Of course Sequocoria Mallory remembers the call. That call. How could a mother forget? That distress in her daughter's voice. The apprehension. The plea for reassurance.
Aja Evans' early ventures into bobsledding had gone so well. Until that moment in 2012 — when she actually had to jump in the back of a sled, duck her head and speed down the winding, icy track at the Olympic Sports Complex in Lake Placid, N.Y.
For Evans, it felt like hopping into a trash can and rolling off the side of a cliff. The speed was breathtaking. The racket and the rumbling proved disorienting.
"It's loud. It's bumpy. You're hitting stuff," Evans says. "It's like all your senses are heightened. So you go into defense mode. But then you know you have to stay relaxed.
"It was so counterintuitive."
So when Evans' sled finally came to a stop, she disembarked, found some privacy and called home.
About this bobsledding thing ...
"I was trying to judge the tone of her voice before I gave any advice," Mallory recalls. "And if I can hear and feel her concerns, I can see if there's a window to change whatever's bugging her."
With all that apprehension emanating through the phone, what was a mom to do but offer some encouragement and extra push?
Aja, baby, you need to go back up that hill and give it another try.
"She called it a hill," Evans says with a laugh. "I'll never forget that."
Mallory shrugs. In her mind, it was little more than the toboggan chutes she'd taken her children to at the Dan Ryan Woods when they were little. Besides, as driven as Aja was, as competitive as she has always been, how was she going to let one jarring ride scare her off from her pursuit of excellence?
Mallory knew she had to be inspirational with her rallying cry. In the back of her mind, she laughed.
She wasn't the one who was going to have to come hurtling down that slick ice.
"So I could just give my best speech, my best pep talk of all time," she said.
Off she went, first comforting Aja, then motivating her.
"With all my kids," Mallory says, "I never wanted to show fear or project fear. I'm not going to be the one to say, 'Mmmmpph. I don't know about this.' They're not going to hear that from me. Because if you do that, that might be the one little thing that changes their whole perspective.
"I just let her know, 'You go back up there and slide back down until you feel comfortable.' "
And now look at Evans, who went back to the top of that "hill," conquered her fears and kept pushing. The 29-year-old Chicago native is now preparing to compete in the Winter Olympics for the second time, the brakeman in the Team USA bobsled driven by Jamie Greubel Poser.
The two won the bronze medal four years ago at the Sochi Games and are now in South Korea with bigger dreams. The women's bobsled competition begins Feb. 20 in Pyeongchang. And these days Evans has nothing but eagerness and adrenaline for what's ahead.
Rise and shine
Evans is a go-getter, full of pep and ambition and a need to squeeze the most out of each day. She writes down her goals often, and among the maxims she adheres to is this one she posted to Twitter last month: Every morning you have two choices: Continue to sleep with your dreams ... or wake up and chase them.
No wonder she has such verve as she strides into the Under Armour Performance Center at 5:54 a.m. on a January Tuesday. The sun has yet to rise, and there's nothing but darkness and fog hanging over the Baltimore Harbor outside. Yet Evans attacks her predawn workout with purpose, her head bobbing to the beats coming through her headphones.
"Legendary" by Welshly Arms. "Push It" by O.T. Genasis.
Somehow, her energy only seems to increase with each exercise. Dead lifts. Medicine ball lunges. Then, yes, that is a stack of mats, 46 inches high, that Evans launches herself onto from a sitting position, ducking at the end so as not to scrape her head on the ceiling. And, no, that's not a personal best.
This workout is not just a box for Evans to check. It's another morning to attack, to do everything she can to maximize her training for Pyeongchang.
Who knew this pursuit would become what it has become? Evans, a college track and field star, started dabbling in bobsledding at the suggestion of Mike Erb, her track coach at University of Illinois. Her rare combination of speed and power had been seen in Champaign, Ill., where she not only was an All-American in the shot put but also provided speed as part of the Illini's 400-meter relay team. Those skills translate perfectly into the brakeman's role in bobsledding, where in essence Evans' responsibility is to be a rocket launcher, exploding off the start and spending five or so seconds giving the sled the greatest possible acceleration to start the race.
Then she gracefully hops in, flattens her back, puts her head between her knees and lets Greubel Poser take over.
The duo's natural chemistry was seen in Sochi and continues to grow. Both are inherently driven, overflowing with self-confidence and extremely competitive.
Says Greubel Poser: "I love the fierceness Aja always brings. She has a presence. When she walks into a room or onto the track, everyone is always looking because she has set such a standard for strength and speed."
"I love Jamie," Evans adds. "She can just look me in the eyes and I know she means business. I call it the 'death stare.' Because it's right in your pupils. And you can feel the intensity, the fierceness, the drive.
"In this sport, I can only control so much. So I want to be with someone who has the same values and beliefs and wants it just as bad as I do."
'A symbol of power'
Evans' return to the Olympic Games has come a tad more slowly than she wanted. After her success in Sochi, she set her sights on attempting to qualify for the heptathlon at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. But in the summer of 2014 she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee while training and faced fears that her days as a world-class athlete were permanently over.
"I went from training at an elite level to all of a sudden struggling to do a single-leg squat," she says. "That was a big mental hurdle to jump."
As frustrated as Evans was with the timeline of her recovery and rehab, deep down she knew she'd become an Olympian again. She pushed herself accordingly. Now that goal has been met, and Evans is chasing gold in South Korea.
She takes great pride in representing her country. But it goes deeper than that. Evans is even more energized to represent her city. Chicago.
She knows now what she can signify, that this continued pursuit of Olympic excellence is not only about her.
"I saw that I could be a symbol of power and resilience and strength for others," Evans says, "and I wanted to own that. ... It was a powerful realization to understand I was standing for so much more. I was representing where I'm from. I was representing African-American women all across the world."
Mallory has seen her daughter speak at schools around the city and listened to her address children at events sponsored by the Chicago Park District. She sees how magnetic Aja always is goofing around and taking selfies. Plus her sermons come straight from the heart.
Evans wants kids to think big, to understand their horizons stretch far beyond their neighborhoods. In areas of limited opportunity and high crime, Evans wants to illuminate hope.
"In this city and the areas I grew up in, so many kids are closed-minded and they don't think there's any more to life outside of where they are," she says. "But I'm living proof that there is. When I talk to kids, I want them to see my (Olympic) medal and to understand I accomplished these things because I refused to let anyone tell me I couldn't."
What started as an anxious endeavor into an unfamiliar sport has taken Evans places she never imagined. She deeply appreciates her personal growth over the last six years.
"I've become a better teammate," she says. "I'm more determined. I understand better how to fight through adversity."
Her hope is to pay that forward in as many ways as she can.
Now she'll head to the top of the "hill" at the Alpensia Sliding Centre in Pyeongchang and go for gold.
"She's come a long way," her mom says. "I'm happy for her beyond belief. This is like a twice-in-a-lifetime experience."
"And we might be able to get her to do one more."