Player's Own Voice

Transcript: Player's Own Voice Podcast with Cynthia Appiah

Bobsleigh Pilot discusses disputes within her national sporting organization, her recent olympic events, and the experience of being a black athlete and leader in winter sports, where recruiting and promoting diverse athletes is an ongoing challenge.

episode published March 24 2022

Player's Own Voice podcast transcript: Cynthia Appiah 

 

Anastasia:

Winter sports are winding down, but there are always good reasons to chat with Bobsled pilot Cynthia Appiah. For starters:  She can help us understand what's behind the increasingly public turmoil in her sports federation. She is living proof that Winter sports don't just need to attract more BIPOC athletes, they also have to remove glass ceilings for those already in the game. She is one of those rare leaders who dares to be open and honest about her own shortcomings. And finally- Her obsession with the quiz show Jeopardy? You'll have to stick around for the daily double.

It's Player's Own Voice. I'm  Anastasia Bucsis.

{MUSIC}

So let's get the elephant out of the room, this obviously, is a podcast about you, but bobsled Canada skeleton finding themselves in some pretty hot water. Scenes of allegations. Lots of trouble. It's become quite public. I'll just start easy, I suppose. What do you want to say about that situation?

Cynthia Appiah: I mean, I don't even know what to say that hasn't already been said. The athletes are just frustrated, myself included. I've seen how in the seven years that I've been on the team, I was on the team in 2015, but I was on the periphery, sliding for Ontario in late 2013, early 2014. So I've been in the sport for a long time and I've seen how things have just gotten worse in that timeframe. I know there was like this whole media campaign right after 2018 to talk about the change in culture within the team. And I would say that on the athletes side, between repairing some of the relationships between different teams within the athletes side of things, namely the men's and women's team, I would say it's been a pretty good successful change.

There are still some there's still some work that needs to be done. Nothing is going to be perfect. You're dealing with many, many years, I would say, even decades of toxic culture that's just been entrenched within bobsleigh and skeleton in Canada. But I think we started to make amends after 2018 but it stopped pretty much there. I would say staff and athletes, the relationship has either been stagnated or has gotten worse. We've seen, you know, headlines from 2010. Obviously, that's a different discipline. That's luge. But we saw what happened within Vancouver 2010 with the luging accident. And you know, bobsleigh isn't that much different in terms of the dangers of the sport. Obviously, we're a little bit more protected with our sleds, but you know, concussion is a big thing that we're talking about right now. You know, injuries do happen. And at the bare minimum, you want to be treated like a human being that's respected and valued. And I can say that there are very few people who can wake up every morning and say that they feel like they are a valued member of Bobsleigh Canada skeleton.

Anastasia :  There's over 80 athletes that have signed this petition against bobsleigh skel. Am I right to assume that your signature is on that list?

Cynthia Appiah: Yeah, I think it's pretty evident given how vocal I've been, that I am one of the signatories and I know there was a lot of apprehension when I was approached to sign on because there's just a lot of fear built in, whether it's, you know, you know, they don't outwardly come out and say, you know, you're off the team If you come out and speak against us. You know, it's never that overt. It's never that in-your-face. But you know, the environment that you're in and you see how other athletes are treated internally when you know, the internal mechanisms that are created by BCSs are used and utilised, you know, the retribution shows up in all of a sudden you're no longer going on on a trip somewhere or you're, you know, last minute decisions are made and you're left off of one team and you're put on a lower circuit. Resources are removed from you. So now you are no longer allowed to have your sled worked on because it's a policy just came out of nowhere saying, Yeah, you own your own sled, you don't get your sled fixed anymore. Athletes are seen….they are no longer seen in a favourable light within BCS.

Anastasia :  So is the missing piece or the weak link, the governance?

Cynthia Appiah: I would say it is the governance because after eight years of running the show, if it's this broken and this, many athletes are willing to step forward and say, This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong. We've gone about it this way and that way. And you know, the goalposts keep being moved. At what point do you just go, OK, we've exhausted all resources. We need to start afresh and the athletes have, you know, held up their end of the bargain. But the governance, you know, the leaders of these years have not held up onto their end of the bargain. So where else do you go other than saying, OK, the spotlight is back on you, you need to resign or you need to be removed from your position because clearly what you're doing isn't working anymore.

