Olympic champion bobsledder Heather Moyse switches gears

Moyse decided she would compete for Canada in track cycling at next summer’s Olympics before she'd even bought a bike

The Natural

Micahel Kappeler/Getty Images

This past June, Heather Moyse decided that she would compete for Canada in track cycling at next summer’s London Olympics. Then she went out, bought a bike and introduced herself to the sport. That is not how these things are usually done.

To be fair, the year-long learning curve is more generous than the one the 33-year-old gave herself to master pushing a bobsled before the 2006 Winter Games in Italy. Back then, her first-ever trip down an ice chute came in mid-October. Four months later, she and pilot Helen Upperton broke the start record in every heat at the Olympic track in Cesana, but missed out on bronze by 0.05 seconds. That heartbreak was more than mended by a gold on home soil with Kaillie Humphries at Whistler’s sliding centre in 2010. (Upperton took the silver along with her new brakeman, Shelley-Ann Brown.)

To date, Moyse has had fewer than a dozen practice sessions in the type of velodrome where she hopes to race wearing Canada’s colours next summer. Her inaugural ride on her new $8,000 road bike in mid-June was the first time she’d ever been on skinny tires and clipped into pedals. Yet the dream of moving from the Winter to the Summer Games is real and serious. Spurred on by another barrier-breaking Olympian, cyclist/speed skater/now cyclist again Clara Hughes, Moyse reached out to the national team and found a receptive audience—even more so after she clipped a power meter to her bike and proved she possesses some startling raw energy. “When someone walks in your door with over 1,000 watts, you take notice,” says Tanya Dubnicoff, a three-time Canadian Olympian in track cycling who’s now a national coach. She won’t reveal the exact figures, but leaves little doubt they were elite-calibre. “She definitely put numbers out that were higher than I’ve seen in Canadian cycling.”

The power readings earned Moyse an invitation to work out during Canada’s national trials in August, which led to a training camp in Pennsylvania and now a month-long stint in Los Angeles with Dubnicoff to try to learn how to race. If all goes well, she will make her World Cup debut in November or December and start the process of qualifying for the London Games in the team sprint event. It’s a lot of ground to make up in a short period of time, but Moyse already has a proven ability to move effortlessly between sports: as a member of Canada’s national rugby team, she has been the leading try scorer in the last two women’s World Cups. Once she makes up her mind, it seems there is little she can’t do. “I do like a challenge,” she says. “That’s the only reason I went into bobsledding. I mean, who wants their full-time uniform to be spandex?”

It’s one thing to tempt fate. It’s quite another to spit in its eye. Repeatedly. But basically that’s the story of Moyse’s athletic career. Sitting in a Toronto coffee shop, she manages to make all her successes sound something just short of accidental.

Growing up in Summerside, P.E.I., she was a standout in basketball and track, but never gave much thought to building toward something bigger. “I always considered sports to be extracurricular. It wasn’t how I was going to make my living,” she says. At the University of Waterloo, where she studied kinesiology, she starred for the rugby team, won a bucketload of medals at track meets and even played a year of soccer. Still, it caught her by surprise when someone suggested she might want to try out for the Olympics. In 2001, a recruiter for the national bobsled federation approached her about competing in Salt Lake City. The women’s sport was making its Games debut, and she would be a lock to make the team. Moyse turned him down flat. “To me, the easier he made it sound, the less I was interested in doing it,” she says. Besides, she already had plans to do an internship in Trinidad working with disabled children.

When she returned to Canada in the spring of 2004 to do a master’s in occupational therapy at the University of Toronto, she wasn’t thinking about playing rugby—she had cracked a vertebra that winter playing in the Caribbean—but allowed her older sister to cajole her into working out with her club team. After the first practice, Moyse was asked to try out for the Ontario side. Then one match against Quebec earned an invitation to play in a national development squad game against the United States. By the fall, she was playing for Canada on a U.K. tour.

