Bobsleigh Canada’s use of outsiders is paying off

Our Olympic bobsledders come from football, skiing and track

Uwe Lein/AP

Their eyes and ears are everywhere, on the lookout for athletes who might never have dreamed of careering down an ice-encrusted chute in a carbon-fibre half-capsule. They’re at rugby pitches and football stadiums and every major track meet in the country. If you’re an athlete with decent numbers—or at least with conspicuous muscle mass between the waist and knees—chances are, you’ll hear from them.

Long before Jesse Lumsden’s Canadian Football League career came to a premature end, for instance, the operatives at Bobsleigh Canada had their sights on him. They laid low for a while, but, in 2009, after the star running back tore up his shoulder in a game between his Edmonton Eskimos and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Operation Land Jesse kicked into gear. “I was in my parents’ kitchen,” Lumsden recalls, “and I got this email. They said they were trying to put together the best bobsleigh team possible and they wanted to know if I was interested.” Lumsden had just been through his second shoulder operation in as many seasons. His future was clouded. “My dad and I talked about how it could be a good opportunity to get away from the training environment I was in and try something different,” he says. “I thought I could come back a better football player.”

Five years on, football is a past life for Lumsden, and his not-so-chance encounter with the Bobsleigh Canada intelligence network looks distinctly providential. In the parlance of sliding, he is now a brakeman, but it’s the legs that once propelled him past marauding linebackers that proved a big boon to the two-man and four-man sleds he pushes. Both teams have legitimate shots at a medal in Sochi, but the 31-year-old from Burlington, Ont., has come to mean a lot more than mere horsepower to Canada’s Olympic movement. His Greek-god looks have made him a darling of team promoters, and no athlete is happier to play the part. “One thing about playing football was that I was never going to be able to represent my country,” he says. “Representing my country in sport means more to me than anything else.”

Talk to any of the 16 bobsledders nominated to wear the Maple Leaf in Sochi next month, and you’ll get some variation on this unlikely trajectory. Cody Sorensen, a former hurdler at the University of Guelph, was about to hang up his spikes when his smartphone beeped: message from the bobsled guys. Kaillie Humphries’s alpine skiing dreams weren’t working out, so, at 17, the Calgarian obliged the sliding folks by taking a stab at their sport. Today, she’s arguably the best female sled pilot on the planet—a World Cup champion and reigning Olympic gold-medallist with Heather Moyse (a former rugby player from P.E.I.). Brian Barnett sprinted for Canada at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing; the Edmontonian is now a pusher with one of the three four-man sleighs Canada has qualified for Sochi.

These are inarguably the best batch of second-sport athletes Canada has known, and testament to a recruiting strategy that combines cold realism with a keen understanding of sporting psychology. Precious few kids fall asleep with visions of bobsledding glory, so the sport lacks the sort of grassroots-development capacity enjoyed by mass-participation events such as skating, skiing or snowboarding. If it’s going to bring home medals, Bobsleigh Canada must instead get its elite athletes straight out of the box, says Nathan Cicoria, director of the organization’s high-performance program.

To find them, recruiters work a carefully cultivated network of university coaches, who identify athletes nearing a crossroads in their careers. Most still burn with the competitive urge, and the remotest shot at competing in the Olympics is enough to get them through the door. Track and field is a natural hunting ground, says Cicoria from his office in Calgary, and so are certain team sports. “We’ve found a lot of synergy with rugby and football. These athletes really understand the importance of being able to compromise, contribute and put your differences aside for the greater good. At the same time, they’re physical and fast and they train by pushing heavy, inanimate objects.”

Pilots, who sit at the front and steer the sled, tend to come from so-called “line sports,” where athletes race across varied terrain, judging distance and topography as they go. Humphries’s background in skiing no doubt set her up nicely for sledding, while Lyndon Rush, pilot of the Canada 1 foursome, and the 2012 World Cup champion with Lumsden in two-man, is not only a former University of Saskatchewan football player but a rally-car enthusiast.

Some elements of the targeting process seem drawn from John le Carré—the watching, the embedded agents, the carefully timed approach. Most athletes don’t know they’re persons of interest until the phone rings, and only in recent years have Cicoria and company publicly acknowledged their strategy. But the politics of sport are fraught, so they’re careful not to engage in poaching. They contact potential recruits only when they’re certain those athletes have reached the end of the line in their chosen events, which makes coaches in other sports a lot more willing to point athletes toward bobsledding when that time comes.

Meantime, bobsleigh officials say they’re doing their best to cultivate grassroots interest, holding open recruitment camps each year in major cities, inviting people to get acquainted with the sport. At least one national team athlete, Chelsea Valois of Zenon Park, Sask., came to them thus, cutting short a moderately successful pentathlon career at the University of Regina. But it’s a method that works best for big countries like the U.S., where the pool of elite athletes is bigger. “I don’t think the Americans really have to do recruiting,” says Cicoria. “The athletes just come to them.”

Whatever Bobsleigh Canada’s limitations, its scouts seem to be succeeding. After a mid-century medal slump, sliding sports have become a strength for Canada, whose courses in Calgary and Whistler offer training opportunities few countries enjoy. The success of stars such as Humphries and star driver Pierre Lueders (Olympic gold in 1998; silver in 2006) has drawn in those who are by nature ultra-competitive, such as Ottawa’s Sorensen, whose father, Ole, wrestled for Canada at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich. “The Olympics has always just been a part of the family discussion,” says Sorensen. “I didn’t know what sport would lead me to the Games, but I knew in the back of my mind that I aspired to go.”

Lumsden, too, feels he’s found his niche. After pushing Lueders’s sleds at Whistler during the 2010 Games, he signed a contract with the Calgary Stampeders, yet played only three games before tearing ligaments in his left knee. Like the email that brought him in, the injury that returned him to sledding now seems fateful. “I had no idea that bobsledding could turn into what it has for me,” he says, “and I’m so glad it did.”

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