How a Walnut Creek real estate agent got to the Olympics in no time flat.
Berkeley serving as the brakeman in the two-man sled, racing in Altenberg, Germany/courtesy of USA Bobsled & Skeleton Federation
When you see Chuck Berkeley hurtling down an icy track at death-defying speeds during the Olympics this month, look closely. You might recognize him as the guy who sold you your house.
Berkeley, 33, recently hit the pause button on his real estate career to train full-time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. His path to the Olympics shatters the mold of those mini-documentaries that NBC airs during the Games about Olympians as child prodigies because Berkeley didn’t ride in a bobsled until he was 31 years old.
The former UC Berkeley track star got the bobsledding jones one night when he was drinking wine and surfing the web after putting his young daughters to bed. Berkeley Googled the name of another Cal athlete who had gone from track and field to the Winter Games. “I remembered a guy named Darrin Steele training there who was going to the Olympics as a bobsledder,” says Berkeley. “The more I read, the more I wanted to try it.”
Berkeley got his chance in the winter of 2007, on the Olympic course at Lake Placid, New York. “It was the scariest, most painful thing I have ever experienced,” he recalls. “So fast and so violent—when you are going down the track at 75 miles per hour, the g-forces just crush you. I felt like I had ice picks being jammed into my spine. I can’t believe I ever did it again after that first time.”
Just as painful as the bobsled track was the real estate market, Berkeley’s career since graduating from Cal in 2000. With his daughters in private elementary school and his income slashed by the real estate slump, Berkeley changed gears fast.
“Right around the time the real estate market tanked, I started to pursue the bob-sledding thing full-time,” says Berkeley. “I decided to ride out the recession in a bobsled.”
Dramatic reinventions are Berkeley’s modus operandi: The Massachusetts native moved to the Golden State in the mid-1990s, after dropping out of a junior college in his early twenties, and almost didn’t make it all the way west.
“I went out to visit my sister in California and loved it. I decided to move there on a whim,” he says. “I got stuck in Las Vegas, almost out of money. I gambled at blackjack until I had enough to buy a ticket to the Bay Area.”
After a stint at Diablo Valley College, Berkeley walked into the track office at Cal and asked for a scholarship. Erv Hunt, Cal’s coach, gave him the chance to try out in an open meet. “I trained for three weeks and ran a 200 and a 400,” says Berkeley. “The next thing I knew, I was going to Cal.”
Berkeley starred on the Cal track team for three seasons and earned a liberal arts degree in 2003. He hoped to continue his track and field career in Europe, but injuries got in the way. He opened a real estate business and sold houses in Antioch, Concord, Pleasant Hill, and Pittsburg—until the market crashed.
Ironically, the Winter Olympian had never tried snow sports in New England. “We had ski slopes, but I never took an interest,” he says. “I was always a track and football guy. It wasn’t until I moved to California that I got into snowboarding.”
But, his rise in bobsledding came fast. Berkeley’s four-man team placed 17th in the 2007–08 World Cup in Calgary and then jumped to sixth place at this year’s World Cup races in Park City, Utah. In November, his two-man team won gold in Lake Placid. Berkeley says that only in the last few months has he felt comfortable on the track. “There’s an instinct to fight the turns, the force, and the speed. It took me a while to understand how to go limp with the turns, to become one with the track.”
In Vancouver, Berkeley hopes to compete on both a two-man and a four-man team. When he spoke with Diablo, he was at the Olympic Village in Vancouver, training on the 1,500-meter track that will be used in the Games. “In a training run we did the other day, we were going 93 miles per hour,” he says.
As the Games approach, Berkeley is trying to stay laser-focused, although he’s willing to admit that the pressures he feels are greater than those of his Canadian, German, and Swiss competitors. Along with the United States, these are the powerhouse nations in the sport.
“These are extremely hard times,” he says. “When you’re trying to make an Olympic team, you focus just on that. I’ve exhausted my savings and relied on donations and sponsorships to get by.”
Berkeley’s only fan at the games will be his mother, who will stay with a friend in Vancouver. “To stay in the Olympic Village is $1,500 a night, with a seven-night minimum,” he says. His daughters, Amaya, six, and Jasenia, seven, will watch the games from their home in Clayton.
“My daughters are so proud that their dad is going to the Olympic Games,” says Berkeley. “The toughest thing is being away from them so much. But this is going to be such a great lesson for them in achieving their goals and dreams.”
Barring injury, Berkeley will be an Olympian with just three years of training: The final roster will be announced in late January, and Berkeley would race in the two-man February 20–21 and four-man February 26–27. He says he won’t be satisfied with just a walk through the opening and closing ceremonies.
“I want a gold medal,” he says. “I think we have a real shot at it.”
Olympic bobsledders count on power, speed, and agility to launch the 450-pound sled down the 50-meter stretch at the top of the track.s Chuck Berkeley’s strength and conditioning regimen plays out as follows.
DIET Since heavy is a good thing in bobsledding, weight is not a primary concern for Berkeley, who hits the scales at 235 pounds, versus 205 during his days as a track star at UC Berkeley. “I eat lean meats and lots of fruit and vegetables,” says the six-foot-five-inch athlete. “Snickers ice cream bars are a guilty pleasure.”
TRAINING In nonwinter months, Berkeley spends his days sprinting on the tracks at UC Berkeley, Las Lomas High, and other local high schools. He also hits the weight room three to five days a week: Leg squats, dead lifts, bench presses, and curls build the muscles needed to press into the sled for maximum speed.
Most winter months are spent competing. “Every week, we’re traveling to a new location,” says Berkeley. “We’ll train on the course, then go straight to the weight room. There’s also quite a bit of work that goes into maintaining the sled—waxing it and sanding the runners. In all, it’s at least eight hours of work, every day.”