Vancouver, British Columbia (CNN) — Many kids dream of being in the Olympics one day. When U.S. bobsledder Bill Schuffenhauer was a child in Salt Lake City, Utah, he had no idea the Olympics even existed.

All he knew was his parents were drug addicts, that his mother was a prostitute who was often beaten in front of him. He knew that if he was going to survive, he had to do whatever it took to make it.

He stole from people; he ate from garbage cans; he got locked up in juvenile detention for breaking into a bike shop when he was trying to get something he could sell for money so he could eat.

He had few friends, most of them acquaintances of his mother or the other street kids, many of whom were in gangs. His mom and stepfather were constantly getting evicted. When he wasn’t homeless and living in a park, he lived in foster homes. He skipped school a lot. He drank and got high on weed.

Life was hard and at times terrifying, and he dreamed of finding a real home.

“I knew that there was something better,” Schuffenhauer, 36, said last week as he readied for his third Olympic Games. “And although there were a lot of horrible things that happened, it’s made me a stronger person.”

Just around the time he was entering junior high, Schuffenhauer’s maternal grandmother, Sadie Muniz, took him. She lived in the town of Roy, Utah, about 30 minutes north of Salt Lake City. As tears began to build, he talked about her steadying influence and how she was always there to pull him up or pull him back when he started messing up again.

“She reminded me to never give up and always push on,” he said.

Inspired by her, he began to go to school regularly, even though this multi-ethnic kid stuck out because of his big afro and his shabby clothes. He had one thing that helped him fit in. He could run fast. Something he had relied on to escape the dangers of the streets — and the cops — would lead him away from his terrible past.

Track and field was to be a turning point; he had real friends now and the parents of one of his teammates eventually would adopt him. His coaches told him he had the talent to be an Olympian. Fueled by that dream, he worked hard in school and in becoming a decathlete. He went to Weber State University and while there he won the junior nationals in 1992.

In 2000 he was preparing for the Olympic trials when his track career came to a painful end. An oft-injured ankle failed him again, and hurting so bad he couldn’t walk, he had to give up on his dream of going to Sydney.

He was crushed, but as he will often remind you, his upbringing, or lack thereof, taught him to be strong.

His conversion to bobsledder came thanks to a friend who told him there was a new track in Park City where the U.S. team was training for the 2002 Winter Olympics. He went down there to check it out and kept going back until the bobsledders noticed the 6-foot, 200-pounder and asked him if he wanted to try out as a pusher.