Anastasia :  Athletes are the ones that always push for change, like it's just always the athletes and you're, of course, a leader on this team. How have you picked up your voice in this situation?

Cynthia Appiah: I've been vocal. I've obviously had a big spotlight going into these games, and naturally that spotlight has stayed on. And so I'm one of the first few people that I guess my door gets knocked on when a story within the sport of bobsleigh comes to light. And so I've been a very vocal person in this case, somewhat reluctantly, because there's still that big fear of retribution. I don't know what's going to happen, but I know that if things don't change, I might have a very limited career.

[music]

Anastasia :  Should we talk about Beijing then?

Cynthia Appiah: Yeah, sure. Let's talk about Beijing,

Anastasia :  is it in the rear-view enough to look at it with clarity?

Cynthia Appiah: I'm still trying to come to terms with my monobob performance, my two women performance, even though I finished in the exact same spot, I finished in eighth in both events. I was so ecstatic with two women, especially after that third run where I dumped it in quite possibly the weirdest spot to crash. And I was just like, What the heck? I'm like, I'm not going to end on on this and I'm not going to have this. Oh, woe is me mentality. I was I was mad, though, like, I'm not even going to pretend that I was just like, Oh, well, you know, little tumble.

I genuinely was concerned that I would fall several spots. The point of that run was to try and eat up the deficit that I had of the slots ahead of me because we weren't that too far off. And I was like, Hey, maybe I move up into seventh, maybe I move up into sixth. And to have a top six result at my first Olympic Games would be amazing. But when I crashed, I was like, I was like, That's it. It's over. I'm going to fall back, probably from the top 10. And then there I go. My Olympics will be defined by me crashing out on the third run.

Thankfully, and weirdly enough, I did not fall back and I just ended up being squarely in the mix of like my other two runs. So it was a nearly consistent run, which kind of still makes it a little frustrating because it's like : that's how good of a run it was that it wasn't. It was my slowest run, but only by a slight margin, and I think I lost about three tenths in the crash. But, you know, I know that for Dawn, I had to put on a brave face and be like, Listen, we're not going to end on a bad note. We're going to have a good solid run. And I had a really good solid run up until I panicked again and and almost made the same mistake, but didn't. And so, yeah, I was really happy with my two women results.

But monobob is still hard to come over because of how awesome my World Cup season was. I had several podium finishes. I didn't finish lower than fifth place. So to go into these games knowing that, you know, having that in mind, I had finished third in the test event back in October. I had finished third overall in World Cup standings. I was like, OK, I have a really great shot of medaling and I have a really great shot of even winning it. And after run one, that pretty much set the tone. And I think I just lost a lot of faith in myself. That race is something that I'm going to have to go back and not make those same mistakes again. And I'm looking at it as a ….not a silver lining. I guess you could say a silver lining where it's like, okay now I know what not to do at the Olympic Games when when things aren't going the way you have set them out to be. But yeah, the plan is to carry those lessons on towards 2026 and hopefully, yeah, come out on top and execute a racing plan that I'm happy with.

Anastasia :  How long did it take you to get to that realisation that you're still in it for another four years ?

Cynthia Appiah: After, like right after I finished the two of and race, I was like, Nope, not done. Not then. Yeah, I was just like, I am not ending it on that. And realistically, it would be stupid of me to to be like 'I went to Beijing. Okay bye, I am done' because this past season was my first season on World Cup. I've had like little spurts of World Cup races here and there, I was able to do World Championships in the year before. But I'm now just starting to come into my own as a pilot and really solidifying myself as no longer being a developing pilot, but also just a World Cup pilot and one whose name will hopefully be on the podium for many, many years to come. And so I'm not done yet. Like, I think there's so much left for me to discover about what I can do about where, how far I can push myself and the next four years, should be an interesting quad and I think it'll be a fun quad. If you know I just trust in myself and in my abilities.

Anastasia :  I love it because you've said so, you know, wonderfully, it's not just necessarily about  attracting new people into the sport, you know, attracting BIPOC people to the sport. There does seem to be a glass ceiling for BIPOC drivers and you just said it: I'm not a developing pilot. I'm here to win.

