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Pushing for greatness: Family champions bobsled brakeman Mickie Rzepka

Even at night, it's the most patriotic house on the block.

Red, white and blue lights twinkle from a pair of potted topiaries on the front porch. An American flag flaps in the wind on one side of the driveway, across from a flag sporting the Olympic emblem.

When Mickie Rzepka was named to the U.S. Olympic women's bobsled team in mid-January, her parents decided Feb. 12 would be a fine time to throw a party. That's the night of the Opening Ceremony at the Vancouver Winter Games - a chance to invite family and a few friends over to catch a glimpse of Mickie on TV with other Olympians during the Parade of Nations.

Soon, though, David and Holly Rzepka's guest list had swelled to over seventy.

"So much for our intimate gathering," Holly said with a laugh.

To prepare for the overflow crowd, the Rzepkas have already cleared furniture out of one room and added extra leafs to the dining room table. Soon, a blue tarp will hang like a gigantic shower curtain around the inside of the garage. That makeshift room will get a portable space heater.

The Rzepka's home - inside and out - has been decorated like the Fourth of July since Christmas: cardboard stars dangling from the ceiling, patriotic-themed garland sparkling from the light fixtures.

There's more to come: Five dozen balloons are on order and a graphic art class at Novi High - where Mickie Rzepka graduated in 2001 - is making 200 "Go! Go! Go! Mickie!" campaign-style buttons.

And how's this for a crowning touch: Ryan Rzepka, Mickie's brother, has found an artist in Fenton, Mich., who has agreed to carve an ice sculpture-the Olympic rings and a bobsled-out of a block of ice.

"I think we'll put that right here," David Rzepka said, standing in the foyer.

Less than three years after taking up the sport, Mickie Rzepka-a former Big Ten women's pole vault champion from Michigan State - has become the country's top push athlete for the country's top bobsled driver.

Reason enough for a party.

AN OLYMPIC DREAM

Sixteen years ago, in Mrs. Clanin's fifth-grade class at Novi (Mich.) Meadows Elementary, Mickie Rzepka received an "A plus" for an assignment titled "My Autobiography."

Under "lifetime goals," the youngster wrote of her plan to live on a farm with "two horses and a dog." She mused how neat it would be "if I could win the lottery with the numbers 2, 4, 8, 15, 16, and 21."

But this was at the top of her list: "My lifetime goal is to first win the gold medal in the hundred meter dash at the Olympics."

The sports at which Rzepka has excelled over the past decade have evolved, from running to pole vaulting to bobsledding. (She peaked as a sprinter in high school, where she qualified for the state meet in the 100-meter dash.) But her childhood dream has come true: Rzepka has made it to the Olympics, where winning the gold medal in the women's two-man bobsled on the sport's biggest stage is highly possible.

The event will be held over two days-Feb. 23-24 - at the Whistler Sliding Center in British Columbia. (Unlike the men, the four-man bobsled event is not contested for women.)

"It was an amazing feeling on the day I was named to the team," Rzepka said. "I was seeing my dream come true right in front of me."

Rzepka, 26, has been teaming with driver Shauna Rohbock-who won the 2006 Olympic silver medal with Valerie Fleming-almost all season, rising to the top of a deeply talented pool of brakemen (also called push athletes) who were competing for just three spots during the World Cup circuit.

At 5-feet-71/2 and 175 pounds, Rzepka has mastered blending her speed, strength and timing to power the sled off the start before hopping in to take a seat behind Rohbock for the journey down the icy chute.

"She's a pretty amazing athlete," Darrin Steele, USA Bobsled & Skeleton chief executive officer, said of Rzepka. "She's strong as heck and she's got speed. That's the tool you want in bobsled. What impressed me the most is how good she has become with her technique: it's not a natural motion, to get down and hit a sled. There's a real art to even knowing when to get into the sled."

Rohbock has won more than two dozen World Cup medals and four world championship medals as a driver in her career, the majority of those coming with Fleming, who was injured for much of this season and didn't make the Olympic team.

"The best part about Mickie is that she is not too different from Valerie Fleming and how she does things," Rohbock wrote in an e-mail to the Free Press. "I don't have to worry about things never getting done because she is very organized and never thinks twice about work getting done with the sled."

Rohbock and Rzepka-a.k.a. USA I-seem to be peaking as a team at the right time. On Jan. 22 , the two won the final World Cup of the season at Igls, Austria, setting a course record.

At the Whistler World Cup last February, which also served as the test event for the Olympics, Rohbock set the track record en route to winning the gold medal. In the same event, Rzepka, with driver Erin Pac , won the bronze medal-the first World Cup medal of Rzepka's career-while also setting the start record .

That race was the first time Holly and David Rzepka saw their daughter compete in bobsled in person. Seems amusing now, but they were unsure of fan protocol.

Holly said: "I asked her, 'Is it OK to ring the bell? Will that embarrass you? Can we scream Go! Go! Go!? Can we chant, USA! USA!?' "

"Mickie said, 'Mom, you can do all of that.' "

OPPORTUNITY OF A LIFETIME

Rzepka was recruited to try out for the women's U.S. Bobsled team in the fall of 2007, a few months after she received her master's degree in exercise physiology at McNeese State .

The opportunity came at a good time, since she had recovered from a stress fracture in her shin that derailed her pole-vaulting career. Track and field athletes are frequently recruited as push athletes in bobsled.

Mickie suffered a severe bloody nose the first time down the track. Instead of quitting , Rzepka wanted to know when she could try again. Her determination didn't surprise her family.

From a young age, Rzepka followed in her older brother's footsteps. Ryan Rzepka, 28, is a former four-year soccer starter at Oakland University.

For the Rzepka family, the week after Christmas was reserved each year for vacations to their cottage. When Mickie was in elementary school, David Rzepka started a tradition of constructing a sled run in the snow that ran 100 feet from the top of a hill to the lake.

Mickie called the sledding hill her "luge" track. The family kept it meticulously maintained. Little did the family know, all these years later, that track was Mickie's introduction to bobsledding.

"My mom and dad are so great," she said. "As much as I've done this for myself, I feel like I've done this for my family-just because everyone has been part of this journey. The support I get from my family, I feel like the luckiest person alive."

She laughed.

"I just wish I could go to my party."

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