Bobsledder's Journey From Homeless to Olympics
It doesn't stop there. The man who often had to rummage through dumpsters for food as a child, whose only bath growing up was frequently in a flowing river behind a grove of trees; is now an elite bobsledder preparing for his third Olympics. When it's over, Bill will retire and start studying to become a chiropractor.
The road that took Schuffenhauer from stoned street urchin to respectable member of society was sports. He had a miraculous talent for athletics -- which may have come from his dangerous childhood.
"My mom and stepfather both had major drug and alcohol addictions. We were always getting evicted out of our homes and living on the street. I still remember being on the street and trying to sleep. I lived in multiple foster homes, and hit juvenile detention. At that time, I accepted my life as normal. But there were times when I was scared. I was around strangers, drugs, gangs. There were a lot of frightening things. I had a rough upbringing, but it was fortunate, because it made me into the person I am today," Schuffenhauer says.
On the streets, he learned to run. He learned how to move fast. An impossible dream began to dawn -- late at night, as he lay hidden in the brush of a public park, trying to sleep -- Schuffenhauer would fantasize about being in the Olympics. Deep in his heart, an unfocused desire began to burn, a dream with no way of happening given the neglected life he was living.
Then, at 13, everything changed. He met the relatives of a close friend, and got to know the friend's extended family, including Bill and Barbara Henderson. Within a short time, the couple offered to adopt the troubled teen. They put him on a narrow path of regular school, no partying and no drugs.
It might never have worked, but then Schuffenhauer discovered high school sports. That was the turning point. "I fell in love with competition," Schuffenhauer said. "I became obsessed with it. And you had to have a good grade average and good attendance to be on the track and field team, so I had to study. I had to stop cutting school."
Track and field became his passion. By the time he began his college freshman year at Weber State, Schuffenhauer was one of the top 10 ranked junior decathletes in America. He was ready to go even higher, to the place of his childhood fantasy dreams. Then, as if sneaking in from his past, came crushing disaster.
"I was training for the 2000 Olympic Trials in track and field, But I had a problem with a recurring ankle sprain. I re-sprained it so badly that I couldn't walk on it, just before the Trials. I felt like my whole world came down on me. I was so close at that point, to have an injury take me out of it, I was ready to give up, I was despairing, just devastated," he remembers.
Then someone told Billy about training for the Olympics in bobsled, going on at the brand new 2002 Olympic track. He went to Park City to check out a bobsled race, and immediately fell in love with it. He hung around for three months, watching.
"Then one of the teams asked me if I'd be willing to slide with them that day as a pusher, a brakeman. They basically threw me to the dogs. It was a World Cup trials race. I don't even remember what happened next; everything was moving so fast. The next thing I knew, I was doing America's Cup races, and I was an alternate for the World Cup," Schuffenhauer says.
Todd Hayes, the top bobsled driver on the U.S. team, invited Schuffenhauer to be on his sled team as an Olympic alternate. But just before the 2002 Games, one of Hayes' team members came up positive on a doping test and was out. Schuffenhauer got his slot.
"When I learned I would be in the Olympics, it was my dream come true. It wasn't in the way I wanted, but I was already physically and mentally prepared," he said.
He helped push the USA 1 sled to a 2002 Olympic silver medal, the first bobsled medal for America in 46 years. "It was such a great moment. Winning an Olympic medal, I was overwhelmed with excitement. The whole thing, the people, the photographers, the noise. I can't even put it into words. It was one of the greatest moments of my life," Schuffenhauer says.
At the moment, he's at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., recharging his body in the warm sun and honing his last-minute training for Vancouver. The chapter is closed on the hardscrabble, homeless life he once lived.
"My next goal is to be a chiropractor," Schuffenhauer says. "School is about three to four years. Before I do that, I'm going to get a bachelor of sports science degree. That and family are the next part of my life. When the Games are over, I will retire. As far as bobsledding, that chapter of my life will be closed."
Yet in Billy's life, there's still a haunting, but comical link to the past. Back in his street days, he once broke into a Schwinn bike store and ended up in juvenile detention. Today, they are one of his sponsors.