Cynthia Appiah: Yeah, people will say it. I'll I don't know. I think it's just the kind of person that I am that I'm more inclined to, I don't know, be modest about it, I guess, because I know I'm fully aware of what I represent, and I don't want to diminish that, but I also don't want to make myself to be more important than I actually am, especially given what's going on in the world right now, I don't want to make it seem like, you know, I am the greatest that ever was or anything like that. But I'm also, like I said very well, very well aware of what I represent. And you know, my goals going into these games was to try and dispel a lot of the myths and a lot of the stereotypes that, yeah, BIPOC athletes are facing day in and day out like I saw in an article the other day about these two girls that were trying to be a representation of BIPOC women on the ski hill.

And one girl was wearing a sari one. And the other girl, I think, was wearing traditional Aboriginal clothing and she was like, We are here. We're snowboarding, we're skiing. We're doing things that the mainstream doesn't necessarily showcase. And so we're going to do it ourselves, and I feel like I kind of fall in line with that. The mainstream doesn't necessarily showcase what know black people are capable of doing or BIPOC people are capable of doing. You know, I've heard so many times that black people don't do this. That's just not what we do or that's just not what they do. And again, I want to dispel that. Like, why is it that people believe that? Why is it that people don't believe that black people don't go camping or go hiking just because you meet one person who doesn't do it doesn't mean that that's the, you know, the answer for all black people. I personally don't like camping. I personally don't like hiking.

Anastasia :  I was going to say, Do you like camping? I love camping!

Cynthia Appiah: I am such a city girl. Like, it's not even funny. Like, I even remember a few years or many, many years ago in 2015, my family and I, we all went back to Ghana and had like a family vacation there. We went to go visit our grandma's farm, and I was just like, No, I could never do this. And I know it's not camping, but it's rural enough that I was just like, Yeah, I I am the very being of what I didn't want to be. I am my own nightmare, you know? Oh, jeez, she's a city slicker. I'm like, Oh, you know what? I'm going to hold that name with pride now. So, yeah, I hate camping. I hate I hate hiking. And the hiking part is just more laziness. I'm like, Why am I going to exert myself more than I need to? It's such an athlete thing to say.

Anastasia :  Amen, amen I'm there with you!

Cynthia Appiah:  Yeah, just because I'm one black person who doesn't do that. I know many, my sisters love camping and hiking, right? Like I know BIPOC people who that's their very existence, that's their character trait is to do these things that people say they don't do. I mean, if I just am a part of that narrative to help dispel those myths, I'm I feel like I'm doing a great job.

Anastasia :  You are. And as an ally, I thank you, my friend.

[music]

You mentioned her name. Dawn, your brakewoman. Your brakeperson. You came eighth and monobob became eight with her. You said you were a little bit happier with the two women, of course. But how was that partnership shaping up with Dawn?

Cynthia Appiah: This year I think was a pivotal year in our relationship. So Dawn started at the beginning of this quarter in 2018. Yeah, she didn't look the part of a bobsledder, but I've come to learn that that phrase needs to be burned from sport. Doesn't look like a bobsled or what does a bobsledder look like? We all come from different sports and backgrounds and different shapes and sizes. That's the beauty of bobsleigh, is that, you know, you not you may not even realise how well your character traits or your physicality traits from one sport can carry over into bobsleigh. And she dispelled all myths when she first came in.

She was super fast, super strong, despite being, I think, like sixty five kilos at the time, and the average female bobsledder is about 75 to 80 kilos. I say 80 because that's where I'm at and I make myself feel better!  (laughs) I knew when she first came in, I was like, I want that girl to be in the back of my sled. When I switched over to piloting, I was like, Dawn's the girl for me because she's light enough and fast enough and strong enough to push a sled as she compliments me where my weakness is, I have no top end speed, and that is definitely her forte. My strength is getting the sled out of the hole, as we say, so I can't get the sled moving right out of the gate and she can just cycle behind me and just increase that velocity that I can't seem to manifest, yet.

