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A Hot Streak Like No Other

A streak in sports captivates audiences and media alike. Names and numbers such as Joe DiMagio and his 56 game hitting streak and Cal Ripken and his 2,632 consecutive games streak come to mind.

Now a 27-year-old Calgarian bobsledder is writing her own name into the record books with a historical streak of her own. 2010 Olympic gold medallist and reigning world champ Kaillie Humphries has established herself as arguably the best Bobsleigh pilot in the world.

She is no stranger to winning.

Since first stepping onto the podium at a World Cup in Whistler this February with then partner Emily Baadsvik, Humphries has been unbeatable and recently extended her winning ways to eight in a row in La Plagne, France with rookie brakeman Chelsea Valois, her teammate in the last five of those races.

“Anything is possible on any given day in our sport,” said a humble Humphries after her latest victory. “I’ve been taking it one race at a time. It’s still very new with Chelsea and we still have a long way to go.”

Partners by chance
The pairing of Humphries and the 25-year-old native of Zenon Park, Sask., happened by chance. This past summer Valois was thinking of what challenges would come next after a successful five year multi-sport athletics career at the University of Regina where she was a 10-time Canada West medallist and a two-time CIS medallist.

A few of her Regina Cougars teammates tried out for Bobsleigh Canada the year before and encouraged Chelsea to give it a shot. What would come next would surprise everyone including national team head coach Tom De La Hunty.

“I’ll never forget the day we saw her,” said De La Hunty. “She was a tall and rangy athlete who was very quiet and unassuming. We got her in the ice house to show her the basic technique and within an hour she pushed off and was matching the times of our best-ever brakemen. We knew straight away that she was a special young lady. She’s continued to improve and I have no doubt that she will become the very best in the world.”

Valois had mulled trying out for the team for more than a year. Her university athletics career was over, but she still had a hunger to compete in sport and was eager to test her limits with something new.

“I thought that I had the qualities they were looking for,” said Valois. “I had power, strength and speed that I developed during my track career. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I didn’t want sports to be over for me. It’s been exactly what I’ve wanted and more.”

Humphries closed out the 2011-12 season by winning two-straight races with brakeman Jennifer Ciochetti including a World Championship to become the first female duo from Canada to win the prestigious title.

However, Ciochetti became the pilot for the Canada 2 sled this off-season after the retirement of pilot and 2010 silver medallist Helen Upperton. Humphries was left looking for a partner and was paired with Valois after her impressive physical testing.

Valois now holds a streak of her own having won the first five World Cup races of her career, the most ever for a rookie on tour. Humphries has praised her new partner and has given her lofty comparisons to her gold medal brakeman in Vancouver Heather Moyse and to silver medal brakeman Shelley-Ann Brown.

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Kaillie Humphries, right, and her Olympic Partner Heather Moyse celebrate their gold medals at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games in Whistler, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mathew McCarthy

“When she (Chelsea) first came out she showed  a lot of potential and a lot of promise just like Shelly –Ann Brown and Heather Moyse did years ago,” said Humphries. “There’s still a lot of room to improve but we’re seeing that she’s getting stronger and we’re getting better as a team.”

Valois credits Humphries for taking her under her wing and helping her become a better slider.

“She’s just an amazing athlete and I really look  up to her,” said Valois about Humphries. “She’s been essential in my learning curve and she’s wasted no time in trying to teach me the ins and out of the sport. She’s been great and a really good teammate.”

Room for improvement
The British born De La Hunty, a one-time Olympic bobsledder himself, has been coaching the Canadian team since 2010 and has competed or coached at eight Olympic Games. But he says that not much has changed in what it takes to win from the days that he competed for team Britain at the 1984 and 1988 Winter Games.

“There are three things that make a great bobsled team,” said De La Hunty. “Obviously the sled and the runners you wear. There’s speed at the start. And there’s the skill of the pilot and the brakeman to ride behind and do a good job. Put all three together and you dominate.”

Even though Valois and Humphries have been dominant this year, the there is a ton of room for improvement according to the pair and their coach including in the push start where they have been behind the Americans all season.

Following a recent trend in Bobsleigh, the American squad plucked track and field athletes of their own to convert into elite bobsledders. However, the Americans selected Olympic calibre champions in 2012 gold medallist Tianna Madison and two-time hurdles World Champion Lolo Jones.

“The Americans are gold-medal winning athletes who finished with London 2012 and decided to come over to Bobsleigh,” said De La Hunty. “For Chelsea to be so close with them and to have elevated herself to compete with the world’s best athletes is impressive. Chelsea and the team will only get better as she becomes stronger and faster. They can dominate after that.”

Conquering pressure
De La Hunty had no fears of pairing a rookie like Valois with an accomplished bobsledder adding that Valois has been completely unfazed by all the pressure that comes with being in a sled with the reigning Olympic and world champion.

He also says Kaillie would do well with the added expectations on her shoulders calling her the consummate professional who lives and breathes bobsledding and consistently looking to get better.

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Canada's Kaillie Humphries and Chelsea Valois compete during the women's bobsled World Cup event in Whistler, B.C., on Friday November 23, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

“I seem to respond well to it,” said Humphries. “There’s no greater pressure than what I place upon myself. I want to win for me, my team and my support staff. Their definitely could be more added pressure, but no more than competing at a home Games or going into  this World Championship as reigning champion. I have a huge target on my back as the  Olympic Champion too.”

The duo is still learning to grow as a team and to get past an initial learning curve that comes with being paired up for the first time in a season. Both are cited by their coach for their amazing work ethic and have had guidance from their fellow teammates and support staff to ease the transition.

“For me as a pilot, I feel like I am finally getting to the point where I can be consistent,” said Humphries. “I am out there to prove that I am one of the top in the world. I’m still not where I want to be so I will keep working on that. I will keep learning from my teammates and by watching my peers.”

Bigger goals
The team will travel back to Europe on December 28th for the next Bobsleigh World Cup event in Altenberg, Germany where the team will hope to start the New Year on a high note.

Until then, the team will have a lot of time to think about all they’ve accomplished over the last few months and where they want to go from here. For Humphries, the magnitude of her record has not yet hit home.

“I have no idea when it’s going to really sink in,” said Humphries. “It hasn’t yet. My focus and energy will be on supporting my family during my time off because they do such an amazing job supporting me. I’m looking forward to giving them the support they give me.”

–    George Fadel