Four-woman bobsleigh on the rise 

Johnson hopes to pilot all-women sled at upcoming North American Cup

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ADAM TABER PHOTOGRAPHY - Right on track Pilot Julie Johnson hopes to help grow the sport of four-woman bobsleigh.
  • Photo by Adam Taber Photography
  • Right on track Pilot Julie Johnson hopes to help grow the sport of four-woman bobsleigh.

Julie Johnson hopes she'll slide down the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre with three other women when the North American Cup tour lands there next week.

The product of Hanley, Sask., who is now based in Whistler, is tentatively scheduled to race alongside the men in four-man action on Nov. 25 and 26 up Blackcomb Mountain.

Johnson, a former figure skater, track and field athlete and football player, started competing in 2014 after trying the local track's public programming that spring. She was in a sled piloted by two-time Olympic gold medallist Kaillie Humphries, who in recent years has broken barriers by driving a World Cup sled with three men in it before later helming a sled with three other women.

Johnson took some inspiration from Humphries and is looking to help raise the event's profile among women.

"It's cool to see the four-woman thing happen and will hopefully lead to higher levels of participation in the sport," Johnson said. "There's room for more women in the sport in four-man and two-man and everything. It's definitely a hyper-masculinized sport, and for girls in sport in general, participation definitely declines as we get a little bit older. It's a cool opportunity to prolong some athletic careers."

Johnson said she tried the four-man sled last year for fun and has already noticed some differences in the sleds. She appreciates the chance to do both.

"They handle a bit differently. I personally find it's easier to drive but you can't fix mistakes as easily as a two-man. If you make a mistake in a four-man, it's very, very hard to fix," she said, noting that piloting the four-man has some effect on her two-man driving. "You're learning more about how to drive the track and how everything's working (in the four-man). You're presented some new challenges, so I think that contributes to your ability to be a good pilot."

Alysia Rissling, originally of Edmonton, is another pilot pushing for more women in the four-slider events. Though she'll only be competing in the two-woman event because she didn't have the resources to send both sleds to Whistler from Calgary, she enjoyed competing in the larger sled this past weekend in Alberta.

"We really enjoy the four-man," she said. "Compared to a women's two-man... the amount of control you have in the sled is significantly greater. You're able to actually feel the pressure. Driving a four-man sled makes me a better pilot. More than anything, we have way more fun on four-man days.

"Hopefully by next year we'll be competing in Whistler in the four-man as well."

Rissling explained after driving the bigger four-person sled, she's better able to anticipate what's coming when driving the smaller one.

"The feedback you get in your hand is so much greater than what you get in a two-man sled. I've been able to figure out some things by using the weight and force of the four-man. I've been able to bring that back when I go back to the two-man," she said.

Rissling praised Romanian pilot Maria Constantin who, in her first trip to Calgary, hopped in a four-man sled with three others and ended up edging her by two-hundredths of a second in Monday's action. Still, Rissling admittedly hoped to see a few more women participating at this point.

"It's a little bit slower than we want and it's one sled at a time. That magic number we're chasing is six. We need to get six sleds going and we have really tried to convince some of the other teams. A lot of the girls really want to do it, but the biggest challenge they're facing is resources and money to order a sled, money to carry extra an extra woman," she said. "Honestly, a lot of the other federations aren't getting the support from their coaching staffs like we Canadians are."

Rissling noted women interested in competing on the World Cup tour were allowed their own slots and did not affect the participation of men, but at lower levels, each country is allowed up to four and must choose which teams it enters. She explained if women's sleds are blocked from competing at lower levels, they won't get the experience required to compete at higher levels.

"How are we supposed to compete on the World Cup tour if we're fighting men for spots on the development tours?" she reasoned.

In addition to the four-man events, which take place at 6 p.m. on Nov. 25 and 26, there will be two-man events on Nov. 23 and 24, also at 6 p.m. Skeleton racing will take place on Nov. 25 and 26 beginning at 2:30 p.m.

With Johnson being the lone Whistler-based competitor, she's particularly excited to show what she can do as she eyes working her way up the Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton ladder.

"I'm the only one where it's my home track, so that makes it even more exciting for me to come back to," she said. "To be able to demonstrate that a development pilot can do runs on the hardest track in the world is a really good thing for the sliding sports, for the country, for Whistler in general."

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