Helen Upperton was a relative newcomer to the circuit when she watched fellow Canadian Pierre Lueders reach the top of the bobsled podium in 2004.
She knew right then that she wanted to reach the same height in women’s bobsled. Upperton achieved her goal nearly two years later and would go on to put the Canadian women’s team on the map.
Upperton announced her retirement Thursday, ending a nearly decade-long run as one of the country’s top bobsled pilots.
“I would definitely say it’s bittersweet,” Upperton said from Calgary. “It’s very hard to stop doing something that you love so much and I love bobsledding.
“I loved it since the very first time that I went down the track.”
Upperton, a 32-year-old from Calgary, earned the Canada I position in her first full season as a pilot in 2003. A few years later, she became the first Canadian to win a women’s World Cup bobsled race by taking gold in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
She finished with six World Cup titles and 20 podium appearances. Upperton also picked up several team medals over her career and raced with a variety of brakemen including Kaillie Humphries, Heather Moyse, Jenny Ciochetti and Shelley-Ann Brown.
Her career zenith came with Brown — who also retired Thursday — when they won silver at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.
“Getting to do it at home is such a rare chance and I feel so lucky that I was part of the Canadian winter sports system during a home Olympic Games,” she said. “It was incredible.”
They were joined on the podium by Humphries and Moyse, who won gold on the Whistler track in front of an adoring home crowd.
Upperton’s breakout season came in 2005, a year after her motivation level rose significantly by watching Lueders anchor the Canadian men’s sled to a world title in Germany.
“I stood there and watched him and I thought, ‘One day, that’s going to be us,“’ Upperton said. “I had just decided that it was going to happen. I was like, ‘This is going to happen.’
“And sure enough, the next year we were on top of the podium.”
That first win came on the World Cup circuit in January 2006, just a month before they settled for a fourth-place finish at the Turin Olympics.
The 32-year-old Brown, meanwhile, joined the national program that year. She would make her first appearance on the World Cup podium in 2007 and had mixed results over the years leading up to her Olympic silver.
“Retiring as an athlete is bittersweet because it’s the last line in one of the most significant chapters in one’s life,” Brown said. “Yet I look back over my Canadian bobsleigh career with nothing but utter gratitude.”
Upperton plans to host and co-produce an adventure reality television show that will begin airing next month. Brown, who has a master’s degree in educational psychology, has enrolled in teachers college at the University of Toronto.
“Helen and Shelley-Ann are leaving our sport having played a significant role in putting us on the international radar screen and ensuring its credibility within the Canadian sport system,” said Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton president Reid Morrison.
“Doing much of the heavy lifting for our women’s program with talented athletes like Shelley-Ann in her sled, Helen has opened the door for other Canadian women to believe they too can get on the podium and win.”
Upperton said she had been thinking about retirement over the last few years, especially as the nagging injuries started to pile up.
“It’s sad and exciting,” she said of her decision. “Opening a new chapter in your life is always an exciting thing to do and a little bit scary. Obviously retirement for most athletes is a pretty big challenge.
“So I’m in that process right now and I’m trying to keep myself busy and see where the next adventure is going to take me.”