Mirela Rahneva using her inner Ronda Rousey to star on skeleton track
Canadian rookie inspired by Olympic medallist-turned MMA icon
It's a February morning in St. Moritz, Switzerland and Mirela Rahneva, Canada's latest skeleton sensation, is settling into her race-day routine.
The 28-year-old from Ottawa begins with a cup of coffee, followed by a one-hour drive through one of the world's most famous alpine ski resorts before practising yoga, reading and listening to music.
"My mental game has definitely stepped up this year. I started utilizing more meditation techniques, reading sport performance books and doing things to clear my head space to get ready for a race," she said over the phone from Königssee, Germany, where skeleton's world championships start Friday.
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In the afternoon, Rahneva arrives at the only non-refrigerated track in the world, warms up and is ready to perform.
The 28-year-old posts a two-run time of two minutes 16.53 seconds, finishing nearly two seconds ahead of American Kendall Wesenberg for her first-ever World Cup win in just her fifth event. After seven events, Rahneva is fourth in the overall standings with 1,291 points, 75 behind German leader Jacqueline Loelling.
Assisting in the victory was Ronda Rousey, the 2008 Olympic bronze medallist in judo who later starred as a mixed martial artist and became the women's bantamweight champion.
Rahneva has read Rousey's autobiography My Fight, Your Fight "two or three times" and reads it each race day.
"That day [in St. Moritz] I read a chapter when she describes the morning of her Olympic moment when she realized no one would mess with her. I kind of became Ronda Rousey that day," said Rahneva, affectionately known as "Mimi" to her close friends, teammates and coach.
Rousey chronicles her difficult path to glory, revealing the painful loss of her father at age eight, the intensity of her judo training and meteoric rise to fame.
"I feel I've [connected] with the book and its stories," said Rahneva, who was a standout rugby player in high school and at the University of Guelph in Ontario. "She's so driven it's given me strength, a mental edge [over my opponents].
"I was told in the past that I needed to grow tougher skin and reading her book has made me tougher, I think."
Rahneva initially wanted to follow two-time Canadian Olympic champion Heather Moyse's path from rugby to the bobsleigh track, but the five-foot-six, 143-pound athlete soon realized she was too small to push the sled.
Rahneva left Toronto for Calgary in 2014 to try to latch on with the national skeleton squad and won four of eight races in the North America Cup that winter. She returned for the 2015-16 season and won two races after moving to the European Cup circuit.
This season Rahneva, who emigrated from Bulgaria at age 10, cracked the Canadian World Cup roster. Her explosive starts led to a record in her debut this past December at Whistler, B.C., where she placed fifth.
Two weeks later, in just her second race on the circuit, Rahneva earned bronze at the World Cup stop in Lake Placid, N.Y., with a two-run time of 2:50.92. She told CBC Sports that Canada's challenging development system prepared her for the world stage.
"It's important to dream big and aim high, so I definitely had my eyes set on top results," said Rahneva, who receives $15,000 in federal and provincial carding money but works long hours as a caterer at Winsport's Canada Olympic Park to help pay the $20,000 in team fees, along with food and rent.
Rahneva, whose mom Valentina was an elite sprinter and her dad Stoyan a competitive acrobatic gymnast, added she has learned how to better utilize her starts this season and tried to be "more relaxed on the sled, let it run and trust that."
"I think she's in her comfort zone," said Chris Le Bihan, high-performance director for Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton. "She hasn't been to these tracks a lot, so more experience this season has been good for her."
Rahneva is the third Canadian female in as many years to break out on the World Cup scene. Two years ago, Elisabeth Vathje had podium finishes in four of six starts and won bronze at the world championships. Last season, Jane Channell placed in the top 10 seven times and finished third in the overall standings.
"This is the dream situation for a program when you have a bunch of athletes competing at the highest level and being successful," said Le Bihan, noting Lanette Prediger, Jaclyn LaBerge and Madison Charney are waiting in the wings. "There's three medals up for grabs at the  Olympics and we want all three of them."
A spot on Canada's Olympic team, which was among her season goals, is attainable, given Rahneva's immediate success in World Cup races.
"Once I started to reach the podium," she said, "I became more confident in myself. I'm getting closer and closer [to my goal]. It's been fun and I'm hungry for it."