The Canadian bobsled team’s shuttle van parked for a brief moment outside the finish area at Sanki Sliding Center on Saturday after an evening all involved would like to forget.
One athlete had his head bowed and arms crossed. A row behind him, a teammate sat with a despondent look, his eyes vacant knowing his Olympic dream was dashed. No one was saying a word.
Canada’s chances of reaching the four-man bobsled podium at the Sochi Games were essentially over after one sled crashed and the other two posted mediocre results in what had already been a tumultuous week for the men’s team.
“The boys are not going to be winning a medal, that’s for sure,” said coach Tom De La Hunty. “They’re too far back to challenge now and we’re aware of that.
“It’s disappointing, it’s really disappointing because they’re better than they are (in standings).”
Russia’s Alexander Zubkov had a narrow lead over Latvia’s Oskars Melbardis after two runs. American Steven Holcomb sat third with Germany’s Maximilian Arndt just behind in fourth.
Zubkov had a time of one minute 50.19 seconds at the midway point. The top four sleds were separated by less than two-10ths of a second entering the final two runs Sunday.
Canadian team officials juggled the lineups on the eve of the competition to give Canada 3 pilot Justin Kripps the strongest possible crew behind him. It looked like the plan might work until things fell apart on Turn 14.
De La Hunty said the nose of the sled was pushed away as it angled away from the corner. The momentum proved to be too much and the sled rolled on its side and slid down the rest of the track.
Kripps, from Summerland, B.C., and his crew of Jesse Lumsden of Burlington, Ont., Ottawa’s Cody Sorensen and Saskatoon’s Ben Coakwell appeared to be OK and walked away from the sled on their own. They went for medical testing afterwards and didn’t speak with reporters.
“They’re all fine, they’re being looked at by the doctors as we speak and I don’t anticipate any problems,” De La Hunty said.
The crash silenced the raucous crowd near the finish area. Spectators politely applauded as the grimacing Canadians walked up the side of the track one by one.
It was the latest bit of drama for a men’s team that has had its fair share in recent days.
Canada 1 pilot Chris Spring of Calgary had his teammates pulled before the final training day and moved to the Kripps sled. It was an all-or-nothing push by team officials to get one of the sleds on the podium.
Spring was steaming after the decision and his 13th-place standing in the 30-sled field didn’t improve his mood.
“You don’t switch a team up that close to the Olympics,” Spring said. “That’s my feelings on things.”
De La Hunty stood by the team’s call and felt Kripps would have been sitting near fourth place had he finished the run.
“I think that decision was vindicated even though he crashed, because he was flying,” he said.
Spring didn’t sugarcoat his feelings about the issue. He said his sled had great results this season and that his crew was jelling well.
“I understand that they make decisions based on the betterment of the program,” Spring said, his voice cracking with emotion. “I strongly disagree with the decisions they made. I feel like it was a huge mistake to switch the teams that late and to tell me that they have no confidence in me winning a medal and putting everything behind Justin, I think is a massive mistake.
“But the coaches, they make the decisions and I don’t always agree with them sometimes but again, they do it for the betterment of the program. Maybe that’s why they’re the coach and I’m the athlete. They say jump and I guess I say how high.”
Kripps, who was coming off a World Cup two-man win last month, had the top result in the two-man event here and had the most impressive runs in training.
“We’re not going to get thanked for having three teams in the top-10, that’s for sure. We’ll get thanked for having one team on the podium,” De La Hunty said earlier in the day. “It just increases our chances somewhat. It’s always a tough call taking someone’s crew off them.
“We’re not paid to be Mr. Nice Guy. We’re paid to get some medals.”
Canada 2 pilot Lyndon Rush of Humboldt, Sask., Edmonton’s Neville Wright, Calgary’s Lascelles Brown and Edmonton’s David Bissett Neville Wright were 10th in 1:50.78.
Spring raced with Toronto’s Timothy Randall, James McNaughton of Newmarket, Ont., and Edmonton’s Bryan Barnett. They were tied for 13th in 1:51.20.
De La Hunty said the lineup switch was first considered several days ago but he wanted to give Spring a chance to find his form. With Kripps looking good, the lineup change was discussed with the other coaches, the technical push coach, high-performance director and the team’s sports psychologist.
It was a unanimous decision.
“I promise you it’s the toughest call I’ve ever made in my entire management career to do this,” De La Hunty said. “Absolutely the toughest. I’ve never actually done it at the Games before, I’ve done it at the world championships last year – not quite in the same manner, it was a crewman – but yeah, an extremely tough call and one I hope I don’t have to make again any time soon.”
He added the change was not disruptive because the crew members were moved as a trio and the sleds are identical.
“There’s no difficulty doing it,” he said. “The difficulty is the mental aspect of one of the pilots is losing his crew. Conversely there’s the positive aspect of the other pilot getting the best crew. You can’t please all the people all the time in this sport. Sometimes you’ve got to make tough decisions.
“But it was a completely performance-based decision. Nothing personal. BCS (Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton) is a performance-based organization. Our whole mantra, our mission statement is we train and develop world and Olympic champions.”
Canada has had mixed results on the 17-turn course.
The luge and skeleton teams did not reach the podium and the two-man sleds also missed out on the medals. Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse defended their Olympic title in the women’s event for the lone Canadian medal in the sliding sports.
De La Hunty said Kripps was shocked when told of the move.
“He knew it was a step up for him. He was very positive, very professional,” he said. “We’ll discuss it at the end of the season, truly how he felt about it.
“But he was totally cool with it. He’s there to do a job. When you’re there to do a job and you’re given the best team, it’s got to be good for you.”
Kripps was 30th in 1:55.08. Since his sled made it past the finish line, they will be able to start the third run Sunday but only 20 sleds make the cut for the final run.
This is the final event of the season so they’ll want to finish on a better note. With injury details still unknown, the chances of a couple alternates being added to the sled are good.