Why Olympic hurdler Phylicia George is jumping into Kaillie Humphries’ bobsled

Why Olympic hurdler Phylicia George is jumping into Kaillie Humphries’ bobsled


'Kaillie sees an immense amount of potential in me,' says Canadian track veteran

By Phylicia George for CBC Sports
December 6, 2016
Phylicia George needed to familiarize the ins and outs of her new equipment very quickly. (Photo courtesy Phylicia George) Phylicia George needed to familiarize the ins and outs of her new equipment very quickly. (Photo courtesy Phylicia George)

I could literally feel my heart beating out my chest as I looked down the long stretch of ice in front of me.

After about 10 metres, there was a steep decline that seemed to disappear into the abyss. And I’m supposed to run full speed on this ice, while pushing a 165-kilogram sled?

What if I can’t load into the sled? What if I fly out the sled once I’m in? I felt Kaillie’s strong hand on my back — waking me up from my daydream: “Okay P, let’s do this girl!”

She slowly took her position at the pilot bar. I slowed my breathing.

Inhale. Exhale.

“Back.”

Focused my eyes ahead.

“Set.”

And just like settling into the blocks; a quiet hush fell over me, an intense focus, like nothing else in the world existed except me, Kaillie, the sled and the ice.

“Up.”

Kaillie Humphries, Phylicia George practise the push start.
George has been running track for 14 years. (Dan Riedlhuber/Canadian Press) George has been running track for 14 years. (Dan Riedlhuber/Canadian Press)

From track to bobsleigh

Let me rewind four months to figure out how I, a track and field athlete, lover of all things summer, found myself at the start of a bobsleigh track. After competing in my second Olympic Games in Rio, becoming a three-time Olympic finalist, I received a message from Kaillie Humphries, a two-time Olympic gold medallist. She invited me to come out to try bobsleigh, with the hope of me developing into her brakeman for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

I had never considered competing in a winter sport. After a few down years due to injury, I finally finished my 2016 season feeling confident and ready to take my track career to the next level in the coming years. So how could bobsleigh fit into all of this? And yet the thought of competing at the Winter Olympics intrigued me.

The thought of challenging myself by trying something totally new enticed excitement in me. You’ll never know if you don’t at least try, right?

So I told her I was willing to come out, to learn the sport and to explore the option of me competing with her in 2018, and to win a gold medal together. And here I am in Whistler, B.C., on the very track that she won her first gold medal, a few days before a FIBT World Cup race, being thrown into the fire.

I received a crash course — brakeman 101 — learning the technique of how to hit a sled, how to push, how to load and how to sit in a sled over about four days. I didn’t realize there were so many technical aspects to the 50-metre run. While it was frustrating at times, I love challenging myself, and if for nothing else, I started to be drawn to it because I wanted to master it.

I’ve been running track for 14 years now, and while I’m still perfecting my craft, I haven’t had something totally new to master in a long time. It’s been a refreshing change of pace. And at the same time I’m realizing how beneficial training for bobsleigh could be for my track career. Bobsleigh brakemen are required to be extremely strong, powerful, explosive and fast — all things that make for a world-class track and field athlete. But learning technique was just step one. Step two was actual execution at the top and sliding down a bobsleigh track.

 
There were times when George felt like a fish out of water. (Photo courtesy Phylicia George) There were times when George felt like a fish out of water. (Photo courtesy Phylicia George)

Team and individuality

When I arrived in Whistler I felt like I was being welcomed into a big bobsleigh family. There is an interesting aspect of team and yet individuality at the same time. As such, everyone I met made themselves available to help me on my steep learning curve. Apart from the actual competition, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes prep work with the sleds that is necessary.

My first day standing in the shop, I watched in awe at the hustle and bustle. Every member of the team knew their role. They moved like a Formula 1 pit crew.

I felt like a fish out of water. But I slowly learned the ins and outs of how to prep a sled and how to move it around. Everyone helped point me to the right position and the correct way of doing things. A few people laughed at my freshly manicured hands and bright blue nails — let’s see how long those last. As I helped put the runners on the sled, my hands cramped from such poor grip strength. Needless to say I found a whole new respect for the work that bobsledders put in.

“All hands on deck.”

I watched as everyone scrambled over to the first sled to help load it onto the truck and go to the top of the hill. They picked it up like a choreographed dance, moving with flow and ease.

“Next sled.”

I assumed my position on the side.

1,2,3…

I nearly gasped as I felt the weight of the sled (Note to self: I’m going to have hit the weight room to get stronger just to be able to move these sleds around).

Standing at the start position and looking at the ice I felt a familiar feeling. That same feeling I get standing behind the blocks, staring at 10 obstacles in front of me. You have to feel the fear and embrace it. You have to feel the anxiety and get excited about execution.

You have to be mentally strong enough to feel the rush of emotions and silence the worry and doubt. I stood there knowing I am a competitor. In my heart I always just want to be the best and do the very best I can. While I was still getting comfortable with the necessary technique, two things ran through my mind: I know how to run and I’m fast. And sometimes you have to just take a leap of faith. We often learn the best simply by doing it.

So let’s do it!

 
After a rough 1st run, George began gaining more confidence.

3 out of 4 ain't bad

I blasted off the block and ran it down. Check. I loaded into the sled with ease. Check.

I couldn’t remember where to position my hands in the sled, so I sat up higher than I was supposed to. To say the ride down was bumpy would be an understatement.

I heard Kaillie yell, “Brakes.” I pulled on the brakes as hard as I could, bringing us to a complete stop. Check. Three out of four isn’t too bad.

Every run has progressively gotten better. You better believe I got low in the sled on my second run. Every run has felt a little better, has gotten a little faster and felt a little more exhilarating and exciting.

So now I stand at a crossroads. Is this something I want to pursue? Competing in the Olympics every two years doesn’t sound half bad. I’m sure some people might look at me like I’m crazy.

How can you expect to start a new sport and perform at a high level just a year out of the Olympics? How can you expect to continue to perform at a high level in track, while balancing bobsleigh? Don’t you know you can’t have your cake and eat it too?

I disagree. Cake is made for eating. I’ve never been one to set limits on myself. I believe in dreaming big dreams. I believe in setting goals for yourself and working hard to achieve them.

So will it be easy? No. Will it be worth it? Hell yes! Kaillie is the number one bobsleigh pilot in the world and a former brakeman, who sees an immense amount of potential in me. If anyone knows high performance in bobsleigh it’s her.

So now I leave Whistler and return to Louisiana to continue training for the world championships in London next summer, on my quest to win a medal in the 100-metre hurdles at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

And once the world championships are done, I will trade my t-shirt and shorts in for boots and toques, on my quest to win a medal in bobsleigh in 2018.

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