Idol: a reporter tries to make the cut
in southern Ontario seems like a strange time and place to seek
out the next wave of Canadian bobsleigh athletes. The winter chill
has succumbed to spring thaw and this country’s only official
bobsleigh track sits more than 3,000 kilometres away in Calgary.
Bobsleigh Canada is not responsible for
any injuries the writer (foreground) might incur at the tryout.
melted ice signals the end of another competitive year, but for Bobsleigh
Canada, the athlete recruitment season is just heating up.
It's early Saturday morning and I should be curled up in bed savouring
a work-free weekend. Instead, I'm sitting outside Toronto's Metro
Track and Field Centre, clad in my finest workout attire, awaiting
a chance to strut my stuff for the bobsleigh powers that be. The folks
at Bobsleigh Canada are in town to hunt for a fresh crop of national
team members and this sportswriter is answering the call.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must reveal I'm no high-performance
athlete. Far from it.
A card in my wallet indicates I pay gym dues but I'd be ashamed to
scrutinize my attendance log. My far-from-rigorous workout involves
beer league softball in summer and snowboarding in winter, sprinkled
in with the odd morning squash game or an easy-does-it weightlifting
session. This routine is likely neutralized by all the sedentary hours
spent glued to a computer screen.
Today's session is part of Bobsleigh Canada's annual dry-land recruitment
tryouts. The tour hits several Canadian centres from March to October
with the goal of unearthing athletes who possess the explosive combination
of speed and power necessary to excel in the physically demanding
Winter Olympic sport. Most members of the current national team were
plucked from similar trials before donning the Maple Leaf.
The multi-step audition works as a sort of Bobsleigh Idol. But the
road to the big team begins at gyms and tracks across the country
like this indoor facility on the York University campus.
Warm it up, Chris
Walking into the sprawling athletics venue offers a flashback of my
ever-so-brief junior high track career. I had a decent set of wheels
as a kid but quit sprinting in Grade 10 upon discovering the joys
of exercising my Nintendo thumb.
A muscular man with a shaved head is on bended knee about 100 metres
away, tinkering with a computerized timing device in one of the lanes.
It turns out he's former Olympian Matt Hindle, Bobsleigh Canada's
Hindle is an affable, laid-back 29-year-old and his disposition instantly
eases the tension pellets rumbling around my innards. We chat about
the day's itinerary and he hands me a waiver form to sign before warming
Bobsleigh Canada's development coordinator
Matt Hindle (right) offers up
The document clears the bobsleigh federation of any responsibility
should I pull a hammy or keel over from exhaustion. As I breeze through
check boxes about hypertension and muscle injuries, an imposing shadow
looms overhead. I look up and Hindle introduces me to Big Al.
Al Hough is a commanding
figure with broad shoulders and thick leg muscles. I'm initially uncertain
what role he'll play in the day's proceedings. The sprinkle of grey
hair above his ears and his familiarity with Hindle lead me to speculate
he’s another coach or evaluator. Wrong on both fronts.
It turns out Big Al, 40, is a previous recruitment camp success story.
He parlayed a tryout two years ago into a World Cup gig pushing for
Pierre Lueders – the most decorated Canadian bobsleigh pilot
in history. The financial pressures of a mortgage and family led Hough
to leave the team after just one season and return to his main profession
as a plumber. Now he’s back for another shot with the 2006 Olympics
on the brain.
The brief meeting inspires me to clamber off my duff to get a sweat
on. While doing laps around the track, I spot two more recruits about
200 metres ahead. I turn on the jets, and while suppressing my heavy
panting, meet Chinedu
Amadi and Liam Card.
Amadi and Card are both former collegiate track athletes in their
mid-20s. Judging by their toned physiques, they have little problem
balancing training time with their desk jobs.
Both guys extend friendly handshakes and immediately make the CBC
guy feel welcome. Card offers to lead me through a proper series of
track exercises but I decline. I need to save some gas in the tank
for the main event and I have a hunch their warm-up equates to my
A handful of other hopefuls trickle onto the track and there's time
for a couple stretches and practice sprints before Hindle calls us
in to the start area.
Run, Harris, run
There are eight hopefuls, all men, attending today's session. Everyone
except for me has a high-performance sports background in disciplines
ranging from track and field to football and weightlifting.
