Patching it up for gold

Victory in women’s bobsleigh required mending some complicated relationships
Patching it up for gold
Photograph by Jeff McIntosh/ Canadian Press

On television, it was the medal race a lot of people missed: all across the nation, channels were tuned to Team Canada’s rout of the Russians. But up at the Whistler Sliding Centre, one of our women’s bobsled pilots was contending for gold, while another was about to prove that on this controversial sliding track, with its sharp twists and treacherous slopes, anything can happen.

The race’s outcome—Canada 1 pilot Kaillie Humphries, backed by brakeman Heather Moyse, broke the track record in three of four heats to win gold; Canada 2’s Helen Upperton, with Shelley-Ann Brown, secured silver—lent the Canadian podium spots the weight of parable, a story of the fragility of friendship and its occasionally remarkable strength. In the case of 24-year-old Humphries, the gold proved too that you can break just about every bone in your body, go on to have your heart broken by sport, and then come back to reverse it all.

That story starts with the difficult relationship Olympic bobsled pilots, in particular on the women’s side, frequently have with the athletes who back them. The women get just a single shot at the podium (men have both a two- and four-man option) and each pilot gets two brakemen: a main and an alternate. Only one is selected to compete (coaches choose in consultation with the driver)—a circumstance that leads to crushed hopes and frequently shattered friendships.

Thanks to that dynamic, the four women who stepped onto that Olympic podium were all linked; more, the bonds between them were in various states of health and disrepair. Canada 1 pilot Humphries had once been fellow driver Upperton’s brakeman, but had been dropped prior to the Turin Games in 2006 in favour of Moyse. “Yes, Helen and I have a history. And yes, we are competitors,” Humphries told a reporter in December. “But we’re on the same team and we do respect each other.”

But after helping Upperton to a close fourth-place finish in Turin, Moyse too was replaced, with Brown, as Upperton’s brakeman in the ramp-up to the Vancouver Games. “You will have to ask Helen why she didn’t want to push with me at the beginning of the season,” said Moyse, 31, also a member of the national women’s rugby team, before Olympic selections were announced: all this meant that when Humphries and Moyse began their bobsledding partnership a year or so ago, it was on uneasy ground—one castoff encountering another of newer vintage who’d once replaced her.

Humphries, a successful competitive skier as a teenager who moved to bobsledding—after breaking both her legs, at different times, on the slopes—had healed the wound of leaving Turin without competing by enrolling in a bobsled pilot school in Lake Placid, N.Y. Now she had to smooth things over with Moyse, her one-time rival.

The pair began to make amends on one of those endless road trips around Europe during the World Cup season. The athletes were passing the time reading out questions from a book of conversation-starting queries. One of those brainteasers hit uncomfortably close to home for the group: if you could somehow punish anyone who’d wronged you in your past, who’d it be? “I’m probably in your top-10, huh Kaillie?” asked Moyse. “Actually,” she recalled Humphries replying, “you’re not even close.”

Dragging the issue into the open started a dialogue. The pair went on to make a potent team, ranking second and breaking start records in six out of seven World Cup events this season, and capturing gold in Altenberg, Germany in December (in an eerie parallel, Upperton took silver that day). “Turin was hard. It was hard. Definitely,” Humphries said. “But I’ve grown and I’ve had to look past that and—yeah, it’s part of my story. It’s part of us together as a team and what’s built our relationship, kind of what started everything. And we’re here because of it.”

Here being top of the Olympic podium.

Patching it up for gold
Photograph by Michael Sohn/ Associated Press

That night—the second two of four heats over two days—few in the crowd knew of all this background. Collected below the enormous sweep of track at turn 16—dubbed Thunderbird—the spectators had chosen an unusual heroine to watch. All at once, they caught a glimpse of Humphries on the JumboTron, dancing and grooving alongside Moyse, with Sweet Georgia Brown (the theme of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team) washing over them all. A huzzah went up. “There she is,” said one man of Humphries, using a tone usually reserved for a father identifying a favourite daughter.

It was an unlikely sentiment in a sport that doesn’t exactly promote a sense of intimacy with the athlete: at the track, sur place, you wait, interminably, before the warning shot—a deep growling rumble that is the prelude to the gleaming bullet. Unlike luge or skeleton, there’s little even vaguely human about what rattles across that white track: the rocketing spectre whips by, a glint of passing helmet, and the low-flying alien spacecraft is gone. The speeds, which approach 150 km/h, combined with the 340-kg metal heft of the car, a rumbling tank à la Ferrari, leave track-side spectators visibly uneasy. There is nothing warm or fuzzy about bobsledding.

But implacable Humphries, with her blue-streaked hair, eyelashes as long and luxuriant as a feather, a prizefighter’s swagger, and a charisma built on inscrutable calm, had managed to overcome the remoteness of her sport to grab the hearts of the mob. Maybe it was the dancing or the red maple leaf painted on her cheek. Maybe it was the laconic way she handled reporters’ questions on television (Humphries on the pressure of the Olympics: “A few more fans, some bigger posters, but at the end of the day I do the same s–t with the same people”).

Or maybe it was just her awesome mastering of the infamous track. Of the international competitors training there prior to the event, it was Humphries who had driven fastest. In the event’s first three heats, she led the pack with a total 0.57-second jump on her most immediate rival, U.S. pilot Erin Pac. She had driven the sled with a sphinx-like cool that belied the pressure of her place at the vanguard—the sorts of expectations that likely got to Canada 1 driver and medal favourite Lyndon Rush, who in the men’s two-man crashed his sled in the second heat. (Rush went on to maintain second-place finishes in the first three heats of the four-man, but saw Germany’s Andre Lange slip 0.01 seconds by him in the fourth to steal silver.)

Now, in the final run of the night, Humphries coolly, collectedly drove the Canada 1 car to golden victory. Even winning didn’t seem to perturb her (she accounted for her expert driving by explaining she piloted the sled “more like a Ferrari and less like a John Deere tractor”). Upperton, meanwhile, a frank and rapid-fire talker who’d driven the first two heats to within a blink of the podium—0.02 seconds behind Germany’s Cathleen Martini—watched as Martini crashed her sled. The mishap virtually assured Upperton bronze, yet she piloted her ride to greater heights. “I didn’t want to play it safe. I love this track and I love going fast and I wanted to put it all out there and not regret anything,” she told reporters. When she saw Pac, the American, run out of steam in her final run to drop behind her, Upperton fell to the ground.

What did Moyse say to her old pilot when she and Humphries then glided effortlessly into first? “To Helen? I think I said, ‘It can’t be better than this, this is the best,’ ” she said. “One, two at home.” But for Humphries, Moyse had a deeper sense of resolution—this was full circle, the moment when victory could be a balm for old hurts. “Part of me is really grateful that I’ve been given the opportunity to give back to her what part of me feels like I took from her,” Moyse said. “I think that just drives me. And she knows that I am going to back her with whatever I have.” Said Humphries: “She was better than me and she got to race. Eventually we got over it.

“Now we’re the best of mates possible.”