The hot seat: Everyone wants to ride with Kaillie Humphries
Farm girl Lotholz is the top contender for coveted job
As the Winter Games in Pyeongchang approach at breakneck speed, one of the most coveted rides to Korea is still up for grabs.
Who will take a back seat to two-time gold medallist and Canadian bobsleigh pilot Kaillie Humphries?
The winner of the competition to be Humphries's brakeman will get a golden opportunity to claim an Olympic medal. And as the World Cup season gets rolling this week in Lake Placid, N.Y., site of the 1980 Olympic Winter Games, there's still plenty of room to manoeuver.
The incumbent is a 24-year-old farm girl and former University of Alberta sprinter from Barrhead, Alta., by the name of Melissa Lotholz.
She's been behind Humphries for the last two world championships and turned in silver-medal performances on both occasions. She's won an overall World Cup title with Humphries and was part of the first four-woman crew on the World Cup circuit, in 2016. In Lake Placid on Thursday, she and Humphries opened the season by winning gold.
But it seems, in this game, nothing's a given. Nobody is owed a seat in the No. 1 sled for Canada.
"That's a dangerous place to be and you have to check yourself if you believe it's the case that you are owed anything," Lotholz said before the win in Lake Placid.
"It's a super-competitive team and everyone needs to earn their spot, including me. This would be a privilege to find myself in that position at the Olympic Games."
Getting back together?
Indeed, there are several contenders for the seat.
Cynthia Appiah, another sprinter from Ontario, came on last season to challenge Lotholz's stranglehold on the ride in Canada 1. Then there's the return of Heather Moyse to consider. Moyse, who's back in the sport after taking time off, was the brakeman for Humphries in 2010 and 2014 when the duo won gold in Vancouver and Sochi.
This time Moyse says she's there to help a younger pilot if she makes the team. But Humphries hasn't closed the door on a reunion.
"At the end of the day, it's down to the coaching staff, it's down to Bobsleigh Canada to choose the best people," Humphries told CBC Sports on the day the World Cup team was announced.
That means there are others in the mix, including bobsleigh neophyte and Olympic hurdler Phylicia George. As a matter of fact, Humphries, who is always in the driver's seat regardless, doesn't care who powers her down the track, just so long as that person gets her out of the gate faster than anybody else.
It means personality and compatibility mean next to nothing when it comes to this ticket to ride.
And Lotholz is fine with that.
"We respect that kind of thinking a lot," she said, without hesitation.
"The worst thing that can happen is that a decision is made based upon friendship or that it is motivated by political considerations. You respect this kind of decision when it comes down to a pure numbers game. It's all about numbers and standards and it means you know exactly what you need to do."
'I'd be crushed'
In spite of the fact that she's being hounded by rivals who want her place at the Olympic table, Lotholz feels empowered by the prospect of winning the competition just to get to Korea in the right position.
"It's a struggle but it's a challenge," she acknowledged.
"It's a double-edged sword in this sport. It's about the head game. Mentally, you have to do something with all the pieces that you've been given. It's cool. If you choose to let it, it can beat you down. Or, on the other hand, it can make you better."
Such is the reality on a powerhouse Canadian team that has the possibility of qualifying three women's sleds to these Olympics.
So far, pilots Humphries and Alyisa Rissling are in. Christine de Bruin still has to make the grade, but chances appear to be good given the quality of her driving and the bevy of brakemen who could provide the power.
But the top spot, the one in the sled behind Humphries, has Lotholz and the others licking their chops.
"If it wasn't me, I'd be crushed," Lotholz admitted. "But I hope this is about something more than me. To be a part of Team Canada at the biggest event in the world would be a reward in itself. It could be in the first, second or third Canadian sled or it could be supporting from the sidelines as the alternate. But it would be very cool to be a part of such a powerful team at the Olympics."
Seeds for success
The precedent exists that the incumbent doesn't get the job.
Prior to the Sochi 2014 Olympics, Chelsea Valois helped Humphries win five straight races on the World Cup tour and a world championship title in St. Moritz. In the autumn prior to those Olympics, Heather Moyse returned, won the spot as the No. 1 brakeman, and Valois wound up pushing the second Canadian sled piloted by Jenny Ciochetti in Russia.
While Moyse won gold again with Humphries, Valois finished 13th with Ciochetti.
For Lotholz, that prospect is at once daunting and motivating.
"Yes, there is the emotional piece of devastation," she granted. "But just like the sunshine and the rain, the challenges make us grow."
She did, after all, grow up on a farm. And as the dead of winter approaches, when most fields lie barren, Lotholz relies on a simple philosophy for success.
"It's just like my family. Each year we'd plant seeds," she reckoned. "And we continue to get closer and closer, and in spite of the rain and all the things that can threaten the crop we keep working harder and harder, trusting that in the end there will be a harvest."
Nothing is guaranteed. Not in life or in sport.
In the end, you have to earn the right to sit in the hot seat at the Olympics.