Kaillie Humphries: "Don’t put limitations on athletes"

The two-time Olympic bobsleigh champion, who just announced she has received her U.S. citizenship, is aiming to win the first-ever Olympic monobob title at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. It’s one more chance at change for an athlete who has fought for equality in the sport of bobsleigh. 

By Clémence Roult
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

"In 2010, I’ve been told ‘You’re not good enough to win.’ I won. In 2014, I’ve been told ‘You know, no one has defended. You're probably not going to defend.' I did. Then I’ve been told ‘Women are not strong enough and not skilled enough for 4-man’. We did it. Don’t put limitations on athletes."

Women’s bobsleigh would not be what it is today without Kaillie Humphries. During her 16-year career, the Canadian-born athlete, who is on course to compete for the USA at Beijing 2022 after receiving her U.S. citizenship, rewrote the history of her sport with her performances. But she is also a strong activist for women in bobsleigh.

Olympics.com talked to the two-time Olympic champion about all the changes she has been through to stay at the top of her game and how she has contributed to pushing the boundaries for women in bobsleigh.

Changing the history of her sport

It’s no exaggeration to say that Kaillie Humphries has changed the history of bobsleigh. Having broken a slew of records, the 36-year-old doesn’t seem ready to stop anytime soon. 

First, Humphries became the first woman ever to win an Olympic gold medal in bobsleigh alongside her partner Heather Moyse at Vancouver 2010. It was an unexpected success, as the athlete had only become a pilot four years earlier. 

"Everybody had said 'It takes eight to 10 years to build a good pilot. You've only been driving for four years. You're still way too new,'" she explained before adding, "I went in as an underdog. I told myself 'I just want to have fun. I want to just do my best.' That’s what I did and the result was there."

However, winning gold at your home Olympics can be seen as an easier task than triumphing abroad. So the challenge Humphries faced was proving to everybody that her victory wasn’t a one-off. So when she triumphed at Sochi 2014, becoming, along with Moyse, the first woman to defend her title in the history of bobsleigh, the Canadian once again proved her doubters wrong. 

At PyeongChang 2018 Humphries set another record, with the bronze medal she won with Phylicia George making her the most decorated woman in bobsleigh at the Olympic Winter Games.

But her great successes are not limited to the Olympics.

With a fourth world title in two-woman bobsleigh won at Altenberg in 2021, Humphries broke the record for the most world titles, having won her first two titles in 2012 and 2013 and the last two in 2020 and 2021. It was a reward for the “attention to detail and the time that I put into perfecting my craft."

Incredibly, Humphries, who now trains in the USA, won the first-ever monobob world title in 2021, a year before the debut of the discipline at Beijing 2022. 

"It’s great to know that women have more chances to win medals, and to win the first-ever was just a little cherry on top,” she said. “I worked super hard to be able to win both events."

Changing her state of mind to stay at the top

If Humphries has enjoyed great success, it is down to hard work and a willingness to adapt herself to new situations in order to remain at the top of the game. 

The first real change took place in 2002. At the time, Humphries had been a brakeman for three years and at Torino 2006 she went to the Olympics as an alternate. It was a difficult situation for an athlete who had always dreamt of competing at the Olympic Games. And so, in order to never be set aside again, she decided to change.

"I realised that I needed to take a little bit more control of my career, and that's when I switched from being the person at the back, the brakeman, to becoming a pilot," she explained.  

Just four years later, she won her first Olympic gold medal as a pilot.

Following her first success, Humphries admitted that by 2011 she had become complacent. However, the sport and the athletes she competed against soon humbled her. 

"I was living in 2010, but we were in the 2011 year and I thought that what I had learnt would just keep going and I would keep getting better, and I quickly learnt that I peaked and started to fall," explained Humphries, who had to wait until 2012 to win another gold medal. "I knew that I needed to change if I wanted to get back on top and forget about the past years, whether they were good or not. I kept the same philosophy every season after."

There were some logical changes that Humphries needed to make, particularly throughout a career as long as hers. The first was her partner - a change that taught her how to adapt her communications to meet the needs of any athlete sat behind her. 

"I think working with a multitude of people, I've learned communication, I've learned trust, I've learned respect, I've learned leadership, I've learned how to follow at certain times," she said. 

These human qualities have been an undeniable asset in her quest to continue performing at the highest level, even after changing the personnel beside her in the bobsleigh.

Changing the position of women in bobsleigh

Humphries is always focused on moving forward and enjoys shaking things up in her sport. One of her main battles has been to improve the plight of women involved in bobsleigh. 

"In bobsleigh, when I first came in, women didn't drive on the same bobsleigh tracks, we didn't have the same prize money. I was told ‘Women aren’t fast enough’ and ‘You’re not skilled enough to drive’. It infuriates me so hard to know that our sport has, for men, a whole different discipline that women aren't allowed to do because ‘we're not good enough'," she said.

This injustice drove Humphries to phone Ivo Ferriani, the President of the International Bobsleigh Federation (IBSF), many times to convince him to make the sport gender-equal. Her perseverance paid off, with women eventually allowed to compete in four-man competitions in the men’s category. It led to her creating a team with three men and herself as the pilot. 

"I knew that the only way I was going to be competitive and regain the respect of a lot of the men in our programme was to prove that women are as good, was to drive with a men's group. I wanted to show that we are good enough to drive on men’s tracks and we can race twice a week, like the men."

However, it wasn’t enough for Humphries. A couple of years later, she became the first pilot of a full women’s crew who took part in the four-man event. 

"Each one of us is 30 to 40 kilograms lighter than a male counterpart. We can't get the sled moving as fast and we don't have the weight inside it to be going as fast down the hill. We did beat a couple of men's teams sometimes, so that was a huge celebration when that did happen."

In 2018, after the Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, the IBSF announced the introduction of a second event for women at Beijing 2022: monobob. It was a victory for Humphries and every female bobsleigh racer across the world. 

"It’s not four-man, it’s not what I would personally choose. At the same point, it is a second event for women, to challenge themselves and win more medals.

"What I would love to see is that all the genders can do all three. That's where I really want to see the sport."

While waiting for this perfect balance, Humphries will once again compete in this winter's World Cup bobsleigh season before racing on a new track in Beijing during the Olympic Winter Games that will take place from 4 to 20 February 2022

Once again, she will attempt to change the history of her sport.

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