One of Kaillie Humphries’s first trips down the bobsled run left her with a broken collarbone and an unconscious brakeman.
Good thing one of her greatest strengths is perseverance.
It was about a decade ago, and the reigning Olympic women’s bobsled champ had just given up a ski racing career fraught with injuries to pursue bobsledding.
The crash happened on the last day of a learn-to-drive course at Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park. Humphries — who, unbeknownst to many, actually began her sledding career as a driver — was piloting the sled. She had an experienced male sledder in back on the brakes.
Somewhere along the treacherous twisting ice track, Humphries flipped the sled, knocking the brakeman out cold and sending him sailing out the back end.
“Kaillie was yelling and screaming, ‘Brake! Brake!’ and she turned around and there wasn’t anybody behind her,” her mom Cheryl Simundson said. “So she reached over and pulled the brakes herself and stopped the sled.”
It was a less-than-auspicious start, but some 12 years later, there’s not a woman in the sport more dominant.
The 28-year-old from Calgary roared to Canada’s first Olympic women’s title four years ago in Vancouver with brakeman Heather Moyse, and went on to win the world championships in 2012 and ‘13.
That broken collarbone sidelined Humphries for several months, and she returned at the tail end of that season as a brakeman.
But a heartbreaking trip to the 2006 Turin Olympics that saw Humphries sit out as an alternate was where “history was made,” Simundson said.
She decided to return to driving.
“That’s what made Kaillie decide ‘I’m going to be in charge of my own destiny.’ You look back and you think ‘That was a blessing, it really was,“’ Humphries’ mom added.
Humphries spent most weekends growing up on the slopes of Mt. Norquay in Banff, Alta., and skied competitively until she broke one leg and then the other in quick succession and quit at the age of 16.
The seeds of her Olympic hopes had been sown years earlier when Humphries and her two sisters sat around the TV to watch the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and their friend Mark Tewksbury. Humphries’ dad Ray Simundson had come to know Tewksbury when he was a rising young swimming star, and during those early days when he was still struggling to make ends meet, Tewksbury was a regular at the Simundson dinner table.
The Calgary swimmer went on to win gold in the 100-metre backstroke in Barcelona.
“I remember I was in the living room with the three girls and we were just jumping up and down on the couches,” Cheryl Simundson said. “Then he actually came over to the house with the gold medal, and it was after that that Kaillie, at one of our family dinners, got up on a chair and said: ‘I am going to win an Olympic gold medal.“’
Humphries was seven when she made that proclamation. And it was what Humphries’ mom called a “full-circle moment” 17 years later when her daughter won gold at Whistler. Humphries has since told Tewksbury that if she could inspire just one child, it would be another circle complete.
The Simundson family is a close one — evident in the ink that adorns Humphries’ buff body. She has portraits of her parents tattooed on the inside of her right arm from wrist to armpit, and plans to add tributes to her sisters Jordan, who’s 26, and Shelby, 23, and Shelby’s baby daughter Haze, to make it a full family sleeve.
“When Kaillie came home (with the tattoo of her mom) it was ‘Oh my God!’ I feel so honoured that she did that,” Cheryl said.
“That was one of my best pictures that ever was taken of me, ever. So I love the fact that she chose that one,” she added, laughing. “And now it’s like, if I want a facelift I just go to her arm (and think) ‘Look at how good I looked.“’
Humphries’ left leg resembles a shield of armour, tattooed from waist to toe in a memorial piece to her grandparents. The words “Because you love me” are written in Icelandic, and there are stars commemorating each one of her grandparents. It evolved over more than 40 hours on the tattoo table.
“I’m gone from my family a lot and they’re my No. 1 biggest support so I like to take them with me and this is a way that that will forever happen,” Humphries said. “All my tattoos — family, goals, dreams, hopes — are just kind of the story of my life, where I’ve been, and where I want to go, who I am and how I got there.”