New-look Team Canada returns to Whistler for bobsled, skeleton World Cup

Canadian bobsledder Cynthia Appiah knows she's on the radar heading into a new season.

The 32-year-old Torontonian grabbed attention last year, finishing third overall in the women's monobob world series and taking eighth place finishes in both monobob and two-woman bobsled at the Beijing Olympics.

Expectations are high as Appiah and the rest of Team Canada kick off a new bobsled and skeleton World Cup season in Whistler, B.C., on Thursday.

“The opportunity is there to continue on with that momentum that was created," Appiah said. "I've got a target on my back."

The Canadian contingent will be full of fresh faces this season.

Several veterans bobsledders retired after last year's Beijing Games, including two-time Olympic medallist Justin Kripps and his teammates Ryan Sommer and Cameron Stone. Fellow pilot Chris Spring won't compete this season after undergoing knee surgery in April.

The absences make way for emerging athletes like Taylor Austin, a pilot who's moved up from the development team to the squad that will compete on the World Cup circuit.

“It's exciting. Very exciting… It's something that I've always dreamt of," said the 32-year-old Calgarian. "But now that we're in the space, I'm just trying to navigate and be the best that I can be and kind of see where I stack up to the rest of the world.”

There are changes on the women's side, too, after pilot Christine de Bruin — who won Olympic bronze in Beijing — was handed a three-year suspension for a doping violation earlier this month.

It was more bad news for an already embattled national sporting organization.

More than 70 current and former bobsled and skeleton athletes began calling for change within Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton last March, citing what they called a toxic environment of maltreatment within the organization.

BCS held a contentious annual general meeting in September that was suddenly adjourned. A makeup meeting on Nov. 6 saw Calgary sport physiologist Tara McNeil named the organization's new president.

It hasn't been easy for athletes to deal with everything happening around the organization, Appiah said.

“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t impact me," she said. "But one of the things that any athlete will tell you is that you have to be resilient, and you have to be able to pivot and move on to the next direction and continue onward.

"If you kind of get stuck dwelling on these things, it's just going to impact your performance and your team overall.”

Now the country's bobsled and skeleton athletes are focused on racing.

Appiah has been in Whistler for about five weeks preparing for the World Cup season. In addition to training, she raced in the North American Cup earlier this month, finishing second in two-woman bobsled with Leah Walkeden.

Walkeden, a 29-year-old former track athlete at the University of Alberta, comes from the development program and adds a lot to the partnership, Appiah said.

“I think she compliments a lot of the things that I tend to struggle with, which is a lot of that over speed, that top speed mechanics. I'm not a sprinter and she is," she said. "And that's kind of what drew me to her.”

The duo will have stiff competition in Whistler this week where they're set to go up against current world champion Kallie Humphries, who competes for the U.S. after starting her bobsled career with Canada.

Appiah will also face Humphries in the monobob, which is making its World Cup debut this season. Humphries won gold in the event in Beijing.

Getting to start the year at Whistler — a track that hasn't hosted the World Cup since 2019 — is a boon for the Canadians, Appiah said.

“That home advantage that you gain over your competitors, it's so important," she said.

The competition will begin Thursday with men's and women's skeleton. Friday will feature women's monobob and the two-man bobsled, while the two-woman bobsled and four-man bobsled will go on Saturday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2022.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press