(AP) - A year ago, the depth of the U.S. women's bobsled program was in question. Teams from Germany, Canada and Switzerland all regularly outperformed the Americans, hardly a good sign heading into an Olympic season.
Everything seems much different now, and that's a good feeling for the U.S.
Entering this weekend's World Cup race in Germany, only one nation - the United States - has three drivers ranked among the world's top seven women. And not only is the U.S. in position to send all those sleds to the Vancouver Games, there's a real sense that all three could contend for medals.
"You can see it in their eyes," said Darrin Steele, the CEO of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. "They're here to compete. It's been great to see."
Shauna Rohbock, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist, is third in the current World Cup standings, a mere point ahead of countrywoman Erin Pac. Bree Schaaf, a former Division I volleyball player and a U.S. skeleton athlete until 2007, picked the perfect time to have a breakout driving season and currently sits in seventh worldwide, up 13 spots from her rank at the end of last season.
The Germans might have the best equipment in the world and the Canadians might have the edge with the Olympics on their home track, but the U.S. seems to have plenty of momentum.
"You don't ever want to be beaten by your sister, and I think within the U.S., that's the kind of feeling that you get," Rohbock said. "Obviously, we always strive to beat the Germans. We're always kind of chasing them and the Canadians. But having two other drivers that can continually push you, it just breeds success and it's been awesome to have."
Rohbock has been through the Olympic spotlight before and handled it with ease in Turin, finishing just short of a gold medal. For her fellow American drivers, the rigors of an Olympic season are all new.
Back when the Torino Games rolled around four years ago, Pac was learning how to drive, making the transition from being a push athlete to the sled pilot. And Schaaf only had a flirtation with bobsledding, still thinking that skeleton would remain her primary focus.
Now here they are, with Vancouver closing in quickly.
"It's been such a weird season in that it's been so fast and yet so slow," Schaaf said. "Time's kind of been moving at a standstill. We're just kind of floating through here, and now we're under 60 days to the games, which is absolutely crazy. It's nice to finally have that countdown going. It's been getting really exciting."
The bobsled team races in Altenberg, Germany, this weekend, then gets a brief break for Christmas. Racing resumes the weekend of Jan. 8 in Konigssee, then followed a week later in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Barring a free fall, the U.S. should at that point be able to celebrate sending three sleds to Vancouver.
"It can't come fast enough for me," Pac said. "We really only have two more races after this weekend and then the team will be named. It's been going by fast, and I'm just anxious for the time to keep ticking away."
It's not just depth among drivers in the U.S. camp now, either. Even if three American women's bobsled teams make it into the Olympics, some push athletes will be left off the team because the U.S. has more of them at the elite level than ever before.
For their part, the drivers know that's out of their control.
"Nice problem to have," Rohbock said.
Rohbock and Valerie Fleming earned the silver on a chilly night in the Italian Alps in 2006, meaning expectations were particularly high on Rohbock entering this season. Her year started off slower than she would have preferred, finishing ninth at Park City and fifth in Lake Placid, but she rebounded by winning gold when the World Cup tour stopped at Cesana Pariol.
She's been flying, just like her teammates.
"It was the goal for all of us to try to get three sleds into the games this year and I think having three competitive sleds is huge," Rohbock said. "It's driven all of us to do better, each and every race. With Erin and Bree right there every race, knowing they can beat me, it's been awesome. The competition between all of us has been good and exciting."