Kaillie Humphries was on what bobsledders call a track walk a few days ago. The two-time Olympic champion was checking out the ice-covered sliding chute at Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid, New York, when she unexpectedly crossed paths with some members of Canada’s bobsled team.
Brief hellos were exchanged. She kept going on her way. The Canadians went the other direction.
This is Humphries’ new reality.
Humphries — one of the best pilots in the history of her sport — has traded her red and white Canadian gear for red, white and blue U.S. apparel. No longer racing for her homeland of Canada, Humphries is now a member of USA Bobsled’s national team after a nearly two-year saga in which she said she was verbally and mentally abused by a Canadian coach to the point where she no longer felt safe and the team simply discarded her.
“What I’m learning is that you can love more than one thing,” Humphries said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’m Canadian. I’m not giving up one for the other. My feelings for Canada don’t lessen, but I can love something else just as much. And I’ve been living in the U.S. for four years. I love an American. I married one. Then different opportunities arose and we find ourselves in situations in life where we have to make decisions and choices.
“I found myself in a situation where I didn’t feel safe and I didn’t feel comfortable. An opportunity arose in a safe and comfortable environment. Here we are.”
And with that, she’s sliding for the U.S. now. Humphries will start the year driving the USA-2 sled, as one of three pilots picked for this season’s national team. It’s expected that she will be a World Cup contender right away, even after missing last season while sitting out while her harassment claim in Canada was investigated.
Her first official competitive run of the season was this week, and she banged the sled into a wall right away. The rust must have come off because her next three runs were just about flawless — pretty much proving she’s still elite.
“Kaillie has been a breath of fresh air for this program,” U.S. bobsled coach Mike Kohn said. “She’s handled all of this very professionally and I don’t think any of the drama that people might think is out there is really bothering her. We’ve created an environment where she’s excited to be here.”
Her journey has been dramatic and goes back to at least early 2018. That’s when things between Humphries and Canadian coach Todd Hays — a former U.S. bobsledder and Olympian — were so bad that an agreement was struck. Hays was to have no contact with Humphries whatsoever during that year’s Pyeongchang Olympics, where she won a bronze medal.
There was also a marriage, to a former U.S. bobsledder, Travis Armbruster. Marrying him, something that had been planned for years, also allowed her the chance to race for the U.S. this season. She will need to obtain U.S. citizenship to go to the Beijing Games — a process already underway.
“I just want the chance to be the best that I can be and let the chips fall where they may,” Humphries said.
In the summer after Pyeongchang, at her new home in San Diego about a mile or so from the shore of the Pacific Ocean, Humphries often found herself crying for no reason and lacking energy to do anything. Headaches were part of the everyday routine. She asked Canada to help her see specialists. They declined, referring her instead to team doctors. Humphries spent at least $7,000 seeing doctors of her choosing, getting bloodwork, an MRI, even her eyes checked before eventually learning she was suffering from depression.
“Everything was wrong,” Humphries said.
She asked Canada for help and to extend the arrangement from the Olympics: Humphries did not want Hays as her coach. They declined, and Humphries sat out. Hays denied wrongdoing, and multiple Canadian bobsledders spoke out in support of the coach and the program.
“We all feel that it is a safe environment that promotes high performance,” Canadian driver Alysia Rissling told reporters in September.
Humphries, the winningest driver in Canada’s program, saw it much differently. She feared interacting with Hays, and some U.S. bobsledders filed claims suggesting they had similar feelings when he coached the American women’s program during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
So she sat out. She didn’t watch most races, though went back to Canada for the world championships as a spectator. Then she tried to think of a solution — and changing national teams suddenly seemed like an option.
“I was always going to come back after last season,” Humphries said. “I always wanted to come back. It was just in what capacity, how and what that meant. But at no point was I done. At no point had I ever reached the thought of, ‘I want to retire. I need to retire.’ I have more left to do.”
Humphries has many layers. She’s muscular and strong, often putting clips from her weightlifting sessions on Instagram for the world to see. She’s covered in tattoos, the result of hundreds and hundreds of hours of work. She considers them art.
She doesn’t have a lot of close friends. She tends to keep to herself, especially on race day. Approach her before a race at your own peril.
“Laser focus,” Kohn said. “I haven’t seen too many like it.”
Humphries is 34. The Beijing Games, if she gets there, could be her Olympic finale. She has tons of medals. Olympic gold. World championships. World Cups. A new marriage, a house near the beach, an affinity for sushi that isn’t easily satisfied at some of the world’s bobsled hotspots. Some in her home country aren’t exactly fans of hers anymore. And she’s had a rocky road for nearly two years.
It begs the question why she’s still sliding.
For that, she has a quick answer.
“I’ve put myself in situations to be the best,” Humphries said. “I go out and seek the best because I want to be the best. I work very hard. This is my life. This is what I love. And I approach it with 100% abandon. It gives back to me and I’m good at it. It’s just what I love to do.”
© 2019 The Canadian Press