LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Kaillie Humphries is in a new uniform, bobsledding for a new federation. But the two-time Olympic champion and two-time world champion found herself in a familiar spot.
Now competing for USA Bobsled & Skeleton, Humphries—an American by marriage—stood on top of the podium with brakewoman Lauren Gibbs—an Olympic silver medalist—in the first IBSF World Cup of the season. Gaining time down the track on their second run, the Americans beat the German duos of Stephanie Schneider/Lisette Thoene and Kim Kalicki/Vanessa Mark by 0.31 seconds and 0.44 seconds, respectively.
“It felt really good,” Humphries said after the race. “I won’t lie, it was a bit of a relief, a little bit emotional getting out at the bottom that it all worked out the way that I hoped and planned that it would work out.”
It marked a triumphant return to the sport for 34-year-old Humphries, who, until she was named to Team USA last month, had not competed since the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, where she won a bronze medal. In August 2018, she filed a harassment claim against Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton’s head coach Todd Hays. While Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton investigated her claims, Humphries continued training. But she missed the 2018-19 bobsled season.
Looking for an opportunity to continue sliding, Humphries contacted Elana Meyers Taylor, the Team USA bobsled pilot who won Olympic silver medals in the past two Games, and a bronze as a brakewoman in 2010. Humphries was about to marry Travis Armbruster, an American who competed for USA Bobsled & Skeleton in 2009, and thus would be eligible to compete for the U.S. (she is maintaining dual citizenship).
Meyers Taylor — who is expecting her first child in March and thus not racing this season — encouraged her Canadian friend and rival to find a program where she felt safe. After much legal wrangling, Humphries was released from Team Canada on Sept. 28, 2019.
Although Humphries is one of the most decorated bobsledders in history, she was not granted a bye onto Team USA. She had to earn a spot — with her own equipment. This meant purchasing her own bobsled (only members of Team USA can compete in the proprietary BMW bobsleds).
“I’m not given anything,” she said on the eve of the Lake Placid World Cup. “My background is my background. Yes, I’ve got medals. But I have to earn my spot on the team just like everybody else did.”
With the North American Cup races in mid-November serving as team trials, Humphries was named to the U.S. bobsled national team after finishing second in the first race, then winning the second.
As the reigning national champion, Brittany Reinbolt drove USA-1 with Sylvia Hoffman in the Lake Placid World Cup. Hoffman is a former basketball player and weightlifter discovered through Team USA’s “Milk Life presents, Scouting Camp: The Next Olympic Hopeful.” The pair finished seventh in the Lake Placid World Cup.
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So far, Humphries is flourishing on Team USA.
For one, she is finally able to drive a BMW sled this week. The U.S. and German teams use proprietary sleds. In Canada, Humphries drove a Latvian sled available on the open market.
“Growing up outside of Team USA, we always looked at the USA sleds, it was the forbidden fruit,” she said. “You could never have, touch, handle, feel, see them.”
She has much to learn about driving the BMW sleds, but she can already feel the difference.
“You can feel the smoothness, the handling is very smooth,” she said of the BMW sled. “[It’s like] driving a really fancy car. You can tell high performance with how it accelerates, how it handles when you steer, weight balance and transfer. It’s the same in a bobsled.”
She’s also enjoying the supportive team atmosphere. The team emphasizes good communication. And when Humphries won the North American Cup race in November — finishing ahead of her former Canadian teammate Christine de Bruin — her new American teammates insisted on singing the national anthem along with her (her grandfather is an American from Washington state, so she learned the words to “The Star Spangled Banner” as a child).
“It was like oh, yay, I’m not alone,” she said, of standing on the podium. “They value me, and we’re all one big group that respects winning and high performance and the flag and what this represents. That was really nice.”
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While the new team and new sleds have brought life and energy back to Humphries, her teammates say the same of her.
“Any time you get an injection of talent, hard work and experience, it’s always a positive thing,” said Gibbs after the race. “The more hardworking and knowledge you can get onto a team, the stronger the team is.”
Driving coach Brian Shimer agreed, citing Humphries’ leadership, experience, focus, and “that killer instinct that you want your athletes to have.”
“She’s just a role model,” he said.
Shimer sees Humphries taking on some of the role that three-time Olympic medalist Steven Holcomb, who died unexpectedly in May 2017, had on the team.
“It’s just a breath of fresh air to have her around after losing Holcomb,” Shimer said, getting choked up. “He was that guy for us. It’s just great to have somebody on the team that you want the athletes to look at and say, ‘What do I have to do to be that good?’”
Humphries is now the most experienced pilot on Team USA. She’s been involved with bobsled for 17 years — since realizing that ski racing was not going to be her ticket to the Olympic Games. Growing up in Calgary, she had skied at WinSport, the 1988 Olympic park, and seen bobsledders in the weight room. She decided to give it a try. It was either that or speedskating.
Within a year, Humphries was on Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton’s national team as a brakewoman. In 2006, after the Torino Olympic Winter Games (where she was an alternate for Team Canada), she attended a driving school in Lake Placid and began her career as a bobsled pilot.
She was good right away, her ski-racing skills carrying over to bobsled. Her first full season on the world cup, she earned her first podium finish and helped Team Canada take silver in the world championships mixed relay.
“The ability to see and to look far ahead,” she explained. “In ski racing, you learn how to look a gate or two ahead, how to see lines, how to inspect the course, see the lines where you have to go to line up for the next corner. I think that helps me a lot in bobsleigh.”
Ski racing also taught her feel — an elusive concept that’s key to driving a bobsled — “because you have to feel [the track] just as much as you see,” she explained.
(Interestingly, Holcomb was also a ski racer in his youth and made similar parallels to bobsled.)
At the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Humphries won Canada’s first Olympic gold medal in women's bobsled. Four years later in Sochi, she became the first woman to successfully defend an Olympic title. Then at the PyeongChang Games in 2018, Humphries and rookie brakewoman Phylicia George won the bronze medal — behind Meyers Taylor, who had battled with Humphries for gold in Sochi.
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Looking ahead, Humphries has her eye on Olympic gold in Beijing in 2022. And 2026 too, if she decides to stay in the sport that long. This new chapter will be busy, she said — full of medals, she hopes, and perhaps a baby.
One thing won’t change — what she calls the sport. Humphries says bobsleigh, not bobsled, which, she says, is the word for the actual sled. In the U.S., the word bobsled describes both the sport and the sled.
Known for her tattoos, Humphries’ body is a canvas on which important people and events in her life are depicted — from her family members to the dates she won her Olympic medals and the gold medals themselves.
She wants to mark this next chapter on her body as well.
“So what that is,” she said, “I don’t know yet.”
Perhaps another Olympic gold medal.
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.