Jane Channell turns heartbreaking loss into Olympic inspiration

Jane Channell has been hooked on the "crazy" sport of skeleton for a decade and a half. But it was the tragic, sudden death of her boyfriend eight years ago that really set her on the path to the Olympics.

Canadian skeleton athlete honours her late boyfriend through her sport

As she sets her sights on making it to her first Olympics this winter, Jane Channell draws strength from the memory of her late boyfriend, Bernd Dittrich. (Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images)

By Devin Heroux, CBC Sports

Jane Channell has been hooked on the "crazy" sport of skeleton for a decade and a half. But it was the tragic, sudden death of her boyfriend eight years ago that really set her on the path to the Olympics.

"I first saw skeleton on TV in 2002 [at the Salt Lake City Games]," Channell says. "I was watching with my grandpa and he turned to me and said, 'they're crazy.'" — a common reaction to a sport where athletes slide head-first down an icy track at speeds of more than 120 kilometres an hour.

"I knew from right then that I needed to try it. Not to spite him, but because he said it was crazy I knew I needed to do it."

All these years later, Channell, 29, is carving out at a career in the sport. She's reached the World Cup podium three times, including a silver this season at Whistler, B.C., and now she's competing in her first Olympic Games.

If that moment with her grandpa in 2002 was the beginning of Channell's skeleton journey, it was a romance that began a few years later that would provide the fuel for it.

Hurtling down an icy track at speeds of more than 120 kilometres an hour, Channell has devoted herself to a sport her grandfather called "crazy." (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Boy next door

He was the star quarterback on the football team. She was the track and field athlete and softball standout.

Bernd Dittrich, from Vienna, Austria, and Jane Channell, from North Vancouver, B.C., found themselves living across the hall from one another in a Simon Fraser University dorm in September 2007.

Soon after they bonded over sports, Jane and Bernd became an inseparable pair. (Jane Channell)

"I always had my door open and he always had his door open. It all started one day by him throwing his football in my room," recalls Channell. "He was trying to get my attention. Because I played softball I was pretty good at throwing it back. We probably had some throwing matches in those dorm rooms."

Throwing led to dating. Soon, the two were inseparable — more than just boyfriend and girlfriend.

"He was also my best friend," Channell says. "He would make you feel like you're on top of the world. Like nothing else mattered."

For two years they bonded over their love of sports. Channell imagined spending the rest of their lives together. Then the unthinkable happened.

Dittrich had been swimming laps in the campus pool, part of his rehab from a shoulder injury, before he was found unconscious at the bottom of the pool. He was rushed to hospital, where he died the next morning, Remembrance Day 2009. It was later determined that Dittrich had a previously undetected heart condition.

"It was devastating," says Channell, wiping away tears. "He had the motto to dream big. If it wasn't for him I wouldn't be here doing any of this. I would have been content with graduating university, getting a job and leaving sport."

If you look closely, you can see the number 7 etched on the front of Channell's helmet, near her chin — a tribute to Dittrich. (Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Close to her heart

Instead of folding under the immense loss, Channell decided to do what she felt Dittrich would have wanted her to do. Drawing additional inspiration from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, which took place just months after his death, she reached out to Bobsleigh Canada about joining the program. They told her she'd have to gain about 30 pounds for the sport. That wasn't going to happen, so she instead turned to that sport her grandpa found so "crazy."

"My first [skeleton] run was in Whistler in 2011. There are 16 corners on that track but we only went from corner 11," Channell recalls. "It more or less feels like a glorified waterslide. But it was a big enough rush and a feeling of, Oh my gosh, what did I just do? I need to that again."

"I still have that feeling. The butterflies. The buzz. I still get that."

And she still keeps Dittrich close to her heart. Every day Channell wears a necklace featuring two wings and the number seven — nods to Dittrich's football jersey number and the way he made Channell feel like she was soaring.

"When I have a bad run I talk to him," she says. "I ask him to please help me fly."

The design on her racing helmet also contains a tribute to Dittrich.

"[The designers] put the number seven on the front because it's the closest thing to my heart when I race," Channell says.

As Channell competes in the Olympics, she's carrying everything Dittrich meant to her into her race. He used to go over his football pre-game pep talks with her, practicing the speech in her room. She can still almost hear his voice, giving her an Olympic pep talk as she prepares for the most meaningful races of her life.

"He would say something to make me laugh. And then something sincere and motivating. He gave me the courage to dream that anything is possible."