2018.

She says her first try at the skeleton sled was on Oct. 21, 2011, known to most as Halloween. Ever since that All Hallows Eve, she has been putting in the work and is trying her hardest to qualify, but she is not doing it for fame or money, although she would not mind being on a cereal box.

Her goal right now is to qualify for the games and to be respected by her peers. She wants to be known as someone who was a a persistent person who worked hard—she wants future generations to know of her hard work and workhorse attitude when it comes to training. “Everybody knows, if they'll give me ten runs, I will take ten runs. I am out there all the time because I just love this sport,” says Delka. When a racer goes down the track that equals one run, so doing 10 runs is physically challenging.

A collage of Delka's accomplishments. Photo by Sabrina Abdul Ghani

A collage of Delka's accomplishments. Photo by Sabrina Abdul Ghani

When she is not doing weights, pulling a sled or doing ten runs in a row she likes to stay at home with her parents and her dogs, she says, because she is a bit of a homebody. She loves to be outdoors too, whether it is stand up paddling at the lake or boogie boarding, she prefers to remain active. Delka sees her friends, and still goes out occasionally but she says it is a weird transition being back home during the off-season.

“During the season, I am literally living in the same room, or literally same bed as my best friends like for six months, and when you get home you're like, ‘oh, I'm so lonely,’” she says.

But right now, she does not look very lonely with 40 friends and Denton locals sipping on craft beer and throwing around bean bags. People come by and ask what’s going on before joining in on the festivities; she is just happy that people showed up.

Tickets for a raffle being sold at the event. Photo by Sabrina Abdul Ghani

Tickets for a raffle being sold at the event. Photo by Sabrina Abdul Ghani

Alejandro Medellin