Helen Upperton - Wednesday Feb. 19, 2014 15:53

Kaillie Humphries has women's bobsled in golden era

Sport has grown over past decade

Kaillie Humphries, Heather Moyse redefine bobsled
Canada’s Kaillie Humphries, left, and Heather Moyse have redefined the sport of women’s bobsleigh. (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

There are three factors that make a great bobsleigh team: 1. A fast push 2. A great pilot 3. Fast equipment.

Very rarely will you see someone achieve a lot of success in this sport without all three pieces of the puzzle. You can sometimes get away with two out of the three but it makes winning very hard, especially in a four-heat competition like the Olympics.

Over the past two season, Kaillie Humphries has really solidified herself as the "favorite" in women's bobsleigh. She had the fastest starts with Heather Moyse on the back of her sled at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, where the two won gold on home soil.

Since then, Kaillie has gone on to win numerous World Cup medals and two world championship titles with two different brakemen, Jenny Ciochetti and Chelsea Valois. Coming in to these Olympics Games, Kaillie and Heather were everyone's pick for the gold medal. They didn't disappoint, winning a historic gold medal on Wednesday. 

It is a true changing of the guard in women's bobsleigh, a sport that has for the most part been dominated by the Germans since its debut at the Olympic Games in 2002.

But the Germans have a big problem now. They are so far behind the North Americans that they are struggling to catch up. It's also the second straight Olympic Games that North Americans have swept the Olympic podium. Elana Meyers and Lauryn Williams, along with compatriots Jamie Greubel and Aja Evans, took silver and bronze, respectively.

Humphries, Moyse queens of the track

It's an idea that seemed unfathomable only a few years ago. The truth is Kaillie had everything she needed to win. After a two-year break, Heather was back, giving the team great starts, maybe not the fastest in the competition but close enough to give them a fighting chance, especially if you consider Kaillie has four more years of driving experience than Meyers.

This week, however, Meyers had a little trick up her sleeve. That trick is a sprinter named Lauryn Williams. At only five-foot-three, Lauryn is the smallest athlete in the women's bobsleigh competition. But don't feel sorry for her; she's a two-time Olympic medallist for the U.S. in the 4x100 metres. Fast is an understatement. Meyers and Williams broke the start record twice on Tuesday.

Lauryn is one of many summer Olympians competing in the women's bobsleigh event, and she is in good company. Hanna Marion from Belgium is a 4x100 Olympic gold medallist. Olga Stulneva, the top Russian pilot, is an Olympic silver medallist in the 4x100.

Australian brakeman Jana Pittman is a two-time Olympian and a two-time world champion in the 400m hurdles. And last but not least there is Lolo Jones, who has two summer Olympics under her belt and three world championship medals in the 60m and 100m hurdle events. If you ask me, that is a pretty impressive group of athletes.

Most of the teams actively recruit athletes to try the sport of bobsleigh, especially the Americans and Canadians. The best sports to draw from are from track and field, football and rugby, where power and speed are prominently featured.

This recruiting process was the reason why both Kaillie and I had such incredible brakemen on our sleds in Vancouver four years ago. And trust me, we couldn't have won those medals without those fast starts.

Heather is a very gifted multi-sport athlete who has also competed for the national rugby team, and did a brief stint with the Canadian track cycling team. She had hip surgery in November of 2012 and came back to bobsleigh five months before the Sochi Olympics to push the fastest she ever has in her life at 35 years old.

The calibre of athletes in women's bobsleigh has been improving at such a fast rate it's hard to comprehend.

Numbers don't lie

If we take a look at the numbers it becomes even more obvious. Women's bobsleigh had its debut at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.

The women's start times were far behind the men — half a second, to be precise. In Turin in 2006, the difference between the fastest male push and fastest female push was 0.40 of a second.

In Vancouver, the margin was 0.36, and in Sochi, the difference between Meyers and Williams' newly acquired start record, and the fastest two-man team from Latvia, was .34.

The gap is obviously closing.

Pushing fast requires an interesting combination of speed, strength and power, all done with a frame large enough to suit the sport.

The sled has a minimum weight, 170 kilograms for both men and women. This means that the women are pushing the same weight as the men, a feat that takes immense strength and power.

The maximum weight of the sled and the athletes in women's bobsleigh is 340kg, compared to 390kg for the men.

The officials weigh each team at the end of the run. The goal is for the team and sled to be as close to maximum weight as possible (340kg) and be able to push their sled at minimum weight (170kg). That would mean the optimal weight for each female in the sled is just under 85kg.

So lets go back to our three pieces of the puzzle. The drivers improve with every season and with every run. The equipment must be competitive with the best in the world. It is obvious to me that the that the reason the North American contingent has become so successful in women's bobsleigh is because of the brakemen.

They are the unsung heroes in this sport and without them, continued or consistent success is impossible. Perhaps the Germans should reconsider their recruiting methods. If they take a chapter out of the Canadian or American books, they will go out and find some of their top internationally-ranked summer athletes and convince them to switch sports, if only temporarily.

When people ask me what Kaillie and Heather have to do to win, the answer is simple: just what they have always done — push fast and drive well. These days, when the Canadian women are at their best, they are very tough to beat, as Sochi proved.

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