When Diane Kelly watched the bobsleigh events at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, she asked herself why anyone would want to willingly hurl themselves down an ice chute in a metal go-cart.
Three months later, she found out why.
“I love the speed, the ride is like a really fun rollercoaster,” said Kelly, in an interview with the Toronto Observer. “My first run was such an amazing experience.
“I slid with Helen Upperton [silver medalist at the 2010 Olympics], so the ride was smooth and fast.”
Playing rugby for 13 years, Kelly had just begun learning how to Olympic lift at her gym in Ottawa, when fate paid a visit one evening in mid-May 2010.
“I was training and started chatting about technique with another athlete. It turns out that Cody Sorenson is on the national bobsleigh team, and coincidentally Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton was holding a recruitment identification camp three days later,” said Kelly, who works as a Livestock Analyst at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
Having noticed her power, Sorenson encouraged her to participate at the camp.
“I figured I had nothing to lose and it seemed like an exciting challenge!”
A decision that the national senior team’s coach Tom De La Hunty is happy about.
“She is a tall girl with the right mentality for the sport,” said De La Hunty, who has been coaching for Canada since June of 2010. “She is quick, strong and brave, and these are all attributes required to make it in this potentially very dangerous sport.”
As a brakewoman, Kelly pushes from the back and then pulls the brakes at to the end to leave the pilot driving down the track at speeds reaching between 130 and 150 km/h.
Unlike mens’, where there are two-man and four-man events, there is only the two-woman event on the Europa and World Cup circuits.
Kelly begins her season on Nov. 11 with teammates Upperton and Heather Hugues for the Europa Cup in Park City, Utah then they will rejoin the World Cup team in January.
The 26-year-old broke her ankle during a rugby game this summer, but is ready for the season.
“She didn’t qualify automatically at our trials, but I selected her on past performance because I knew about the injury, and I know she was capable of making it back to full fitness quickly,” said De La Hunty, who represented Great Britain as a pilot at the 1984 Sarajevo and 1988 Calgary Olympics.
Target for this season is to win the Europa Cup’s six races and to win a medal at the World Championships in Lake Placid, N.Y. in Feb. 2012.
A native of Kincardine, Ont., Kelly is still learning how to master perfectly her techniques.
“The most challenging aspect for me is mastering the push technique to get the sled moving at the beginning,” she said. “Because a run is less than a minute, the five or six seconds that it takes to get the sled moving is critical.”
There’s also a lot of sled work involved such as polishing and aligning runners, adjusting the steering, fixing the springs and tightening bolts.
“Moving the sleds around is a huge workout, they weight about 185 kilograms. I really enjoy the mechanical side of the sport,” Kelly said.
She believes that bobsleigh is so much more than just sliding down a track.
Not any athlete can be a bobsledder, and BCS has certain criteria for recruiting new talent.
Making the sport flourish
Bobsleigh in Canada is known to be a second- or third-sport for most athletes, because with their sport backgrounds, they often have the power, strength and speed it requires to push and move a sled.
“If we take an athlete from track & field, rugby, football or Olympic weightlifting there is a very quick turnaround given the nature of what is being asked of them physically,” said Nathan Cicoria, High Performance Director at BCS.
However, the Vancouver 2010 Olympics generated an increased interest towards the sport and BCS wants to capture that momentum by making bobsleigh more accessible to new talent provincially.
“We are definitively trying to change that profile [of mostly recruiting accomplished athletes], especially given our inclusion into the Youth Olympic Games movement,” said Cicoria, to the Toronto Observer.
BCS is partnering with its provincial sport associations to expand into a youth program that would see younger pilots and brakemen develop in both positions as well as quality programs for coaching, equipment and training opportunities.
De La Hunty believes that it’s very viable to train youth athletes in Canada, especially with accessible tracks in Calgary and Whistler.
“We need to be able to house these juniors in Calgary and Whistler, and get them to the track each evening to learn,” he said.
“This is exactly how the German team recruit, and they four tracks to use. Becoming a world class pilot can take around eight years, so it makes perfect sense to start young.”