The Olympic bobsled recruiters came knocking again in the summer of 2005. With her sights set on the upcoming Rugby World Cup, Moyse sloughed them off again. When they persisted, she agreed to attend an August development camp in Calgary—if they paid for her ticket and let her show up late and leave early for rugby games. At the sprint testing, she broke a couple of team records and started to wonder if she really could go to the Turin Games. “Thank goodness I missed the first day, because it was all weights and I had never lifted in my life,” she says with a laugh. “I was scared that it would make me look like a man.”

As it turns out, this new transition to cycling was similarly unplanned. After winning Olympic gold, Moyse decided to make a rugby comeback (she hadn’t played in two years). Last summer, at the World Cup in England, she scored seven tries. But she also demolished an ankle in the final game against the U.S., rupturing tendons, tearing ligaments and shearing bone. The injury was so severe that it kept her off the bobsled track until January. Even then, she had to limit herself to two practice runs on a Wednesday, then the race on Saturday. In between, her ankle swelled up like a balloon. By season’s end, things had hardly improved. A sports physician suggested she take up cycling as a low-impact way to keep in shape. “I literally laughed,” says Moyse. “I’m not an endurance person at all.” But once she figured out the sport wasn’t all Tour de France, the idea took hold. Unaccustomed to doing things by half, Moyse charted out her path to London.

She’s even lined up a sponsor—the Prince Edward Island Potato Board. The deal isn’t contingent on her making the team, but the plan is to have the tubers prominently branded on her bike. “It’s cute and funny, but it’s legit—I come from a meat and potatoes family,” she says. So far, no one has asked the strawberry blond to dress up as another island icon, Anne of Green Gables. “That would take a lot more money,” she says.

It was easy enough to spot Heather Moyse’s family and friends at the 2010 Games in Whistler: there were 24 of them, wearing red-and-white-striped Dr. Seuss hats. The night she and Humphries won gold, they were among a select group watching women’s bobsled, since the men’s hockey team was simultaneously playing the Russians. Even down the hill in the village, all the big outdoor screens were tuned to the game rather than the sliding triumph.

Having an Olympic champion in the family wasn’t exactly a shock to Moyse’s mother, Sharon. Ever since Heather was a little girl, there has been a marked winning trend. “She was just one of those kids,” she says from the family home in Summerside. “Heather just seemed to be good at whatever she tried.” Not just sports, either. Sharon proudly talks about her middle child’s singing and acting talent. While starring on the basketball court, she was also an accomplished dancer, and was invited to audition for the National Ballet School. For a while, she even modelled.

Maybe if she had gone down that path, there would be greater recognition. And more money. One of the by-products of Canada’s phenomenal success at the 2010 Games is that a gold medal doesn’t get you as far as it used to. The potato board is Moyse’s first post-Olympic sponsor. She’s been earning her keep giving speeches, and receives a federal stipend. But at 33, she still doesn’t own a car or a house. Her desire to settle down and start a family has also set the clock ticking on her athletic career.

Even if the changes in sporting direction seem spontaneous, the motivation that drives them is constant. “There’s something about an athlete with her type of determination,” says coach Dubnicoff. “I can tell by her voice. It’s something she’s going to succeed at.” Or maybe it’s something closer to stubbornness. In the same way that Moyse barely played rugby before returning to star in the World Cup, she refused to move to Alberta to train with the bobsled team. Instead, she did her workouts wherever she could. At Christmastime in Summerside, that meant getting the mayor’s help to access an empty potato warehouse and then pushing her little brother’s Chevy Malibu up and down the floor. (He insisted on rolling down the windows and cranking Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger.)

Matt Nichol, her Toronto trainer, says that, pound for pound, Moyse is just as strong as any of the NHLers he has worked with. And her untapped potential as an athlete is simply “scary,” he says. “When it comes to pure speed, power and raw athleticism, she has few peers in this country.”

At the coffee shop, Moyse allows that there is something unnatural about being a natural. More than a year later, those moments dancing atop the podium with Kaillie in Whistler still seem surreal. “Part of it is that I feel too normal a person to be an Olympic champion,” she says. Since she’s on her way to give a talk at a shoe store, the gold medal is in her compact purse. With London on the horizon, she might just want to invest in a bigger bag.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.