Canada's Humphries on track to join bobsled greats

With each passing victory, Calgary native Kaillie Humphries is setting a pace that could one day rank her among the elite bobsled drivers of all-time.

Calgary driver enjoying unprecedented success

Canadian bobsled driver Kaillie Humphries, left, brakeman Chelsea Valois have been on quite a World Cup roll this season. (Martin Meissner/Associated Press)

Like every aspiring amateur athlete, Kaillie Humphries’s goal when she took up bobsledding seven years ago was a lofty one: capture Olympic gold.

The 27-year-old believes building a top-flight bobsled pilot demands an eight- to 10-year process. It’s a timeline that exposes the challenges facing burgeoning drivers in mastering their craft.

Remarkably, those hurdles don’t apply to Humphries.

Humphries's streak

  • Gold with Chelsea Valois (La Plagne, France)
  • Gold with Chelsea Valois (Winterberg, Germany).
  • Gold with Chelsea Valois (Whistler, B.C.).
  • Gold with Chelsea Valois (Park City, Utah).
  • Gold with Chelsea Valois (Lake Placid, N.Y.).
  • Gold with Jennifer Ciochetti (Lake Placid, N.Y.).*
  • Gold with Jennifer Ciochetti (Calgary).
  • Gold with Emily Baadsvik (Whistler, B.C.).

*World championships

In only her fourth season as a driver, Humphries won Olympic gold at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games in stunning fashion — a surprising achievement considering she only had one World Cup win to her credit.

Yet the momentous occasion on home soil didn’t satisfy Humphries — it only heightened her awareness of future conquests. Now on the threshold of a historic season, she’s setting a pace to reach the Mount Rushmore of her sport.

"My goal is to go down in history as one of, if not the best [bobsled drivers], and I’m going to keep pushing for that," she told during a phone conversation. "Whatever that entails and whatever happens with that, it will be the way it’s supposed to be."

The last two seasons are certainly playing out that way.

Up until her emergence, the gold standard remained Germany’s Sandra Kiriasis. From 2000 to 2009, Kiriasis ruled the women’s field, winning Olympic gold (2006), world championships (three) and World Cups (38).

Humphries has clearly taken over. With apologies to speedskating superstar Christine Nesbitt, there is no Canadian athlete on a bigger roll than the Calgary native.

During this amazing run that began in Whistler, B.C., last season, Humphries has won seven straight World Cup races — the longest women’s streak ever — and the 2012 world title in Lake Placid, N.Y. Her latest triumph came on Friday in La Plagne, France.

"I’m just getting to the point where I’m able to look at being consistent and the next [title], and it excites me. It excites me to know my next challenge and what’s coming up, and how far I can push it, and just what more I can achieve."

Confidence growing

The confidence she has gained over the last calendar year is growing as the wins pile up.

Humphries doesn’t shy away from conversations that put her incredible run into historical perspective. She definitely didn’t quiet that talk when discussing a possible undefeated season to the Vancouver Sun earlier this week that was kept intact following wins in Winterberg, Germany, and La Plagne last weekend.
While Humphries, front, has solicited advice from legends Pierre Lueders and Andre Lange, she continues to hone her own driving style. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The victory was her four career title in Europe, and continues the unprecedented success despite competing with four different brakeman — Heather Moyse, Emily Baadsvik, Jennifer Ciochetti and now Chelsea Valois — in the last two years.

Humphries credits her development to driving coach Stephan Bosch, who has guided the Canadian’s career since 2008. But with any great athlete, she also observes the elite performers, particularly Canada’s Pierre Lueders and German legend Andre Lange.

Lueders is an Olympic gold medallist and two-time world champion. Lange, considered by many to be the best bobsled driver in history, is the sport’s only four-time Olympic champion.

Humphries has not only studied the two greats, but continually leans on their experiences — albeit with Lange, the communication is through friends, though she is taking up German.  

"I looked up to Pierre Lueders and I was fortunate that he was on my team, so I was able to ask him many questions," said Humphries, who appreciates Lueders’s no-nonsense candour. "He mentored me and still does with many things in regards to competing [at] World Cups and world championships. So he’s been very instrumental.

"Andre Lange is definitely one that I respected just for his personality, for how easygoing he was and how easy he made it look. I’m just able to keep learning."

Leaving her own mark

Still, Humphries is leaving her own mark. The trust level in her driving has never been higher. Regardless of the track conditions, she’s striking the right balance of powering her sled with enough pressure without slowing down.

There are things to improve on. Humphries would like to find the same dominant form overseas that she has enjoyed back home. But her performance in the last two weeks is a sign to the rest of the world that the Canadian is getting close.

With two good runs in Winterberg, Humphries and Valois posted an impressive victory over Americans Elana Meyers and Katie Ederling — 0.10 seconds faster — on one of the most difficult bobsled courses in the world. On Friday her margin of victory increased to 0.27 seconds over the U.S. tandem of Jamie Greubel and Emily Azevedo.

Her familiarity of the European tracks is escalating, and with 14 months until the Sochi Olympics, it’s the perfect time to hone her skills in preparation for another first.

No woman has ever repeated as Olympic bobsled champion, but Humphries will use the experience of defending her world title in January in St. Moritz, Switzerland, as a valuable measuring stick for the Winter Games.

"The Olympics are on a much grander scale and so I’ve never had to be in that position before of a reigning champion [defending her title]," she said.

"We’ll see how I do and what I learn. It’s going to go one of two ways: I’ll either continue to be world champion or I’ll have learned something in the process, which will set me up for Sochi."

Humphries admitted that after the training runs in the lead up to Vancouver, her internal message to the other competitors consisted of five simple words: "you are all in trouble."

With each passing victory, the same forewarning might as well be directed at Sandra Kiriasis.