Canada's Cynthia Appiah driven to prove Black athletes can be 'great pilots'
‘I want to dispel the unwritten rule that Black people don’t know how to drive well,’ says Toronto native
Cynthia Appiah is hunkered down at the Whistler Sliding Centre this month, attempting to build the speed necessary to qualify for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in bobsleigh.
In truth, though, her heart resides back home with all the kids growing up, like she did, in Toronto Community Housing. She wants to inspire them by becoming one of Canada's first black bobsleigh pilots. She wants to encourage them to chase their dreams even when they seem impossible, perhaps due to limited financial means.
But Appiah wants to be real with them too.
"Work as hard as you can," says Appiah, who is sporting bumps and bruises from a weekend crash on one of the most unforgiving tracks in the world. "There are so many opportunities that will open up for you when you least expect it. "But at the same time, know that it's a grind out there, especially when you don't come from a higher socio-economic family."
Daughter of Ghanaian immigrants
Appiah, 30, grew up in Etobicoke, Ont., as the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants. Her mom Mary worked in a factory that made car parts. Her dad James worked in a glass bottle factory before becoming a taxi driver. Both preached the importance of education in hopes of their children finding rewarding careers that didn't involve repetitive, back-breaking labour. "I'm forever grateful to them," Appiah says. "I can't really put it into words how much."
Appiah's journey toward a life in elite sport began through a Jays Care Foundation outreach initiative where children from under-privileged Toronto neighbourhoods are invited to learn to play baseball at a local park. "I was pretty terrible at it to be honest," says Appiah, who went on to work in the Blue Jays box office as a young adult. "But I still had a lot of fun."
From those humble beginnings on the ball diamond, Appiah became a standout in shotput at York University. The history major was then recruited as a brakewoman for the Canadian bobsleigh team. "Athletically, Cynthia is right at the top of the list and one of the strongest athletes maybe we've ever had in the program," says Morgan Alexander, high-performance manager for Bobsleigh Canada.
"And she's probably one of the most intense competitors we've ever had." Bobsleigh is a ruthless sport, especially when it comes to Olympic roster spots. After competing for three years on the World Cup circuit, Appiah was told two weeks before the 2018 Winter Games that she would go to Pyeongchang, South Korea as an alternate.
Demotion temporary setback
Her demotion came after the return of the retired Heather Moyse and the emergence of track star Phylicia George in a new sport. And so Appiah ended up a spectator for what was supposed to be a life-defining moment.
"I was upset, and I was angry," she says. "It was very painful to see my Olympic dream slip away from me. Watching from the sidelines was excruciating."
Upon return to Canada, Appiah considered retiring. Instead, she channeled her rage and disillusionment into a move from the backseat to the front. In bobsleigh, Appiah says Black athletes have historically faced racist stereotypes when it comes to their piloting abilities.
"I want to dispel the unwritten rule that Black people don't know how to drive well," she says. "To me, that's crucial. There's still people out there who hold onto that mindset. "It's important for people to know that Black athletes can be great pilots."
The pursuit of becoming a great pilot drives Appiah, even though the COVID-19 pandemic has her wondering if she'll actually test her skills this season against an international field. Come the 2022 Beijing Games, Appiah is shooting to represent Canada in both the two-woman bobsleigh and the women's monobob, which puts a single athlete in the role of pilot and brakewoman.
And this time around, she hopes to go as an actual competitor and perhaps inspire the next generation of kids in Toronto Community Housing to pursue goals that may seem out of reach.
"It's important to never give up," she says. "It's going to get hard. It's never going to be easy. And it may be tempting to quit. "But quitting isn't going to get you what you want."