Aja Evans returns to Illinois after winning bronze in Sochi

Aja+Evans%2C+a+bronze+medalist+at+the+2014+Winter+Olympics%2C+and+former+University+of+Illinois+track+and+field+runner%2C+walks+off+the+court+at+State+Farm+Center+after+being+recognized+during+a+break+at+the+Michigan-Illinois+game.

Aja Evans, a bronze medalist at the 2014 Winter Olympics, and former University of Illinois track and field runner, walks off the court at State Farm Center after being recognized during a break at the Michigan-Illinois game.

The best part of it all was having her family by her side. When Aja Evans finished her final run down the bobsled track at Sliding Center Sanki in Sochi, Russia, the first thing she did was high five her brother in the stands.

Evans and teammate Jamie Greubel won the bronze medal in the women’s bobsled. They finished behind fellow Americans Elana Meyers and Lauryn Williams, who won silver, and Canadians Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse, who won gold.

Evans found herself in the spotlight again Tuesday night, this time at State Farm Center. During a timeout in the first half of the Illinois vs. Michigan basketball game, it was announced that Evans was in attendance. She walked out to half court and waved before the sold out crowd, her bronze medal hanging from her neck.

The Orange Krush chanted: “USA! USA!”

Evans is a former shot-putter and sprinter for the Illinois track team. She is a five-time All-American and a three-time Big Ten champion.

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And now she can add Olympic medalist to that list.

How did Evans go from practicing in the Armory to standing on a podium in Sochi?

“I still don’t know,” she joked. “I don’t know how I’m in the sport or what I’m doing.”

Evans comes from a family of athletes. Her father is a former swimming national champion at Chicago State. Her brother — the one she eagerly high-fived after the final run in Sochi — is Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Fred Evans. Her uncle Gary Matthews and cousin Gary Matthews, Jr., both played major league baseball.

“Having my family there, coming through the finish line and seeing them was the best part of the whole Olympic experience,” Evans said. “It was better than the medal for me.”

It’s really not all that uncommon for track athletes to give a shot at winter sports.

Women’s track star Lolo Jones — famous for tripping on the second to last hurdle while leading the 100-meter hurdles final at the 2008 Olympics games in Beijing — also competed in the bobsled in Sochi. Her team finished 11th.

For Evans, bobsledding gave her a chance to continue competing at the highest level and to pursue dreams she could no longer achieve in track and field. She first took up bobsledding in March of 2012 and one could say it has worked out well.

Evans said her time at Illinois really taught her how to be disciplined. With school, training and traveling to road meets, college athletes have a lot on their plates.

And the recognition she has received from Illini nation has made it well worth it.

“The love and support I’ve been getting from U of I and the athletic department has been so amazing,” Evans said. “I’m so honored to bring this medal home.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.