And so I was very fortunate enough in years two and three of this quad where I got to race with her a couple of times. And then this year, I finally got her on my team as my brake woman, and I was like, this is great. But I also learnt a lot about myself because, you know, when you're the pilot, you're the de facto leader of your sled and you've got to work through so many emotions and work through so many people because you have your two girls, Dawn, was my recent brakeman, Niamh was my most, my alternate. And we're all three different personalities. We got to work together and there are moments where I will be honest I didn't hold up my end of the bargain by being a great team leader, and it wasn't like I did or said anything where I was just like, Whoa, you're off base. It's just like, you know, being open and vulnerable is something that I struggle with, as she called me out on that. And I'm thankful that she did, because I think it made me a better pilot and made me a better person, and it made our relationship better. We had a lot of ups and downs this season, but we came to a point where we addressed those issues that we had internally and it made us that much stronger. And I felt so confident going into the games with her because I was like, there's no other person I would want in the back of my slide right siding with me at these games.

Anastasia :  Whenever anyone says vulnerable, I'm like, I have to have a follow up. Do you think as a human, you just struggle to be vulnerable? Or do you think that there is any relation to the fact that you were a brave person that you know, was an alternate and I can only imagine was incredibly traumatic for twenty eighteen and knowing that you are in a position of power now being a pilot?

Cynthia Appiah: That's a very good question. I think it's a bit of both. I think like I'm a weird person. I think that's just the way we're all we are and we're all aware. I think it's just I've grown up with such a I grew up as a tomboy, and so I think I just embodied certain attributes where I didn't let my emotions get the better of me. And so I didn't show those emotions. And I think at times I've been told, you know, you can be standoffish or you're hard to read or you're hard to approach, especially when people can tell on my face that I'm not happy. But I'm just again when I say I'm a weird person, it's like, I know what I'm thinking and I'm like, I think that I'm like, You should be able to tell what's going on with me. Why don't you know what's going on? And it's like, Well, you haven't told them, you know, that's why. So, you know, I've I've been the kind of person to try and bury things and just push past and just move on to the next topic or focus on something so that I don't get distracted by what's actually bothering me.

But, you know, that's obviously not healthy, and it eventually just comes up at the most inopportune moments when, you know, that's not what actually is causing you to be upset, but it's like everything else that's kind of come up at the same point. But on the other side, you know, as a pilot having this like power now and you know, any pilot who kind of says I don't have any power isn't being truthful. There's a hierarchy in the sport of bobsleigh, and a lot of the power kind of stems from, you know, the pilot gets a lot of the media attention. You also have the reins literally in your hands. You kind of want to be seen as that strong, solid leader, so you don't want to let up when things are going wrong. And so again, that's where you internalise everything and you try and be the problem fixer when things are going wrong within the team. But yeah, I don't know that vulnerability piece for sure, is something that I need to work on, because if people can come to me, I should. I should feel like I can be comfortable enough to go back to them. And yeah, in my own weird, weird little head, I have issues with that.

 

Anastasia :  well, sounds like Dawn's a great partner, though. If she can trust you enough to call you out to, that is pretty special. As much as it can be uncomfortable.

 

Cynthia Appiah: Yeah. And and just like follow up on that, it's because I always felt like when I was a brake woman, I could never go to my pilot to confide in them whenever I felt they had done me wrong. And I, I always make it a point. I'm like whenever I do something, you gotta let me know because I got to know that I've made a mistake, but I also want to be given that chance to rectify it as well.

[music]

Anastasia :  What does a typical off season look like for a dedicated bobsledder? Well, I mean, there must be like visualisation and psychological recovery and strength work. What does that look like for you?

Cynthia Appiah: I don't want to speak out of turn for someone else, but I feel like the general thing is like the first month off, you are just away from everyone. Like, especially this past season where we did not come home for Christmas, we didn't come home for much time. Like I think we had five days. I had five days after the Beijing test event before we travelled back to Europe again. You know, you're around each other for a long time, week in and week out. You're around the same people. You're rooming with the same people, and at some point you're just like counting down the days till when you can go home. You know, I enjoy being around my team-mates, but I'm pretty sure everyone will agree. At some point you're just like, I need to get away from you people. Yeah, yeah. You know?

