When the 2018 Winter Olympics begin on February 9 in PyeongChang, Korea; former Eastern Illinois track & field standout Darrin Steele will be among the thousands watching and cheering on their nation.
However Steele's watching and cheering will come from a slightly different interest level than many others as he currently serves as the CEO of USA Bobsled & Skeleton (USABS).
While this will be Steele's third Winter Olympic Games (Vancouver 2010 & Sochi 2014) that he has attended in his current role, his association with the sport and Winter Games dates back to 1998 when he made the first of two appearances as a member of Team USA at the Nagano Winter Games.
A gifted athlete during his track & field days at Eastern Illinois from 1989-92, Steele first flirted with the Olympic Dream as a summer Olympian twice competing at the US Olympic Trials in 1992 and 1996 in the decathlon. At EIU he was a two-time Mid-Continent Conference Champion in the Decathlon, was named the Mid-Continent Outdoor Track Athlete of the Year in 1992 and earned All-American honors finishing fifth at the NCAA Championships. It was those days Steele remembers and says he learned from as a young athlete.
"As successful as I was at EIU in the decathlon, my favorite memories came during the 4x400 meter relay at the conference championships," said Steele. "It was an event the whole team got into and it really brought out the best in the athletes competing. My favorite was during the 1992 Outdoor Championships. I ran the second leg and it was my fifth event after already competing in the decathlon. I had so much adrenalin from my EIU teammates that I felt fresh and ran the best 400m of my life. Those were great memories but also great lessons about the magic of high performing teams."
The magic of chasing the Olympic Dream took a detour following the failure to make the 1996 US Olympic Team for the games in Atlanta. However as fate would have it, scouts from the USABS group were scouting athletes to be potential bobsledders and provided an opportunity to both Darrin and his twin brother Dan. Both former track stars and Hall of Fame members at Eastern Illinois fit the bill for what Steele says are the items he looks for in his current team members.
"Our top athletes have a combination of size, speed, power and strength. Mentally, they have to be a team player with guts. Most are very grounded, regardless of the level of success they reach. They are hard workers and lots of fun to hang around."
The Steele brothers both trained for the Olympic team in Lake Placid, New York and Darrin had his first Olympic experience in the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. As a member of the USA four-man bobsled team his squad placed 12th.
A track athlete by nature, Steele continued his quest for summer Olympic glory once again in 2000 qualifying for his third US Olympic Trials. However his destiny seemed to be tied to a different path as he did not make the Olympic team for the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia. Instead Steele would get to compete on US soil at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City finishing 9th in the two-man bobsled while his brother Dan won a bronze medal in the four-man bobsled.
While training for both Olympic disciplines, Darrin was a member of the Home Depot Olympian Training Program – a program that allows Olympic hopefuls to work 20 hours a week but earn a full-time salary. Following the 2002 Winter Games, Steele received a career opportunity he could not turn down from Home Depot CEO Bob Nardelli.
"I joined Home Depot's Business Leadership Program after competing in the 2002 Olympics. I worked in strategy at the corporate office before relocating to northern California where I continued my leadership training at the store level. Retail is incredible training for both business and leading people. It was in the stores that I learned the importance of organizational culture and how that must be considered in any change management strategies. That was an important component for leading a restructuring of USABS when I was first hired."
While working at Home Depot in a rising corporate role and realizing that the Olympic Dream may be a thing of his past, Steele began working on a MBA from the University of California, something he completed in 2008.
"I didn't know this opportunity would present itself and I was prepared to continue my career in the corporate world. I kept my eyes open for opportunities in sport management and the general management experience I gained while working with Home Depot really helped prepare me for this career. I was hired in 2007 and had to be creative in completing my MBA. I was prepared when opportunity knocked."
Steele earned two degrees from Eastern Illinois with a bachelor's degree in Economics in 1992 and a master's degree in 1993. He looks back at his time as a student-athlete and later as an Olympian for life lessons he can now pass on to the next generation of athletes.
"Being a student-athlete helped prepare me in a number of ways. I am able to relate to the athletes we work with and I'm also able to help them prepare for life after sports while they are still training. I learned as a student-athlete that balance is possible, but also that being multi-dimensional is crucial when dealing with injuries and setbacks."
To compete with the best in the World, Steele has had to look back at his own experiences as he and his team continue to push USABS to be the best. It is a passion he brings to work with him every day.
"I love working with elite coaches, athletes and staff members because it's so rare that any organization can realistically compete with and become the best in the world, but we strive for it every day. It forces us to be both strategic and creative as we perform advanced SWOT analysis on our self and our competitors. Leadership is very much about understanding people. Working with athletes and their performance takes this to an even higher level."
Pushing USABS to be the best was not an overnight success for Steele and his team. He implemented several changes and made several key decisions that have paid dividends for Team USA as the last two Olympic Games. Those memories are ones Steele quickly points to as team efforts due to successful leadership.
"Being at the finish line for all eight US Olympic Medals during the past two Winter Games has been awesome. Sharing success with the entire organization is something special and we're able to do that because we work as a team."
Part of that success comes from leadership, but part also comes from some simple life lessons he was given from former EIU track coach Neil Moore.
"Coach Moore taught me more lessons about the sport, and life, than I realized at the time. I used to criticize him for focusing so much on the basics. I had this idea that I was past the basics and was ready for more advanced training. What I learned in my post-collegiate career was that it was always about the basics and that biomechanics is mostly about eliminating movements that take away from your basics. That is also true in business and life and I wish I had the opportunity to tell him that before he passed."
The balancing of the basics has helped Steele become successful in both his personal and professional life. At home his oldest daughter is an elite gymnast. His son was diagnosed with Autism which led Steele to become active in understanding the disorder and supporting various causes. He even is completing a PhD in Leadership, Research and Analysis with a focus on the benefits of physical activity and sports for youth with developmental disorders.
Professionally, Steele was elected to the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation's Executive Committee after the 2014 Winter Games. He is currently the Vice President of Sport for the organization and the international experience have been invaluable.
Just as he did for himself while competing as a student-athlete at Eastern Illinois, Steele has the highest of goals for the US Team as they compete at PyeongChang.
"Our goal is to medal in each of the five disciplines and win two medals in women's bobsled. We were able to do that in 2014, and the USA is the only nation to ever do it. It is a lofty goal, but we set our sights high."