PHS alumna Kelly Curtis flies high in her first Olympic Games

March, 2022
Frankie GamioJessica Chen

Kelly Curtis ’07 takes a deep breath as she kneels down on the Olympic ice track before her. With the crowd cheering before her, she sprints forward and slides straight onto her skeleton sled. Propelling up to unfathomable speeds of up to 120 km/h, Curtis flies down the skeleton track of her first Olympic Games. 

   As the first Black U.S. Olympic athlete ever to compete in skeleton, Curtis placed 21st in the Beijing Olympics women’s skeleton race. Prior to the Olympics, she placed 6th at the 2022 St. Moritz World Cup, clutching a qualifying spot in the U.S. Olympic team. 

   Growing up in Princeton, Curtis never thought she would be doing skeleton, let alone go to the Olympics. Nevertheless, as the youngest of four athletic siblings, she enjoyed playing all types of sports as a child, including basketball and baseball. 

   Aside from the opportunities to participate in athletics, her favorite aspect about being a part of her sport-loving family was watching the annual Penn Relays. Every year on Take Our Daughters and Sons To Work Day, her father, John Curtis, former NFL player and PHS Athletic Director of ten years, took her to the meet.

  “He would always take [me] to the Penn relays and watch the PHS girls [compete] in the 4x100 and 4x400. So I just always thought that’s what his job was: to go watch track and field everyday. Once I got a little bit older, I understood that his job entails a lot more than that, but I always just love that aspect of it,” Curtis said. 

   Curtis also enjoyed participating in the many conventional childhood activities that Princeton offers. In her downtime, Curtis would always find herself exploring the downtown area or watching sporting events at the university. She also looked forward to skating on Carnegie Lake in the wintertime, exploring Communiversity with her friends every April, and working as a lifeguard at the Community Park pool during summer break.  

   At PHS, Curtis was a two-sport athlete: a starting guard on the basketball team and a jumper and hurdler on the track team for all four years of high school. In her senior year, she became captain of both teams. Assistant Track Coach at the time and now Assistant Principal Rashon Johnson was introduced to Curtis when she was a senior and noticed her athletic capability and leadership asset.  

   “She was a hard worker, fun loving, and a good teammate. She was just one of those good students that left a good impression with pretty much everybody you came in contact with,” Johnson said. 

   Apart from being an avid high school athlete, Curtis participated in many programs that benefited the Princeton community. For instance, she served as class secretary junior year. Additionally, she was part of Corner House, serving on the Student Board in her senior year. As a student board leader, she started the Corner House All-City Dodgeball Tournament, one of the most popular school events at PHS today.

   “I started the [Dodgeball Tournament] because I wanted all my peers to have an event to blow off the steam right after all the AP exams,” said Curtis. “I was able to coordinate it to have it the day after all the big APs were done.”

   Closing out her senior year, Curtis was awarded the Athlete of the Year and the Girls Scholar-Athlete of the Year awards. She continued her track career during her post-graduate year at The Lawrenceville School, where she polished her skills as a well-rounded track athlete, setting her up to compete as a heptathlete collegiately. During her year at Lawrenceville, she racked up Prep A titles for long jump, high jump, hurdles, javelin, and still holds a school record in the triple jump. After a brief period at Tulane University, Curtis transferred to Springfield College, where her track career took off. She was a two-time Indoor New England Division III Pentathlon champion and earned All-American honors in the Outdoor NCAA heptathlon. 

   Among all the accomplishments, her most meaningful memory was winning the Penn Relays, coming full circle with her childhood memories.

   “I [had to] convince my track coach to let me go compete there because it wasn’t on our schedule. For me to just be able to compete there was an amazing experience. Then for me to win it, I was just ... overwhelmed,” Curtis said. 

   After her undergraduate years, she went to graduate school at St. Lawrence University, where she studied sports management and was an assistant track coach. Interested in exploring more of upstate New York, she decided to drive to Lake Placid and try bobsledding. After continuously getting invited back to slide, she was eventually recruited for the bobsled combine, a series of track-oriented tests to be recruited as a bobsled athlete. After eyeing the skeleton racers at the combine, at the age of 26, Curtis decided to try skeleton for the first time. 

   “I decided to switch because I enjoyed sliding the skeleton more. In bobsled, especially as a brakeman, it is pretty violent on the body... when I tried skeleton for the first time, I was like, this feels way better. It’s just a lot more fun and I have more control of my own progression,” Curtis said. 

   Skeleton is not a sport that can be easily mastered, but Curtis was one of the few that was able to excel in a short time period. Believed to be one of the most dangerous sports, skeleton racers need expert balance and control as they lie head first on a flat sled racing down an icy track. Within the first few years of her career, she won the North American Cup twice, qualifying her for the U.S. National Team. She attributes her smooth transition into the sport to her track background.

   “When I'm on the [skeleton] track I just try to be as explosive and powerful and fast as possible. All my track and field training as a very short sprinter trained explosiveness and speed, so I can transfer that over.You're just trying to get those same mechanics, it's just in a more extreme angle, like completely bent over,” Curtis said.

   However, her successes were not without challenges.

   “If you're looking to make an eight year commitment and not see family and friends for very important birthdays and holidays and [spend] your disposable income on a crazy sport, then come on, try it. I wouldn’t say it sacrifices, but it’s decisions that you have to make in order to be here and sometimes it sucks. But sometimes you make it to the Winter Olympics,” Curtis said. 

   For Curtis, making it to the Olympics was a dream come true. However, when the media announced her achievement of being the first Black athlete to compete in skeleton, Curtis received backlash online due to her biracial ethnicity — many online believed that she did not “look” black. In response, Curtis believes that both black and multiracial representation is significant to the development of winter sports in the future. 

   “A lot of people will look at me and they don’t see that [I am Black]. But I know that through the progression through my own family’s history, what I accomplished is a very big deal,” said Curtis. “Growing up, I didn’t see anybody that I knew [in the Winter Olympics] that had a similar background to me. For me to be able to come out and represent both sides of my heritage has just been a true honor.”

  Her successes, not just as a biracial athlete, but as a PHS alumna, have left a significant legacy in the community. Currently, in PHS’s Black History Month trophy case, her picture is alongside others who have influenced PHS students, such as Michelle Obama and Simone Biles. 

“What [Curtis] is telling people and [all] the students of our school is you can do it. You can follow your dreams. Don’t dream small, dream big. And if you do the work, you can make those dreams come true,” Johnson said.

    Along with being an accomplished athlete, Curtis is also a member of the U.S Air Force. She joined the Air Force World Class Athlete Program in 2020 after her teammate five-time Olympian Katie Uhlaender introduced it to her. The World Class Athlete Program allows soldiers to perform at their international level while also serving their nation in the military. Since 1948, 446 soldiers have represented the United States at the Olympics, earning 111 medals in a variety of sports. At Beijing, Curtis was the only Olympian who was part of the program. 

   “It’s been a true honor for me to be able to represent all the great service members. I’m really looking forward to working on base moving forward so that I can meet and learn more about my fellow wingmen,” Curtis said.

   In the future, Curtis hopes to continue both her skeleton career and her budding Air Force career. She has aspirations to secure a podium spot in the world championships next year as well as a spot at the 2026 Winter Games. When she isn’t training for skeleton, she hopes to spend time to work on the process of becoming a U.S. Air Force officer.  

   “I have just been so blessed to have a community and a family behind me that have been supportive since day one. And having a community like Princeton behind me has made this that much easier. For me to make the Olympics with only eight years [experience] wouldn’t have been possible without that community support,” Curtis said.