Canadian Olympic bobsleigh hopefuls de Bruin, Bujnowski unfazed by China's Omicron surge
Crystal Globe contenders felt 'safest' competing at Beijing test event last fall
Christine de Bruin can't wait for the chance to travel to Beijing and compete at her second Olympics. The veteran bobsleigh pilot wants to show the world she and brakewoman Kristen Bujnowski are serious medal contenders for Canada.
De Bruin also wants to be in a city where she isn't not concerned about contracting coronavirus.
"We did our [Olympic] test event in Beijing [in October] and it's the safest I've felt all season because we got tested constantly and there was a bubble [environment] there," de Bruin told CBC Sports over the phone this week from St. Moritz, Switzerland, site of this weekend's final Olympic qualifier and season-ending World Cup event.
Beijing reportedly will not adjust its COVID-19 prevention measures for the Olympics unless there are numerous cases inside the closed-loop bubble, in which participants can only leave if they are leaving China or undergo quarantine.
The emergence of the Omicron variant has resulted in some citywide lockdowns in a bid to limit outbreaks and prevent them from spreading to other parts of China.
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For Bujnowski, who sat out last season because of COVID-19 restrictions after straining her right calf, this is her first time dealing with weekly testing in the bubble.
"It's very easy for it to become a distraction," she said of the virus. "The nicest thing about training and being at the track is I don't think about it. Being present in your sport takes you away from the worry."
However, there were some restless nights for the Canadian duo, who awaited a PCR test result after they were exposed to a teammate that tested positive.
"We think we lucked out a little because we did have some dinners together, but me and Kristen decided to go away [for the break] with our significant others," said de Bruin, who placed seventh with Melissa Lotholz at her first Olympics in 2018.
"We went to a different hotel and I think [when the others] were the most contagious we weren't there."
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With the Olympic opening ceremony in three weeks, de Bruin and Bujnowski no longer interact with other squads while team alternate Janine McCue is their lone dinner guest.
"As athletes we're always put in very high stress situations so I feel we can cope. We don't want [the virus] to overtake us and our performance."
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Bujnowski, who served as an alternate at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, has found it difficult being separated from her boyfriend Josh Williamson, a brakeman with the United States team preparing for his Olympic debut.
Getting to Games top priority
"He's a five-minute drive away but I can't go hang out because I don't want to expose him to potentially anything I've been exposed to or expose my team to anything," said the 29-year-old from Mount Brydges, Ont. "The next couple of weeks it's important we prioritize getting to the Games. We have our whole lives together after this."
Unlike previous seasons on tour, the free-spirited de Bruin has limited her travel to see husband and pilot Ivo de Bruin, who is attempting to become the first Dutch bobsledder at the Olympics in eight years.
Graham Richardson, team manager and technical driver coach for Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton, noted some of the pre-pandemic distractions, including socializing with others, have disappeared this season.
De Bruin and Bujnowski enter the weekend with a top-three Crystal Globe finish to the season in their grasp. They trail only American Elana Meyers Taylor and Laura Nolte of Germany in the two-woman world standings, while two-time Olympic champion and former Canadian teammate Kaillie Humphries is 127 points behind in fifth.
We're trying to have consistency in our races we can be proud of that I'm pretty sure will result in [an Olympic] medal.— Canadian brakeman Kristen Bujnowski on her and pilot Christine de Bruin
The two-time world bronze medallists have earned four bronze in seven events on the World Cup this season since placing third at the Beijing test event.
"We understand some weeks we're not going to be the best and some weeks we're going to be great. It's one of the things that makes us a good team," said Bujnowski, who had a breakthrough 2018-19 campaign with de Bruin winning two World Cup silver medals before capturing world bronze.
"We're trying to have consistency in our races we can be proud of that I'm pretty sure will result in [an Olympic] medal.
"We get along and have a lot of respect for each other's abilities."
"Christine had a tendency when running fast behind the sled to have a shorter stride length that would kill her velocity," Richardson said of the 32-year-old native of Stony Plain, Alta. "In her general training, she's worked at making sure the steps are more powerful. Her start times are getting better but, more importantly, the velocity's getting better.
"Christine knows when to get in the sled to let Buj accelerate. It's so technically difficult to get into the sled [to] add velocity, but working with Jamie McCartney, our push coach, they have improved a great deal.
"There's nobody they haven't beaten," continued Richardson, "so they're not going to have stage fright [at the Olympics]. Hopefully we can get into a secure, COVID-free bubble [in Beijing] and put that worry on the shelf so we can concentrate on performing and bringing [a medal] back to Canada."
Canada's Olympic bobsleigh team is scheduled to be announced Jan. 20.