Humphries 1st to drive a 4-woman sled against men

Kaillie Humphries made history early in 2016 when she headed the first ever 4-woman bobsled team. Her goal is to have a 4-woman division in bobsled by the time she retires from the sport.

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Canadian Kaillie Humphries drove her sled across the finish line Saturday, then raised her right hand and waved to the crowd of boisterous well-wishers as she slowed to a stop.

Last place was hers, but so was history.

The two-time Olympic women’s champion from Calgary — wearing socks bearing the phrase "girl power" — became the first person to drive an all-female team against men in a four-person World Cup bobsled race. Humphries and sledmates Cynthia Appiah of Toronto, Genevieve Thibault of Quebec City and Melissa Lotholz of Barrhead, Alta., finished last in the 17-sled field at Mount Van Hoevenberg by a huge margin, and weren’t disappointed in the least.

"It was a lot of fun," Humphries said. "For us, step one was everybody getting in and being successful in a racing atmosphere.

"You’ve got to start somewhere and we did that. At the end of it, it’s sport. As high-performance as it gets, and I’ve seen the highest peaks possible, it’s sport and if you’re not having fun, why are you doing it?"

Humphries finished 4.77 seconds — an absolutely enormous margin in a sliding sport — behind winner Maximilian Arndt of Germany, posted a time of one minute, 49.70 seconds and moved past countryman Francesco Friedrich for the series points lead. Russia’s Alexander Kasjanov was second, 0.28 seconds off the pace in 1:49.98.

Justin Kripps of Summerland, B.C., was third in 1:50.07.

Many of the sliders from other countries congratulated the Canadian women afterward though Humphries — who has driven against men before, albeit with men also in her sled — didn’t surprise anyone with her ability to get down the demanding Lake Placid track.

"She’s a great driver," said American Steven Holcomb, who finished eighth. "It’s just like driving a bigger car. It’s not like she can’t drive a truck. People make it a bigger deal than it should be. It’s great. It’s really good for the sport."

The reason Humphries knew winning or contending wasn’t an option Saturday has nothing to do with her skills. It’s simple physics: The combined weight of her sled and crew was about 300 pounds less than most of the other sleds, meaning there was no way they could generate the speed and momentum the others could.

The first 16 sleds in the field were separated by 2.10 seconds. The gap between Britain’s John James Jackson in 16th and Humphries in 17th was an additional 2.67 seconds.

"To be the first one is cool, but at the end of the day, I’m not doing it to be the first one," Humphries said. "I’m doing it because it challenges myself to be a better pilot, to have something else to look forward to, something fun."

Thibault agreed.

"It was a lot of fun, but I was definitely stressed about loading into the sled because we didn’t get a lot of practice heading into the race," she said.

Thibault and Appiah were both making their first World Cup start.

"I didn’t know my first race would be four-man," Thibault said with a chuckle. "It is a lot different loading in the third spot than at the back so it will continue to take some practice.

"I just hope this is going to motivate other girls to try it as well because it would be great to eventually have a full women’s field."

Humphries and American Elana Meyers Taylor have been the loudest voices in a quest to add a four-woman division. Men have two- and four-man racing, while women’s races have always been with just two in the sled. Part of that is because few women, until now, have expressed interest in driving a four-person sled, and part of it is some countries simply don’t have enough women on their teams to fill a bigger sled.

But Humphries and Meyers Taylor were cleared to drive in men’s races last year, a breakthrough they think could eventually help the women’s side of the sport grow in a big way.

"I think it’s huge," Meyers Taylor, who’s currently sidelined because of complications from a concussion, said of Humphries’ showing Saturday. "It’s something we’ve needed to do and somebody had to take the step forward. Hopefully it starts showing that all-women crews can do this, all-women teams can do this, especially on one of the hardest tracks in the world like Lake Placid."

Humphries said her goal is to see a four-woman division by the time she leaves the sport. The odds of that probably aren’t great, but then again, no one two years ago would have thought something like what she did Saturday was realistic either.

"Step by step," Humphries said. "We’re going to do what we can to show the world, show ourselves and show every girl out there that they can do whatever they set their hearts to."

Kripps was third with a newly formed team of Calgary’s Derek Plug, Saskatoon’s Ben Coakwell and Alex Kopacz of London, Ont.

"It feels amazing," said Kripps, who was fourth in the two-man event Friday. "We had good training Wednesday where the sled was going pretty quick and the boys were pushing good so I was optimistic about today.

"I was just looking for a season best finish, but we had big push times and that was the difference. Big starts mean big velocity which is key to getting on the podium."

Kripps earned his third World Cup medal but first in the four-man event.

"This is just a great day for the whole program," he said. "To be able to provide more optimism that we can medal in four man if we put everything together.

"We can always be improving – whether it is the driving, the starts, and the equipment – but this shows if we get everything working at the same time we can have success."

Calgary’s Chris Spring finished 12th in 1:51.20. Sam Giguere of Sherbrooke, Que., a receiver with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, was a member of Spring’s squad.