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CEO, U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation
Colorado Springs, Colo.
As an Olympian, Darrin Steele, MBA 08, CEO of the U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation, is acutely aware of the dedication and
sacrifice required to be a top-caliber athlete—and the strategy
and management required to find, motivate, and support a
winning team. The skills and philosophy that drove Steele as
an athlete have accelerated his career into leading America's
Steele was a decathlete at Eastern Illinois University, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in economics. After graduation he came west to train professionally with Cal's track and field team—a common regimen for Olympic-caliber decathletes. But his athletic profile as "big, strong, and fast" drew the attention of America's bobsledders instead of a spot on the decathlon team. Winter sports had never attracted Steele, but he turned out to be a natural. In his second season, he took 12th in the four-man event in the 1998 Olympics.
After the 1998 games, Steele worked for a Bay Area boutique financial services company. But when the rigors of training for the 2002 Olympics returned, he entered Home Depot's Olympian employment program, putting on an orange vest to work in the hardware department in exchange for flexible schedules, part-time hours, and full-time pay. He and current bobsled head coach Brian Shimer took ninth in the two-man event.
Home Depot's business leadership program was Steele's
next logical step, and he found himself managing a $50 million
store. "From a sports background, it made sense—high speed,
intense, hands on versus the analysts at corporate headquarters," he says.
Steele came to the nonprofit U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation in 2007—an athlete moving into management within one of the U.S. Olympic Committee's governing bodies. "There aren't a lot of former athletes in business positions," Steele says of bobsled management, noting the value of his MBA. (Skeleton uses bobsled's track with an individual riding down head-first on a small brakeless sled.)
Working with a $2.4 million budget, 23 Olympians, and 100 active bobsled and skeleton athletes around the country, Steele took on his sport with a businessman's acumen, creating a new strategic plan for top bobsled athletes. Like any business wants profits, Steele wants champions. The selection process is not always kind. "We are elitist. This isn't Little League," Steele says. "This is a performance-based organization, but within a cut-throat environment you have to build a team environment."
While fundraising and finding sponsors, Steele also brought on a fresh-eyed board, launched a startup bobsled driver incubator program, and redefined coaching skill sets around communication and leadership. It all came together with a 2009 World Championship victory followed by the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, when Steve Holcomb drove USA-1, the famous "Night Train" sled, to the gold medal in four-man bobsledding, the first American pilot to do so since 1948. The women won Olympic bronze, and Holcomb has seen two more World Cup golds this winter. "Fortunately, we've got a cool product," Steele says, "and we're winning." –Jennie Lay