Canada's Mirela Rahneva to honour late mother at Olympics
Decorated helmet also a history of skeleton racer's life journey
By Joshua Clipperton, Canadian Press
Mirela Rahneva's mother wasn't thrilled with her daughter's chosen career path.
Having bounced between track and field, rugby and bobsled, Rahneva had finally settled on skeleton, a sport where athletes zoom head-first down a winding, icy slide at incredible speeds on a sled offering no protection should anything go wrong.
"[My mom] supported me," said Rahneva. "It was always a little scary for her, but she watched every race."
The 29-year-old from Ottawa will be making her Olympic debut in women's skeleton in Pyeongchang, South Korea, but she'll also be competing with a heavy heart after her mother, Valentina, died in June at age 53 following a long battle with cancer.
"She was so strong," said Rahneva, her voice starting to crack during a recent interview. "She was the strongest woman I know. She was so courageous.
'My mom was a warrior. She fought off cancer for 17 years.' — Canadian skeleton racer Mirela Rahneva on her mom, whom she will honour at this month's Olympics
"She always highlighted people's strengths and good sides. She was just extremely kind, extremely strong, extremely brave and caring."
Looking for a way to honour her mom, who along with Rahneva's father brought the family to Canada from Bulgaria in 1997, Rahneva reached out to Calgary artist Shane Haltman this summer.
"We met up for coffee and I explained to him my mom recently passed away … I broke down in tears," said Rahneva, who has two sisters. "He shared some stories with me and we connected. He said, 'Why don't we do a tribute to your mom on the helmet? She'll be with you every time you slide.' It was hard not to have her here with me this year.
"We talked about just being a warrior. My mom was a warrior. She fought off cancer for 17 years."
Haltman had never worked with a high-performance athlete before, but was honoured to collaborate on the project honouring Rahneva's mother, a former track athlete in Bulgaria.
"It's not every day you come across this kind of story," said Haltman. "It just hit me on a heart level, which is really what my art is about.
"We were meant to meet, in a way."
At that first meeting, Rahneva showed up with a picture of some street art featuring a woman in the shape of a tree that had caught her eye online.
Haltman was floored.
'Always in the back of my mind'
"I was like, 'I have seen this before,"' he said. "I took pictures of a bunch of street art [in Mexico]. One of the street art pictures was of the exact same mural she was showing me.
"I thought, 'Oh wow, this is crazy."'
The helmet, which took three months to complete, is not only a tribute to Rahneva's mother, but also a history of the skeleton racer's life journey to this point.
"We have on the back of the helmet a little praying warrior, and she's a tree because I love trees," Rahneva explained. "They remind me of just being grounded and being rooted. That's the big one for [my mom] on the back of my head. She's just always there in the back of my mind.
"On the front is a [white] Canadian moose … it's kind of like a spirit animal. I'd like to think of it as my inner Canadian side. Off on the chin is a Bulgarian rose.
"On the side there's a little moon. My mom and I always said, 'Love you to the moon and back.' That's a little tribute to her as well, and a breast cancer ribbon on the other side. There's a lot going on. There's the Canadian Rockies in a blue silhouette behind the moose. There's rose petals flying from the nose backwards. The helmet is just incredible artwork. I'm really, really happy with it."
Haltman also wanted to emphasize the beauty of Rahneva's chosen sport.
"It's got some flow," he said. "It's fast, it's gliding. The abstract elements tie into that quite a bit."
"She just blew it out of the water," said Canadian bobsled and skeleton high-performance director Chris Le Bihan. "Was it planned? Did we absolutely think that was going to happen? No. Were we surprised? No."
This year was more of a struggle with one bronze and three fourth-place showings to end up eighth overall, but Rahneva should be right there in contention when the women's Olympic skeleton competition begins Feb 16.
"I had such an awesome [first] season," she said. "I just tried to not set too high of standards and just wanted to roll with it."
And roll with it she will into Pyeongchang, with her mother on both her mind and her helmet each time she glides down the track.
"The biggest thing when she passed away is she lives on through our memories of her," said Rahneva. "It's a reminder that she's with me all the time."