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Hurdler Phylicia George finding her bobsleigh traction

Canadian hurdler Phylicia George isn’t afraid to step outside her comfort zone to find an edge. That's why the Markham, Ont., athlete is looking to qualify for her third Olympic Games — only this time with Canada's bobsleigh team.

Markham, Ont., athlete made her World Cup debut with Olympic champion Kaillie Humphries

Canadian brakeman Phylicia George, right, and pilot Kaillie Humphries just missed reaching the podium at the World Cup event in Innsbruck over the weekend. (Kerstin Joensson/Associated Press)

Canadian track star Phylicia George lives by these famous Muhammad Ali words: "Do something today that your future self will thank you for." 

Perhaps that's why she's pushing a sled down an icy mountain most weekends these days. Not only is she hoping to get to an Olympics for a third time, she thinks the sport of bobsleigh could ultimately help her reach the podium in hurdles.

In a lot of ways, George's athletic career was on cruise control. 

The naturally gifted track athlete from Markham, Ont., has represented Canada twice at the Summer Olympics. In both appearances she made it into the finals but couldn't reach the podium. 

George, who isn't afraid to step outside her comfort zone to find an edge, also failed to reach the finals in the hurdles this past August at the world track and field championships in London. Something had to change, and she knew it. What she didn't know is that opportunity would knock in the form of sled and ice.

It was after the world championship she received a message from Kaillie Humphries.

"She messaged me on Twitter saying how impressed she was by my work ethic and said I should think about bobsled," George said.

"I had never thought about it. But then I was like, hmm, maybe."

For the past four months George has been soaking up everything she can about the sport from some of the best. It was put on display this past weekend in Germany.

George and Humphries teamed up for the first time ever on the World Cup tour. For the two-time Olympic champion it was nothing new. But for George, it signaled the beginning of her bobsled career.

Together, the two posted the third fastest start time and slid to a fourth-place finish in Innsbruck over the weekend.

"I'm very proud of Phylicia in her first World Cup race. We were the third fastest team at the top with room for us to improve. I'm excited to see where we can go from here," Humphries said. "It's not the end result we hoped for, but will keep working until it's there." 

The pair finished in a time of 1:46.89 to fall just short of the podium at the IBSF World Cup event in Innsbruck, Austria 2:10

George said she's learning more about competing at the highest level from Humphries than she could have ever imagined.

"Kaillie is super cool. I feel like we have really good chemistry. Seeing the way she approaches sport…I love it," George said.

"We're both similar in the intensity we bring to sport."

Thrown into it

George laughs when she considers her bobsledding start. In some ways, it couldn't be more similar to how she trains and approaches track. But in other ways, it couldn't be more different, including how it all began.

"Bobsled is really weird in that they just say, go do it. I'm a hurdler. I'm going to take a lot of time to prepare," George said.

But not in this is sport. 

George's first run ever came at the track in Whistler, B.C. She recalls vividly being somewhat horrified when she was standing at the top of the track and they told her to just go for it. No manual. No how-to guide. Just hop in the sled and hold on. 

"You're at the top of the track and you just go. We did it." 

George and Humphries had the third fastest start time during the World Cup event. (Kerstin Joensson/Associated Press)

George did it, but she hated it. She said they told her to get as low as possible. She believed she was following the instructions until she got to the end of the track that first time.

"I thought I was low and I was not low. My neck took all of the G-force. It was rocked the entire week after." 

It was a rocky start but George vowed to she would try two runs. Reluctantly, she headed back to the top for that second run. 

"The second one was better. And each run got a little bit better. You don't really understand the pressure until you go down it."

New appreciation for track

Prior to the world championships in London, George was injured and had to sit out for two months. While it was torture then, the time off has been a blessing in disguise.

She went directly from those championships into the bobsleigh season and was on an upswing having rested for those two months.

"I was almost refreshed coming into this," she said. "My track training partners took a bunch of time off. I couldn't even look at their Instagrams because they were loving life and I was right into training for bobsled."

George still gets to run fast. It's about being explosive out of the blocks, something she knows well. It's just this time it's on ice. 

"You have spikes on. It feels like you're running. The thing that's been the weirdest is running downhill. Then you have to hop in the sled running downhill."

George hopes her sprinting power translates to success in bobsleigh. (Kevin Light Photography/CBC)

George said her sprinting and power have improved exponentially because she has to be more efficient on the ice and then transfer into the sled.

"Pushing has brought out some of the things I don't do efficiently on the track. When you're sprinting and have nothing in front of you, your mechanics can be off a bit. You can't do with when there's a sled in front of you."

Olympic dream

The race to be in Humphries' sled at the Olympics is still very much on. For most of the season the Calgary native has been teamed up with brakeman Melissa Lotholz. The two have had a lot of success on the North American tracks.

But now George is in the game having just made her World Cup debut and is hungry for more.

"There are limited spots. It's a competition. The way I'm trying to approach is the way I approach track. I can only control what I can control. The goal is to be the fastest. If I'm the fastest I have nothing to worry about," she said. 

The bobsleigh team is off for the Christmas holidays before heading back on the World Cup tour for the last push before the Olympics.

George has made it very clear she wants to be at the Olympics in the fastest sled with Humphries competing for a medal. 

"I know when February comes I'll be ready. She is going to the Olympics to win a gold medal. I love that energy and want to be a part of that." 

And while all of this bobsleigh training consumes George, she's not forgetting about that other Olympic dream.

"The goal is to be on the podium in hurdles in [the] 2020 [Tokyo Olympics]."

The fastest way to that goal, from George's perspective, begins on top of an icy mountain sprinting as fast as she can for five seconds

About the Author

Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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