Kaillie Humphries takes on the men

Kaillie Humphries takes on the men

Olympic bobsleigh champion ready to take on the men

By Tony Care, CBC Sports
December 19, 2014
Kaillie Humphries made history by competing in the men's four-man competition on Saturday in Calgary (Twitter) Kaillie Humphries made history by competing in the men's four-man competition on Saturday in Calgary (Twitter)

From the time she won her first Olympic bobsleigh title at the 2010 Vancouver Games, historic achievements have gravitated to Kaillie Humphries.

“I know I need to push my limits,” the Calgary pilot told CBCSports.ca.

It’s the formula that made her the first woman to defend the bobsleigh two-man gold medal in Sochi this past February, and it’s the process that has her and American driver Elana Meyers Taylor racing against the men in the four-man competition. 

They made history on Saturday in Calgary for the start of the World Cup event. Humphries finished 15th, while Meyers Taylor placed one position lower.

Always hungry for bigger challenges, Humphries pushed for changes that would see bobsleigh evolve from an “old boys club” to a “gender neutral” sport.

“I had to start at some point and I knew it was going to take a lot of convincing,” said Humphries.

She started with her coaches.

After eventually “cracking” and given their blessing to Humphries, the task of convincing bobsleigh’s governing body FIBT – and president Ivo Ferriani – was the next hurdle to overcome.

Meyers Taylor, a friend and fierce competitor of Humphries, came on board in 2013. The Sochi Olympic silver medallist had an ally in Darrin Steele, the CEO of USA Bobsled and Skeleton, and also the FIBT’s vice president of communications.

The pieces were in place. Still, could Humphries see a sport-altering decision take form so quickly?

“Not really,” she said. “I thought it was going to be a lot harder than that but really 2012 just circulating the idea and seeing what people thought.”

A unique look at Kaillie on and off the track

The official request came in May.

History was then made in September when the FIBT announced the four-man event would be open to women and mixed-gender teams.

For Humphries it was another first in an ever-growing list.

Along with a second Olympic gold medal, Humphries has the longest international winning streak of any woman (eight), and the 29-year-old pilot became the only bobsledder – male or female – to win the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada's top athlete.

Now this: a chance to put her driving skills to the ultimate test against the men.

“For me it was a lot of excitement, a little bit overwhelming initially because it was such a big announcement. You ask and you push and then you get everything that you want,” the 29 year old admitted. “Then the realization of ‘OK, this is real, now it’s put up or shut up.’”

Building a crew

The excitement was short-lived as Humphries needed to put together a four-man team, and quickly.

Canada’s top brakemen were off limits – that has to be earned. Those spots are currently reserved for pilots Justin Kripps and Chris Spring.

Enter Calgary’s D.J. McLelland, Joey Nemet of Hamilton, Ont., and Dan Dale of Grande Prairie, Alta. All are World Cup rookies and part of Team Humphries.


World Cup circuit

There was still the matter of qualifying for the World Cup circuit.

The team competed in four North American Cup developmental events, highlighted by a silver medal in Calgary in November – another first. Meyers Taylor earned a bronze.

Considering Humphries had only driven a four-man bobsled three times prior to the FIBT’s announcement, her achievement in Calgary was impressive.

On Dec. 7, Humphries and her crew officially qualified for the World Cup season at the European Cup in La Plagne, France despite finishing 17th.

“To do it on a World Cup circuit is different,” Humphries explained. “You have limited runs, everybody is watching and it’s not a time to learn. So I’ve asked for this, now we have to make it happen.

“But at the same point, I’ve got a great team and great support behind me. And the guys that I have on my crew…it’s been amazing over these last races to watch them grow as well as me.”

Learning curve

Chris Lebihan, Bobsleigh Canada’s high performance director, has no doubt Humphries can thrive against the men but cautions for patience, especially with this being her first year on tour.

“Kaillie is one of the top women pilots in the world, two Olympic gold medals proves that,” said Lebihan.

“There is a learning curve to driving the four-man which we believe she will adjust to quickly. However a significant challenge may come from switching between the two disciplines. Switching between two-man and four-man sleds during a race week takes time and experience to master.”


TIMELINE: Kaillie Humphries' remarkable bobsleigh career

From left to right, D.J. McLelland, Dan Dale, Joey Nemet make up three quarters of Team Humphries. (Twitter) From left to right, D.J. McLelland, Dan Dale, Joey Nemet make up three quarters of Team Humphries. (Twitter)

Given her fiery competitive nature, Humphries has lofty goals for the upcoming season. Aside from maintaining her dominance in the women’s two-man, she hopes to place among the top 15 male drivers in the four-man competition.

That’s Kaillie Humphries.

Every decision has a purpose, even when its going up against her male counterparts.

She wants a progression that will place her in the top 10 in the second year, followed by a top-six finish in Year 3.

By 2018 – the Olympic year – Humphries can visualize another seminal podium run.

“I think with the No. 1 crew and top guys, you know if I can get a Lascelles Brown or a Jesse Lumsden with Cody Sorensen and Ben Coakwell in the back, going down the track with those huge guys I actually think it’s possible," she said.

Proving her worth

First, Humphries must prove to Canada’s best brakemen that she can handle the No. 1 sled.

As Lebihan pointed out, going from a two-man to a four-man sled does present challenges.

Think of a two-man sled like a sports car: more maneuverability, easier to steer and better recovery.

In four-man you have double the weight, which keeps the sled stable.

That's the good news.

“The pressures are a lot greater,” said Humphries. “From a pilot’s perspective you can feel the pressure and you can work with it a little bit more as you’re driving.”

However, good luck getting that monster back under control if the pilot strays off-line.


No joke

Humphries, who hopes a separate women’s four-man competition happens by the 2022 Winter Olympics, hasn’t received much resistance from her male counterparts.

Admittedly, that may change once she consistently challenges for podium finishes or wins.

For now, she’ll get the odd joke from some of the older drivers, but for the most part the bobsleigh community has been supportive of her and Meyers Taylor.

But this is still about competition.

And with all things being equal – top sled, best brakeman – Humphries has a blunt message for her male friends.

“I’m as good as any of the other guys, if not better."

After all she's accomplished it would be foolish to doubt her.

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