Teammates, rivals are one and the same for Canadian bobsleigh athletes in Beijing

In bobsleigh, as with most Olympic sports, your teammates double as rivals.

You may train with them and share coaches with them and wear the same uniform as them. But come race day, they’re your competition.

It’s why the controversial departure of former Canadian bobsledder Kaillie Humphries to the U.S. following the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics is mostly shrugged off.

“Even if I was on Team Canada now, we would have been competitors,” Humphries said in a recent interview with CBC Sports.

“We have been all fighting and competing against each other. I’ve always competed against [Canada’s] Christine [de Bruin]. So that is no different.

“The colour on my jacket, the flag I represent is different. But the feelings associated with it and the mentality is the exact same.”

How Canada’s women’s bobsledders fare against Humphries, and whether Canadian Justin Kripps can keep pace with German rival Francesco Friedrich, with whom he shared Olympic gold in 2018, may ultimately determine Canada’s bobsleigh success at the Beijing Games.

Canada sent three women’s pilots to China. Along with de Bruin, there’s Cynthia Appiah and Melissa Lotholtz — each of whom previously spent time in Humphries’ sled as brakewomen.

All three will race against their former teammate in the two-woman event, while de Bruin and Appiah will also meet Humphries, of Calgary, in monobob, a single-sled event making its Olympic debut. Monobob action begins Feb. 13, while the two-woman event starts on Feb. 18.

WATCH | Humphries edges Appiah in World Cup monobob race:

Toronto’s Cynthia Appiah earns silver for 1st World Cup medal as a pilot

Cynthia Appiah finished 6-100ths of a second behind American Kaillie Humphries to claim the silver medal in the women’s monobob at the IBSF World Cup stop in Altenberg, Germany. 2:49

‘One of us will stand on top of the podium. One of us won’t’

But de Bruin, who made her Olympic debut in Pyeongchang, said the Canadians’ focus won’t change no matter who’s next to them in the starting blocks at the Yanqing National Sliding Center near Beijing.

“While we know it is a challenge every time we compete, it respectfully doesn’t matter who we are racing because it is Canada’s sleds on the starting block against the clock and the track,” de Bruin said.

Meanwhile, Humphries’ biggest challenge may come from within her new team in the form of top-ranked Elana Meyers Taylor.

“One of us will stand on top of the podium. One of us won’t. Neither of us might. But at the end of the day, we have to fight for that opportunity,” Humphries said.

American teammates Humphries, left, and Meyers Taylor, right, are leading contenders for the bobsleigh podium in Beijing. (Matthias Schrader/The Associated Press)

De Bruin ranks fourth in both two-woman and monobob, while Appiah is 14th in the former and third in the latter. Lotholtz ranks 13th in the two-woman.

CBC Sports bobsleigh expert Helen Upperton agreed that the Canadians should be unaffected by Humphries’ new allegiance.

“Every single week, every single year, you’re racing these people, whether they’re on your team or they’re not on your team. … So it’s kind of irrelevant, to be honest,” she said.

Because of the nature of the sport, it’s no surprise Humphries and the Canadian pilots appear unfazed. Their jobs don’t change, even if Humphries’ colours did.

Besides, it’s a competition. You either win or you lose — in most cases.

Kripps, Friedrich form bond

After Kripps and Friedrich shared gold in 2018, something funny happened: they became friends.

Four years later, Friedrich once again represents Kripps’ biggest competition. Kripps currently ranks second behind Friedrich in both the two-man and four-man.

The 31-year-old German pilot won seven of eight races across both events on the World Cup tour this season and was victorious in each of the last four world championships.

Yet after they do battle in Beijing, Friedrich and brakeman Thorsten Margis will fly to California to attend Kripps’ wedding in April.

“We talk about how we’re looking forward to that after the Games and just talk about the tour and all the crazy stuff that’s going on this year with COVID and all that and experiences we’re going to have in China,” Kripps said.

Canada’s Kripps and Alexander Kopacz, right, celebrate with Germany’s Friedrich and Margis after winning Olympic gold in 2018. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

Kripps said he and Friedrich will even exchange notes on different tracks and how to attack certain corners.

The 35-year-old Summerland, B.C., native said the unlikely kinship began on that Olympic podium.

“It was just such a special moment and we carried that on into the next season and became friends. It’s pretty cool to have that kind of friendship and history with somebody on tour,” Kripps said.

Equalizer

Friedrich’s dominance makes Kripps’ task in Beijing seem even more daunting, but the Canadian said there was some reason for hope following a World Cup season spent predominantly on German tracks.

“The big rivalry is going to come out at the Games because it’s a bit of an equalizer there. We race on a track [in China] that we have the same amount of runs on and the number that we have on that track for both of us is quite small, which is an equalizer for me,” he said.

WATCH | Kripps featured in CBC Sports’ ‘Returning Champions’ series:

Returning Champions: Justin Kripps

Canadian bobsleigh athlete Justin Kripps looks back on his Olympic gold in Pyeongchang including his historic tie for gold, the passing of his grandmother just days before his race in 2018, and his outlook heading into Beijing 2022. 3:28

Kripps enters the Beijing Games in a relative state of calm due in part to mental training by way of golf.

“It’s weird to think about, but for me, standing on the starting block at the Olympics, I just feel at home. I feel confident and I enjoy it. There’s not this kind of nervousness like when I stand on the tee box.”

But the calm also comes because he knows what it takes to become an Olympic champion.

“You never can let your foot off the gas.”

Like Humphries and the Canadian pilots, Kripps and Friedrich can call themselves friendly rivals.

But in Beijing, their complicated histories will be left behind. They’ll all just be competitors.

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