I feel like most winter sports are similar in the sense that like you're on a tour and you're just moving spot to spot and that tour life living out of suitcase, eating the same food. Nothing against European food. But when you're eating it for like 12 weeks straight, you kind of just miss home. So for me, the first month is just gorging on North American food and North American style food. I'm from Toronto. Toronto has a bustling food scene, so it's just like eating more than I should. Throwing the scale away because I know it's going to be a number I don't want to see. And then just, you know, chilling, relaxing, not even thinking about bobsleigh. And then, you know, right around April, you start picking things back up again with sprinting or, sorry, with conditioning. So a lot of base work. And then, yeah, things pick back up soon after that, where you do some sprinting, weightlifting, plyometrics, that's the bulk of our training and then head out to Calgary push in the ice house and do that on repeat until the season starts in about November.

Anastasia :  You're a massive Jeopardy fan. Where does that factor in in this recovery?

Cynthia Appiah: Oh man. So my sisters and I have a box and we record jeopardy even on nights that we do watch it. And having been away for so long, having been in Europe since October or since November, essentially I have a lot of episodes to catch up on. There were so many, like long term winners where they were like historic winners that I missed out on all of their streaks and I'm like, I need to go back and watch this stuff now:

Anastasia :  Well, I think, you know, we've had a great conversation here, but I want to end with two little jeopardy questions for you.

Cynthia Appiah: Bring it on.

Anastasia :  And you know what? I honestly said I thought about you and Alex Trebek passed away. Rest in peace. Because I know you truly are like the largest jeopardy fan I've ever met my entire life.

Cynthia Appiah: Yeah, I remember like, I was getting ready for a race, actually. I think we were in Whistler and I got a message from this girl that,  I personally don't know her. But she is like a huge bobsleigh fan and I always engage with her whenever she comments on my stories. And she sent me the link and I didn't know what the link was because it was one of those shortened ones. But she was like, Oh no!  and a bunch of crying emojis and I was like, Uh Oh, and then I clicked it, and I saw that it said he had passed away. I called my sister,  I called my mom, and they're like, We know we're just about to call you. So like, our whole family was devastated because it was a family thing for us, and it still is a family thing for us.

Anastasia :  All right. Well, for all the marbles, daily double. Actually, we've got two questions. This duo won the first woman's gold for bobsleigh in 2002.

Cynthia Appiah: Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers.

Anastasia :  Yeah, OK, that was for two hundred. Let's go for 800 now. She is the most decorated black athlete in Winter Olympic history.

Cynthia Appiah: Elana Meyers Taylor, who I personally am trying to follow in her footsteps because she is like, Yeah, she is like my, my mentor. I say I have a lot of mentors, but she has been so solid this past season with helping me. But yeah, I know the answer is Elena Meyers Taylor.

Anastasia :  Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. Also, I kind of like I'm a fangirl. She emailed me out of the blue to say: Hey, thanks for doing this podcast and giving athletes a voice, and so I got to have her on.

Cynthia Appiah: You have to. She is legit. She has been in the sport since Vancouver and like, she's just she's just an amazing human being.  I really do look up to her and I literally am following in her blueprints. A little unsuccessfully because she just out the gate has been winning medal after medal, after all. But yeah, she's yeah, she's definitely someone I look up to all the time.

Anastasia :  Cynthia, it is always such a pleasure to see your face and watch you compete. And I think we're due for a beer, my friend.

Cynthia Appiah: Oh, thank you so much. I really do appreciate you having a podcast like this because I mean, there's so many ways to tell athletes stories, but this is, I think, one of the best ways to do it.

Anastasia :  Thank you. I'm going to clip that soundbite and just send it to my bosses..

Cynthia Appiah:( laughs )

Anastasia :  peace.

[music]

Even though she didn't give us jeopardy answers in the form of a question…it was good to chat with Cynthia She and I were both at our homes  in Toronto.

Players Own Voice podcast is a cbc sports production. We're available on CBC Listen and everywhere else you get your podcasts Social media?  #playersownvoice.  My handle is Anastasure. Olivia Pasquarelli edits our audio. Adam Blinov wrote our theme music.  David Giddens is our producer. Thanks for listening... 

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