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Heather Moyse, right, with pilot Kaillie Humphries at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, turned to bobsleigh amid her stellar rugby career. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)
Heather Moyse, right, with pilot Kaillie Humphries at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, turned to bobsleigh amid her stellar rugby career. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

THE INNER COMPETITOR

How rugby star Heather Moyse found golden moments in another sport Add to ...

For many, the Olympics represent the pinnacle of an athlete’s career. For others, especially in team sports, competing in a World Cup, win or lose, is as good as it gets.

Heather Moyse had the good fortune to do both, in two very different sports.

She can look back proudly on a playing career that included a pair of gold medals in two-man bobsleigh and being inducted this month into the World Rugby Hall of Fame, just the second player from these shores (following Gareth Rees in 2011) and first Canadian woman to be so honoured.

For good measure, the Summerside native also took up cycling in 2011 and represented Canada at the 2012 Pan American Track Cycling Championships, placing fourth in the 500-metre time trial.

But like so many other winners from the sporting world, it was actually her failure that propelled her to success. Heavily recruited by Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton for her pace and power on the rugby pitch, she decided to give the sport a go just five months before the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Putting her master’s degree on hold, Moyse started lifting weights for the first time and, teamed with Helen Upperton, finished fourth in Italy.

Though she quickly had to put the result behind her to shift her training emphasis to building up her endurance for the 2006 Women’s Rugby World Cup, where host Canada finished fourth, just missing the podium at the Olympics stayed with her. After finishing her master’s degree in occupational therapy in the summer of 2007, her mind was made up.

“I decided that I didn’t want fourth place to be my story,” she says, committing to the bobsled for another Olympic cycle and setting the stage for her gold-medal successes in Vancouver and Sochi, Russia, alongside new sled driver Kaillie Humphries.

But with the Winter Olympics held in the same year as the Women’s Rugby World Cup, transitioning between the two sports took some special considerations. Teaming up with trainer Matt Nichol, the former strength and conditioning coach for the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and the founder of sports nutrition company BioSteel Sports Nutrition Inc., the pair formulated a training regimen that would have her peaking at just the right time.

“They’re not necessarily that dissimilar,” Nichol says of the physical requirements of the two sports. “If you want to be a successful rugby player you would ideally start with a great base of power and speed, and then you just have to make that power and speed last longer.”

The 2010 Winter Olympics’ date in February, followed by the World Cup in the summer, was actually a bonus, according to Moyse.

“I was already probably the strongest I would be at those Olympic Games, so not having to focus so much on strength and focus a bit more on endurance [was good],” she says.

However, the mental part of the transition, going from a sport where each of the two participants is solely focused on her own individual performance to a true 15-person team sport, was more of a challenge, particularly as she would be taking someone else’s spot on the roster.

“For girls with whom I’d played previously, they knew the situation and they knew my commitment and they knew all of that stuff,” says Moyse, who’s now retired from competition and does motivational speaking.

“But for the girls with whom I hadn’t played, it’s kind of like, ‘Who is this person?’ And for some of them it probably was, ‘Well, just because she can win at bobsledding, does she think she can just waltz in here [for rugby]?’”

In many ways, Moyse thinks it might have been easier in reverse, to go from a team environment to one where two individuals are in the same bobsled but not necessarily needing to entirely be in complete sync.

“Going the other way you might just be bumping but you’re not directly necessarily working with the person,” she says. “In rugby you’re in a massive team environment where team dynamics is a huge component of whether the team survives or not.”

No stranger to working with high achievers – his client list almost reads as a Who’s Who of NFL, NBA and NHL players – Nichol’s training philosophy focuses less on the sport in question and more on the people themselves. And while factors such as sleep, nutrition and mood are all important, sometimes simply getting athletes to ease back on the throttle can pay dividends.

“I was never married to any given set, rep, weight scheme that we might have on a certain day so each day we would come in and start with a conversation: ‘How are you feeling today?’” he says.

He would then monitor Moyse’s body language and movement to determine if the intensity of the training program should be dialed back a little bit. But that doesn’t mean there was any less effort involved.

“Knowing that if they can’t do it today it doesn’t mean they’re being lazy, it doesn’t mean they’re sandbagging you or getting out of doing the work,” he says. “You have to respect that and maybe today go easy and live to fight another day.”

Ultimately though, for Moyse or anyone else, training can never replace the skill and talent needed to play a particular sport. As Nichol says, if at the end of game a player is exhausted because she isn’t quite as fit as others but scored five tries or goals in a team victory, that’s the player he would take.

“Someone who gets a lot of criticism or used to was [former Maple Leafs forward] Phil Kessel because he would come back to the bench after his shift and look like he was having a mild heart attack,” Nichol adds.

“But before he gets back to the bench, when he’s out on the ice, he’s a threat to score every time he touches the puck. … That’s the most important thing and I think sometimes, as coaches, we lose sight of that.”

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