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.”
The tattoo bug began as a family pact made when Humphries was 12. Every member of the family — Humphries made them promise — would get a tattoo when she made the national team. She originally meant the Canadian ski team. But when she made the bobsled team five years later, the family made good on the promise.
“The very first training camp she made the team and she came home right away and said ‘Well, I guess we’re all getting tattoos,” Cheryl said. “We were like. . . gasp!”
Humphries got a tattoo of a bobsled going through a Maple Leaf on her thigh, Cheryl got an angel on her left ankle, dad Ray got an armband, and Jordan got a butterfly on the small of her back. Shelby, because she was only 12, got her belly-button pierced, “Because everybody had to have something,” Cheryl said.
The family made a return trip to the tattoo parlour a few months ago, at the request of a television crew who wanted to film the process.
“We weren’t the typical family walking into the tattoo parlour,” Cheryl said, with a laugh. “I had my knitting, and Shelby had seven-week-old Haze.”
This time Ray got an Inukshuk to commemorate the Vancouver Games, Cheryl got three hearts — for her daughters — with angel wings for her parents on her right calf, and the saying “Because you love me.”
“Because that’s what my mom used to say to all of us,” Cheryl said.
Humphries and her sisters had different versions of the same saying.
“Would we all get another (tattoo)?” Cheryl said. “I’m not going to say no, because we love them. When she wins again (in Sochi), we’ll have to go do something. . .”
Humphries body art graces a powerful physique that is built for pushing heavy objects. The five-foot-six, 169-pound athlete can squat 340 pounds all the way to the floor. And she’s been known to push cars — including her own BMW X5 SUV — for workouts, usually because she’s in an isolated location with nothing else handy to push.
But there’s a softer side to Humphries, who calls herself the “biggest girl girl you’ve ever met.”
“Makeup, hair, rainbows and butterflies and nice things,” Humphries said. “I like sweet food. I hate HATE roller-coasters. (She also hates flying). I can do twirly, but that droppy feeling — nope.”
Mom Cheryl said Humphries has this “bad-ass” persona, but “she’s a wonderful combination of both (bad-ass and girly girl).”
“She’s very sensitive, and she likes the girl stuff, the dressing up, and the high heels and the perfumes. I go into her room, and I’m like ‘Oh my God, it smells so good in here.’ She mixes perfumes to create her own scent. We’ve been in elevators before and people — usually it’s a man — will go over and say ‘Boy you smell good.’ She loves all that stuff. Makeup, getting her toenails done, all of that stuff. But then it’s: game face on, and she’s serious.”
Cheryl Simundson spoke with pride about Humphries’ soft heart, and the nine-year-old boy Callum who has inspired her daughter. Callum is battling kidney cancer in Alberta Children’s Hospital, and Humphries, who was in and out of hospital with kidney problems as a child, met with Callum over Christmas.
The tiny patients at Alberta Children’s Hospital wear “beads of courage,” necklaces of brightly coloured beads, each one of which represents a chemotherapy treatment, a blood test or transfusion.
Humphries was given her own red-and-white Olympic-inspired beads to wear in Sochi. She wore them on the medal podium after her recent World Cup victory with Moyse in St. Moritz, Switzerland, that saw the Canadians roar into the lead after finishing well back in 10th after the first run.
She posted a picture on Twitter and wrote “Had my (at)beadsofcourage on 2day.fighting from 10th in run 1,to win overall is for u Callum (at)albertachildren #believe.”
Cheryl said Humphries’s success comes from her inner strength.
“She has this drive inside of her — you raise three children, and we did the same thing for all three and they’re all very powerful and very talented ladies. It’s Kaillie’s ability to put herself in a place where she can block out others, and focus on a task. She’s very goal-oriented, when she sets her mind to something she can achieve it.”
Humphries and Moyse reunited this season with their sights on defending their Olympic title.
“No one in women’s bobsleigh has ever repeated an Olympic title,” Humphries said. “That’s my goal, to go out and be the first one.”
Follow us on Twitter: