Kaillie Humphries marched in the opening ceremonies at the 2006 Torino Olympics, and though those ceremonies included listening to Yoko Ono "sing," she nonetheless was proud and excited to represent her country. Officially, Humphries was an alternate on the Canadian women's bobsled team, but she was so confident with her recent times, she assumed she would be chosen to be the brakewoman on the No. 2 sled.
Following the ceremonies, she and the rest of the team returned to their training site to prepare themselves for the bobsled competition. As the event neared, her excitement built. She was going to compete in the Olympics, a goal she had set when she was 7 years old. Her parents flew to Italy to root for her. And then, four days before the race, her coach called her. Humphries would not be racing. There was no reason for her parents to have flown across the Atlantic. And perhaps Kaillie need not have done so, either.
"Right away, I just started crying and went to my room," Humphries recalled. "I thought, 'Do I stay here and gain experience from '06 or do I go home?' I decided to stay and support my team by cheering them on."
When Humphries returned home, she figured that was it -- her career was over, her Olympic dream finished heartbreakingly short of realization. But, gradually, she changed her mind; that persistent Olympic dream was too strong to abandon. "I decided I couldn't let that be my Olympic experience," she said. "That's when I decided to become a bobsled pilot."
Four years later, Humphries drove her sled to the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. And now, at age 27, she is driving the fastest sled in the world. After winning last year's overall World Cup title, she had an eight-straight Cup winning streak earlier this season and she and brakewoman Chelsea Valois have won six of their past seven Cup races. Humphries is also in the midst of 10-race medal streak at international events.
This wasn't the first time the driver had steered herself in another direction. Growing up in Calgary, she was determined to win an Olympic medal in skiing.
"But at age of 16, I realized I wasn't good enough," Humphries said. "I had always been bigger than most girls. I always had big legs and a big butt. So I figured, what will I do? I grew up watching 'Cool Runnings' just like everyone else. And we had the bobsled track in Calgary so I tried it out."
When Humphries first hit the track in 2002, she started as a driver. That didn't go so well. "They thought that with my skiing background, I would make a really good pilot," she said. "I tried it for two weeks and it was good until the last day. And then I crashed and broke my collarbone. I needed more experience before I could be a driver."
She switched to being a brakewoman instead and that went well until the Torino experience. And then it was back to the driver's seat.
"If you move from the brakeman position into the driver seat, things are more up to you," said her pilot coach, Stephan Bosch. "If you become a good driver -- and it takes three to four years to become one -- then you have a very good chance to go to the Olympic Games. As a brakeman, if there is another person who out-pushes you by one-one hundredths of a second, you will not go to the Olympics.
"The switch [from brakeman to driver] happens a lot, but unfortunately, a lot of good athletes don't have the feel to drive well. The difficulties are that you have to start from scratch again."
Humphries thinks she's still got lots to learn and further to climb. "They say it takes seven to eight years to build a really great bobsled pilot and I've been doing it for six years, so I'm just getting into my prime," she said. "I don't think I'm even close to knowing everything I need to know."
Humphries attributes her recent winning streak to Bosch, new brakewoman Valois, team support and quality of the sled. After spending the Christmas break at home in Calgary, she has returned to Europe for the rest of the season. She is determined to defend her gold medal next year at Sochi, where the bobsled track has a very unusual three uphill stretches.
"The start is going to make a huge difference," she said. "The only way to generate speed is at the start."
"All the pieces of the puzzle fit together," Bosch said. "She is driving well and consistent. Chelsea is a great athlete and they push well together. The sled from Eurotech is running well and her runners are fast. And the most important thing is, her head is free and focused and she is having fun being on the bobsled track.
"[Not racing in Torino] made Kaillie so determined that she would do anything in her power to make it happen this time."