PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Kaillie Humphries’ eyes started to well up as she stood beside the brakeman she recruited just six months ago, over Twitter, with a message that read something along the lines of: “Hey, do you want to come out for bobsleigh?”
“And at first, I was like you’re crazy,” said Phylicia George, the sprinter and now bobsleigh brakeman, who’s represented Canada in three Olympics, including two of the summer variety. “But I’m so happy I answered the call and came out. She’s been an amazing mentor to me, I’ve just learned so much from her, and so to be able to share this with her is amazing.”
You might think those were tears of disappointment in Humphries’ eyes. After all, we aren’t used to seeing her like this: In third, here on this biggest stage. She’s the most decorated female pilot in Olympic bobsleigh history, and she came into these Games with that familiar target on her back, as the woman to beat, and then she won bronze. But after two of four runs, she and George sat in fifth, and that’s when priorities changed. It became about clawing their way back onto that podium.
“This one’s probably the most personal one for me, the most emotional,” Humphries said, of that bronze medal. “I know how hard Phylicia and I have really had to work and how hard our team had to work to get to this position, and we earned our bronze tonight.”
They did. Despite the fact they came into those final two heats just 0.04 shy of that final podium spot, it isn’t easy to make up time on this track. Olympic rookie pilot Christine de Bruin, who drove one of three Canadian sleds in this race, talked for a good two minutes about how tough it was to make up time out there, how competitive the field was.
But, wait, did she expect Humphries to make up enough time to get onto that podium? “Of course,” de Bruin said, like it was a no-brainer. Everybody expected to see her on the podium, really, because this is Humphries’ stage, always has been. And the 31-year-old from Calgary came into Wednesday’s final two runs thinking there was a chance, but just the smallest, that she might even make it three in a row.
“You never really know,” she said, her grey-ish, blue-ish, purple-ish hair peaking out of one side of her Canada tuque. “This sport, you saw it in the men’s race, fifth went up to first. I’ve been in numerous different positions, 15 years in the sport, I’ve seen a lot happen. And I’ve just been a part of a lot of different transitions. So I never think anything is impossible. I know third was 100 per cent achievable, and first or second was going to be a longshot.”
It was, absolutely. Humphries and George finished with a four-run time of 3:22.89, a full 0.44 off the pace set by the German sled, and 0.36 back of the American sled driven by her good friend and training partner, Elana Meyers Taylor.
As she watched the Germans step onto that top podium position, Humphries smiled and she smacked her thigh with her free hand, the other occupied by a stuffed mascot. Right after they finished their run, and Humphries had bronze locked up, she reached back and hugged George, and then the pair posed for pictures and waved to Canadian fans. This wasn’t a disappointed Humphries, or if it was, she’s an exceptional actor.
“You know, we came out, the pressure was on, we knew we had to perform,” Humphries said, that mascot nestled under her left arm. “Overall, I’m really happy with my drives today, it was the right equipment choice today, so that was really good.”
Yesterday’s equipment choice, on the other hand? Not so much, she said. Humphries changed her runners for Wednesday’s final two heats. “Unfortunately, we, our entire team, made a call on equipment, what we thought was best, and it didn’t seem to yield the fastest runs yesterday,” she said. “So we knew there was a better choice and we changed to different runners today, and the speeds were much better.”
In her first run Wednesday, Humphries and George finished with their fastest time, 50.52 seconds (the quickest run of any here came from Myers-Taylor, at 50.46.) But Humphries’ final run of 50.77 was a little slower than her first run a day earlier, 50.72.
“Equipment always plays a factor,” she said. “It’s one-third of what it takes to win a race. The start, the driving and the equipment all have to be there and all have to be top notch in order to win. How much of an impact? Who knows. And we’ll never know, and that doesn’t matter. At the end of the day we’re here, we’re extremely proud of this medal tonight and we’re excited to share it with Canada.”
The two other times Humphries shared an Olympic medal with Canada, they were gold and her brakeman was Heather Moyse. On Wednesday, Moyse cruised through the media area, a tallboy of Canadian in hand, alongside Olympic rookie pilot, Alysia Rissling.
Things sure have changed. Moyse, now 39, earlier declined a request from Humphries to come back, because she felt they were too different, she thought she was done. But then Rissling, then a complete stranger to her, reached out via Instagram (social media is clearly the best recruiting tool for brakemen) and Moyse made the comeback.
The pair finished sixth and they stood there, beers in hand, finishing one another’s sentences, laughing about the old marshmallows Rissling found in Moyse’s bag at the push house in Calgary, the bag Moyse had left there for three and a half years before deciding to come back.
“I’m really excited, because she nailed that last run — it was the best run, not only of the competition [for them] but of all the training runs here, and to me, I actually kind of feel like we won,” Moyse said, laughing.
“We won our own little game, because that was our goal, so…” Rissling added.
Moyse, again: “Our goal was not outcome-based it was literally about consistency because that’s what the Games is, so for her to kind of get used to this whole thing about consistency and focusing on corners and execution. I wouldn’t let her look at any time sheets. So like whatever…”
“It was painful,” Rissling said. “Actually.”
“Almost as hard as not looking at her Instagram,” Moyse quipped.
“Almost,” Rissling said. “Maybe harder.”
Moyse, again: “It was harder.”
Yes, this was all brand new, this scene at the bobsleigh track. Moyse on a different team, off the podium but so happy about her result and her pilot and all that pilot’s potential. And Humphries, with a brakeman who will return to the track in a couple of weeks time, the two standing on the podium’s lowest step.
“I am 100 per cent OK with standing there,” Humphries said. “We worked our butts off for this position. … They say it’s about the journey and that’s 100 per cent what it’s about. Phylicia came out six months ago, and to be in this position and know that we were able to work hard, put our heads down and walk away with an Olympic medal for Canada is absolutely fantastic in any colour.”