In her golden moment atop the medal podium in Beijing, as the U.S. flag was raised, Kaillie Humphries says a couple of Canadian team executives turned their back.
Humphries had just become the first woman in history to win Olympic gold medals for two different countries. After four years of living in limbo that saw her receive the American citizenship that even allowed her to compete for the U.S. less than two months earlier, she sang along to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The 36-year-old said it was a moment of pure joy and triumph, and not about turning her back on a country she’d felt in some ways had turned its back on her.
“I haven’t given up on being Canadian. I’m a dual citizen,” Humphries said from Carlsbad, Calif., where she lives with husband Travis Armbruster, a former U.S. bobsledder. “I love Canada. But I also love the United States. We are not a women’s hockey game when it comes to my life and my career. It’s not one over the other, one is not greater or worse.”
“For me, winning was a huge part of being able to celebrate with people that believed in me when I didn’t necessarily believe in myself, and when I was going through one of the hardest times of my life.”
Her battle back to the top of the podium for a new team amid an ugly legal battle with Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton will be chronicled in a documentary “Uphill Slide: The Kaillie Humphries Story,” set to be released later this year or early 2023.
“We think it’s really important for Kaillie to be able to tell her story,” said Scott Moore, CEO of production company The Good Karma Company. “There was a narrative that clearly is turning out to be potentially not the correct narrative.
“I think there were many people who felt that Kaillie was the villain in the story … not only is there clarification needed to this story, and for her side of the story to come out, but it’s also important for athlete empowerment, for female empowerment that she have a voice.”
Four years after Humphries was the lone voice for change, some-90 bobsled and skeleton athletes are calling for the resignation of Sarah Storey, the acting CEO of Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton, and its high performance director Chris Le Bihan — both of whom Humphries said turned their back during the Beijing medal ceremony.
The athletes are angry about what they call a toxic culture in BCS, with issues around safety, transparency and governance. BCS has proposed mediation, but they argue it’s a “Band-Aid solution.”
Canada’s Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge told the Toronto Star on Tuesday that she’s ordered a financial audit of BCS and commended the athletes for daring to speak out.
“Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton respects Minister St-Onge’s request for a financial compliance audit of the organization,” BCS said in a statement. “We will respect and fully co-operate with this request as we have done in the past …
“It is also important to note that within the 2021 Sport Canada Report Card issued to Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton, Sport Canada evaluated the Financial Strategy and Control of Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton and scored this at 5 out of 5.”
Humphries was turned into a pariah, and while a few Canadian athletes supported her, they did so only behind the scenes.
“Did it hurt? Yes. I would have hoped more could have been a little courageous, but I understood it,” she said.
She takes “a bit of credit” for the current chorus of voices speaking out against BCS.
“Had I not stood up, I don’t think that they would be either,” she said.
Humphries raced to gold in Beijing in the monobob, a new Olympic event added after Humphries and American Elana Meyers Taylor had fiercely championed for the inclusion of a second race for women.
It was Humphries’ third Olympic title.
But after the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, her mental and physical health deteriorated amid accusations of harassment against coach Todd Hays. The complaint also named Storey and Le Bihan, for their lack of support.
She suffered from rashes. Just thinking about sports prompted panic attacks.
“I didn’t recognize myself … I wasn’t motivated to leave the house,” she said.
There were times she wondered if it would be easier just to go back to the Canadian team.
“But I thought: can I even do that? And the answer every single time was no. Physically, am I going to be hurt? Mentally, am I going to get to the point where I get suicidal thoughts? I’m already depressed, and I knew every single path back to Team Canada was very negative in that current environment, with that leadership.”
Mental health issues, Humphries stressed, are a “valid fear” in sliding sports.
“I have somebody else’s life in my hands,” she added. “And if you’re not all there in our sport, you can launch yourself out and not only kill yourself but other people.”
Humphries’ battle with BCS is ongoing. In 2021, the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada ordered a new investigation after deciding the first one was “neither thorough nor reasonable.”
Regardless of the outcome, Humphries said she can no longer be hurt by the Canadian program. She’s grateful for the U.S. team that supported her despite being no guarantee she’d even be able to compete in Beijing, nor any guarantee she’ll be around another four years for the 2026 Games — although that’s her plan.
“The one thing that is consistent about Kaillie is that she’s a fighter,” said Humphries’ marketing agent Russell Reimer, president of Manifesto Sport Management. “It’s the source of her power, and I would say even her superpower.”
“I don’t think people quite understand how hard it is to have sustained success for as long as she has within the brutality of bobsled. It’s remarkable. If you don’t have that deep passion, you simply can’t sustain yourself.”
Humphries expects there will still be battles, because she has big goals. One of them is prize money for monobob on the international circuit (there currently is none).
But she said she’s a more courageous and stronger woman for her fight with BCS, and hopes the documentary helps people understand her decision to compete for the U.S., and why it felt so triumphant to stand on the podium, wearing the Stars and Stripes.
She also hopes it gives voice to other athletes.
“Maybe it’s a bit of a survival guide, maybe if it’s a bit of a step by step,” she said. “So, also why I want to do this is for an empowerment piece for other people.
Moore and Vinay Virmani, co-founder of The Good Karma Company, have optioned the scripted rights for a movie.
—Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press