Hindle welcomes everyone and lays out the morning schedule. The testing
is split into two parts, starting with a running portion a
60-metre sprint, followed by a 15-kilogram resistance pull. Then it's
off to the weight room for three feats of strength power clean,
front squat and bench press. From these tests, Hindle can see who
could have the potential to climb onto the ice in Calgary.
Fellow recruit Chinedu Amadi is a blur on the track, even in training.
First up is the 60-metre sprint.
Hindle charitably lets me run last so I can observe the others and
glean a pointer or two. My apprehension mounts as each athlete appears
to get progressively faster.
The machine Hindle set up earlier in the morning records a time for
each runner's opening 30 metres and full 60 metres. Bobsleigh Canada
lists the men's 30-metre competitive range at 3.80 to 4.00 seconds
and the 60-metre standard at 6.80 to 7.00. I have no idea how fast
I'm up after Amadi, who later tells me he was the top-ranked 60-metre
runner in the country a few years ago. He's through the finish line
before I can gather my thoughts and get psyched up. Suddenly, it's
All background noise disappears as I step to the start line. I sense
all eyes shooting in my direction. Time to assume the two-point stance,
one foot in front of the other, and take a couple deep breaths. My
feet begin moving before I fully grasp what's going on.
A beep goes off as I blaze past the first 30-metre mark and I try
to maintain my speed for the second half of the race. Everything blurs
and I feel I could give Nic Macrozonaris a run for his money right
now, even though my sloppy sprinting style would make a track coach
cringe. I'm not running that fast, but with all the adrenaline racing
through my system, it sure feels like it.
I lean through the finish line and begin shuffling back to the start
area. Hindle meets me halfway and tells me I ran the opening 30 metres
in 4.22 seconds. He said I could've slashed a tenth of a second off
had I worn track spikes instead of my clunky court shoes. With training,
he continues, I'd have a shot at getting into competitive range.
Anxiety and nerves are soon replaced by confidence. Am I about to
pull off a Rudy Ruettiger-type feat with the World Cup acting as my
Notre Dame football program?
Fleeting, yet irrational, thoughts of Calgary swirl through my mind
after I shave my 30-metre time down to 4.20 in a second run. However,
the buzz is short lived, as my grandiose plans are about to get swiftly
smacked out of me in the weight room.
The resistance pull provides a sneak peek of the brute strength that would go on display later in the weight room. This is when the bulls begin gaining ground on the gazelles.
The pull exercise times a sprinter as they drag a 15-kilogram weight
attached by a rope and secured around their waist. This is where guys
like Big Al shine. It's also where I first notice Mike
Most of the other guys are lifting three large black weights on each side of the bar. I'll stick with the lighter red variety.
The 34-year-old Ransky is a lifelong track athlete and ranked Canadian discus thrower. He's built like a tank yet exhibits lightning speed for a big man. Ransky psyches himself up by emitting an earsplitting yelp and slapping his face. He is the embodiment of intensity.
It's Ransky's performance that truly makes me realize I'm a boy among men. He opens the lifting session by stacking weight upon weight onto the bar to try for a national-team record in power clean. He's unsuccessful, but the attempt alone is humbling.
The athletes continue to thrust the heavy weights skyward. I swear I can hear the bar begging for mercy.
It's finally my turn and I'm nervous as hell. I've never attempted a power clean and my first try is going to be through a haze of testosterone. Hindle goes easy on me, helping me place a couple of light weights.
I reach down to the ground and jerk the bar to shoulder-height with ease. After a second round of watching the other guys lift the house, I go on to make my most foolish decision of the morning.
Oozing with confidence after lift No. 1, I decide to nearly double the weight with a couple 45-pound plates on either side of the bar. I pull the weight up around my waist, but poor technique proves costly. I lose my balance while trying to hoist the bar to my shoulders, eventually falling backward and contorting my lower back into an unnatural position.
A difficult lesson learned improper
weightlifting technique can be hazardous to your health.
Turns out technique is important a weightlifting lesson pounded into me the hard way.
I'm hurting but don't let on one bit. My emotional stress is more visible, as I'm openly disappointed about my failure. I sense Hindle realizes I'm reeling and he calls me over to stand next to him against the wall as he evaluates the other lifters.
He whispers technique tips into my ear, coaching me as the other lifters breeze through their third attempts. His pep talk rejuvenates me enough to give it one last go.
a fellow attendee, also steps in to offer assistance. As a successful
recruit from one of last year's Toronto camps, he knows his stuff.
McConnell, 26, competed on the Europa Cup circuit last season
bobsleigh's minor-league equivalent. He reiterates what Hindle told
me use my lower body more, get close to the bar with my shins
and quit using my arms so much.
I hear what he's saying but can't apply it. My elbows jut to the side like I'm plucking heavy turnips from the ground. It's not going to happen today.
I opt to sit out the front squat test, but Hindle hands me a lighter bar and teaches me more about proper technique. The guys then move over to the bench, where it doesn't take Ransky long to gun for another record of more than 400 pounds, which he narrowly misses.
With an aching back and a couple of weightlifting debacles to my credit, I think about packing it in, but motivation percolates through my veins when I observe the guys push themselves to the limit. They're all hungry to represent Canada at the Olympics. It's hard not to be moved. I give it one final go, and fueled by boisterous encouragement from my fellow recruits, I hoist the bar off my chest for a successful bench press.
Ryan McConnell (left), a member of Canada's 2004-05 Europa Cup bobsleigh team, provides some weightlifting pointers.
Camp is over and Hindle calls everyone in to tell us he'll evaluate the test results to find out who'll go to Calgary this summer.
I spend about an hour afterward talking to the guys and learn more about their fascinating paths into bobsleigh. I should ask Hindle about my performance, but I suddenly care more about the fates of Big Al, Mike, Chi, Liam, Ryan and the rest of the guys. Camaraderie can do that.
Hindle tells me he's inviting a handful of the hopefuls to the summer development camp. It's only the first step on a journey that could see some of them crack the national squad. Hindle informs me he thinks some of them have the goods to vie for a spot in Turin.
I'm proud. I head home thinking about who might make it to Calgary
and wonder if I've just encountered any future Olympians.
There's not much secret to what lies in my immediate future. A couch, a remote control and a tub of liniment for my aching muscles.
Hey Chris! Awesome story!
I've always wondered about bobsledding. I know I've sort of thought of it as a big sledding track and how much fun it would be to bobsled. Also how I've said to myself many times, "I could do that!" But now after reading your article I can [say] that it's more than meets the eye.
This was a very interesting exposé into the beginnings of a bobsledding team. And now that I know there are tryouts for this thing, I think I'll try my hand at it next year or something! So it's off to the gym ...
Chris Harris joined CBC.ca in 1999. His web travels
have taken him from election and Stanley Cup coverage to a three-year stint with
CBC4Kids. Chris joined Sports Online as a writer/editor in 2002, shortly after
working on the Salt Lake City Olympics. Chris holds a High Honours B.A. in Film
Studies from Carleton University and a Print Journalism diploma from Sheridan
How the tryout works
Athletes from other sports are invited to try out for the national
bobsleigh team. Impress the recruiter enough and you could snag a
figurative golden ticket to Calgary to participate in the summertime
national development training camp. There, athletes are put through
the paces of Bobsleigh 101, learning everything from pushing to sled
maintenance. Those who perform well are invited to the national team
selection races for a shot to crack the Canadian World Cup or Olympic
Bobsleigh Canada performs five tests in its search for speedy, powerful
and explosive athletes. They are:
1. 30-metre and 60-metre sprints
2. 15-kg resistance pull
3. Power clean (weightlifting)
4. Front squat (weightlifting)
5. Bench press (weightlifting)
It's safe to say bobsleigh flies well below even the most hardcore
sports fan's radar. So, what type of athlete turns up for a bobsleigh
tryout? From a 40-year-old plumber attempting a comeback to an ex-track
star hoping to rebound from a serious groin injury, the answers are
as diverse as the wide spectrum of the eight personalities who showed
up at a recent Bobsleigh Canada recruitment session in Toronto.
Here's a look at five people who attended the tryout:
Al Hough, 40, Kirkland
Liam Card, 25, Paisley,
Ryan McConnell, 26,
Chinedu Amadi, 27, Hamilton
Mike Ransky, 34, Grimsby,
Canada: Learn more about the recruitment sessions and competitive
FIBT: The official
website of bobsleigh's international governing body
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