Alysia Rissling: I enjoy throwing myself down an icy chute

Alysia Rissling: I enjoy throwing myself down an icy chute


'I've been grinding on the development circuits, waiting for the chance to prove myself,’ says Canadian bobsleigh driver

By Alysia Rissling for CBC Sports
May 3, 2017
 

Before every heat I have a routine.

Three sleds before my turn I stand up, close my eyes, and put my helmet on. I flip my visor down, take a big breath, then flip it back up. Then I make my way to the start area. With my helmet on it feels like I am isolated in my own little world, I can drown out the announcements and cheers, and stay focused on what I need to do.

Canadian bobsleigh driver Alysia Rissling,
 front,
 and brakeman Cynthia Appiah left it all out on the track during the final World Cup race.
 (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press) Canadian bobsleigh driver Alysia Rissling, front, and brakeman Cynthia Appiah left it all out on the track during the final World Cup race. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

This time was different. It was the last race of the season at the Olympic test event in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and I couldn't help but peek at the results of the sleds before us. We were one spot outside of the podium, and I could feel the pressure of the sleds right behind us.

Our Canadian teammates had gone two sleds prior and their run was significantly faster than their first heat. I look at my brakeman Cynthia Appiah, grab her shoulders, and give her a quick pep talk followed by a double high five. The next sled takes off and we walk across the ice to the start line.

 

Standing on the start block I tap my toes side to side to keep my blood moving. People are cheering, coaches are giving me “the look,” and all the “what ifs” start to creep into my brain. Since the second heat is ordered slowest to fastest, I knew there was no room for error if we wanted to hold our position.

The PA system crackles, “the track is clear.”

My coaches flip the sled down as I toss my jacket off. I walk up to check my steering ropes and release the push bar. Cynthia is vibrating as she rocks the sled back and forth. I give her a big slap on the back, flip down my visor, and set up my position on the bar. The crowd goes silent.

Back, set, up.

 
 

Best push yet

I knew from the moment I loaded into the sled it was our best push yet. We had the velocity … the rest was in my hands. Taking it one corner at a time, I knew the run was good, but I couldn’t help but pray it was good enough.

The braking stretch goes for about 100 metres from the finish line, but it feels like 100 miles when you are anxiously awaiting to see the clock. We come to a stop, and I see the No. 1 slot. We retained our position! Our season was over. We finished no worse than fourth and we were the top-ranked Canadians in the race.

We moved into the leader box and watched the next sled make a few mistakes and start to bleed time. At the finish line they fall back, and for the first time in my career we win a World Cup bronze medal.

Cynthia and I jump for joy and hug each other. After six months of gruelling training, travel, and competition we finally managed to grasp the podium in the last two runs of the season.

 

In every major competition there’s a favourite and an underdog. The favourite is the fierce competitor who has been tested and victorious. The underdog usually shows potential, but has yet to prove themselves as a contender. Every athlete at some point in their career has been there. The top athletes in the world were at one point underdogs, until they executed an opportunity to upset the favourite.

In women’s bobsleigh, the World Cup podium has been dominated by the same few teams since the 2014 Olympics. While the same girls keep winning World Cups, I’ve been grinding on the development circuits, waiting for the chance to prove myself.

 

When I began this sport five years ago, I sucked. As a former CIS basketball player, I hadn’t been recruited, and I wasn’t given any special opportunities. I crashed — a lot — and my physical testing results were less than stellar. It seemed the only person who believed I actually had any potential to reach my Olympic dream was me. 

In year one, I borrowed thousands of dollars from my sister just to move to Calgary so I could bobsled.

After year two I hired a trainer I couldn’t afford so I could prove I actually could push a sled. In year three I did double the number of runs an athlete usually does in a season so I could catch up in the “experience” department.

In year four I went to Europe to learn new tracks under development conditions instead of progressing to World Cup competition.

In year five I finally got to compete at the World Cup level but Team Canada could only provide development calibre equipment, so I got my own sled.

 

I’ve made so many sacrifices along the way in regards to my finances, health, and future stability, that people ask me why I kept getting back into the sled when my goal seemed so far-fetched. I didn’t know how to explain it then, but I do now that the goal has become realistic.

 
 

Just the 2 of us

I fell in love with this sport and it’s not just because I enjoy throwing myself down an icy chute in a carbon-fibre box at 150 km/hr. No, no, no. In basketball, teams of five players are on the court at a time but usually it takes efforts of eight to 12 girls to win a game.

There is something more intimate about bobsleigh. There are only two of us. If our chemistry is off, our push suffers. If I make a bad decision, we both end up on our heads.

Appiah, back, and Rissling shocked the bobsleigh community.
 (Lee Jin-man/Associated Press) Appiah, back, and Rissling shocked the bobsleigh community. (Lee Jin-man/Associated Press)

In basketball, you practise for hours on end. In bobsleigh, you only get to do two runs a day, each less than a minute long. You never get to sit on the bench or take a time out, and the only thing you are actually racing is the clock, fighting for hundredths of a second. In basketball, you hit a hard shot or make a big play and it feels good, but it doesn’t compare to the high you get when you finally shoot a straightaway or nail a tricky corner. The most gut-wrenching feeling is when you make one tiny mistake in a corner, and it costs you the race. But, when you finally get it right, you just can’t beat that feeling. It’s like a drug, except I don’t think you can develop a tolerance to it.

Am I still an underdog? Absolutely. There is still so much that I have to accomplish in order to even get the opportunity to stand on that start block at the Olympics. One World Cup bronze medal is my best accomplishment so far, but it isn’t the goal I set out to accomplish five years ago.

I love this sport, and I will continue to work my way up for the chance to contend against the favourites. Having a taste of what the podium feels like will fuel every workout, meditation, and decision I make until February 2018. I understand that I am up against teams with much more experience on the big stage, but now I am confident I can rise to the challenge.

(Large photos by Associated Press/Reuters)

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