It’s the beginning of a new era for Canadian bobsled, and recent selection races at the Whistler Sliding Centre (WSC) have the top brass excited for what’s to come.
Team Canada’s finest stopped by last week for some sessions on Earth’s fastest ice track. Melissa Lotholz carved through a pair of monobob runs on Nov. 2 in a combined time of one minute and 51.41 seconds, enough to prevail over Bianca Ribi (1:51.73) and Mackenzie Stewart (1:52.82).
In two-man bobsled, Taylor Austin and his brakeman Shane Ort (1:45.45) got the better of Patrick Norton and Shaquille Murray-Lawrence (1:46.59).
Among developmental athletes in the two-woman discipline, Eden Wilson and Morgan Ramsay (1:50.07) clocked in ahead of Erica Voss, pushed by Cadence Chernoff (1:51.75).
One day later, it was Ribi’s turn to fly. She linked up with familiar partner Niamh Haughey for a victorious effort among elite two-woman tandems (1:46.46). That forced Lotholz and Alexandra Klein to settle for second (1:46.93), while Stewart and Caelan Brown were third (1:49.75).
Ribi earned the first-ever IBSF World Cup monobob gold medal here in Whistler, but felt like she struggled all week in training. Though not fully satisfied with her monobob runs, she let out an emphatic cheer at the end of her two-woman event.
“Coming off of my gold medal from last year, I knew the lines that I was capable of achieving, and I just felt like I wasn't driving to my full potential,” Ribi said. “I was able to put it together for two big runs on race day, and so it was just excitement and relief. Really happy to be able to do it with Niamh.”
The lone four-man sled of Austin, Ort, DeVaughn McEwan and Anthony Couturier had a nice tune-up (1:43.32), roughly a second slower than the World Cup bronze medal effort Austin had in Whistler last year with Murray-Lawrence, Cyrus Gray and Davidson de Souza.
Voss took a turn in the monobob (55.79), outracing Kristen Bujnowski (1:01.88).
Gray has transitioned to pilot school after opening his career as a brakeman. After a smooth first attempt, he was unable to complete his second run from atop the WSC as a mechanical issue prevented him and Cesar De Guzman from entering their sled cleanly after the push.
Cynthia Appiah and Leah Walkeden had the luxury of forerunning instead of participating, but theirs were valuable reps nonetheless.
“This is the first time I've actually been here in Whistler and haven't had a crash, so I’m taking that as a win,” Appiah admitted. “Having Leah in the back of my sled for a second season is going to be good.”
All in all, Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton (BCS) technical coach Justin Kripps likes what he’s witnessed.
“It's really exciting to see people start to hit their stride—to go from not having done the sport very much, or just learning how to drive, to starting to really understand it and have some good lines down the track,” he said. “We have a lot of newer athletes in the program right now and a lot of great progression over the last three weeks of sliding here in Whistler, so that's been really encouraging. Our women's team in particular is really strong.”
Pressure is privilege
Storylines abound going into this year’s World Cup campaign. Gone is the old guard—Whistlerite Chris Spring has retired, as have Kripps and his Olympic bronze-winning four-man squad of Cam Stones, Benjamin Coakwell and Ryan Sommer. Christine de Bruin, the monobob bronze medallist from Beijing, is serving a three-year suspension after testing positive for a banned substance.
BCS as an organization underwent change last November when Tara McNeil replaced the controversial Sarah Storey as president.
All of that paves a way for Appiah, Ribi, Lotholz and Austin to lead the Maple Leaf on the road to Milano Cortina 2026.
Canada is getting back an influx of experience with Lotholz, who finished seventh in Pyeongchang and 12th in Beijing. She took a year off after her last Winter Games, completing her bachelor's degree in nutrition and food science and joining a church in Edmonton. Ultimately, returning to competition felt right.
“Coming back was a big decision because I enjoyed the non-athlete life for a little bit, but at the end of the day, it really felt like I just wasn't done in this space,” Lotholz said. “It's been cool because I'm in a different role than I've ever been before. I hadn’t been on the ice since [Beijing], and every single year you come back and you're like, ‘Will I know what to do at 145 kilometres per hour?’ But it feels really good to be back in the front seat.”
The Barrhead, Alta. native is now the only Canadian with two Olympics under her belt. She’s embracing her new place as mentor and gelling with her new brakewoman Klein.
At 6-foot-1, Klein is one of the tallest women in the sport and found a second lease on her athletic life after a pro basketball career in Luxembourg. Unlike Gray—himself a former competitive hooper—she has no desire to go the piloting route, instead focusing on the art of the push.
Klein has been a captain in Europe and at her alma mater, Bryant University. She hopes to become a leader with Team Canada as well.
“One of my big goals is to grow into that role model as a brakewoman so when newer athletes come in, they have a safe space, they have a mentor, somebody that they can go to,” she explained. “Having that support system is just so important. Melissa is going to help me [succeed] and I'm going to help her.”
Likewise, Ribi and Haughey have lofty aspirations for themselves. No longer are they the green underdogs trying to stockpile World Cup experience, as was the case last year. Now, they drive one of their nation’s top sleds.
“If you can make it out of Canada, that's almost like Top 10 in the world because we're so competitive within the country,” said Ribi. “Niamh and I always tell each other: pressure is privilege and you’ve got to show up on race day.”
“It's nice having great teammates to push each other,” Haughey added. “We're competitors when it's time to be competitors, and then as soon as it's time to be friends off the track, we’re really good at putting the bobsled aside and coming together.”
An exciting time
Meanwhile, Austin is currently the lone pilot on the men’s senior team. The Calgarian made his Olympic debut in Beijing, where he managed 20th place in two-man bobsled and 23rd in four-man. Many bobsledders get their start in other sports and Austin is no exception, having played football for the University of Calgary.
Today, the 33-year-old finds himself leading the charge.
“Lyndon Rush, then Justin Kripps, and now Chris Spring retiring,” Austin remarked. “Those are some pretty prestigious pilots, so for me to be the next one up and coming, it's definitely a privilege. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, but I'm definitely willing to put in that work and see if I can try and keep up with those guys.
“Last year was great, obviously, starting the season off strong with a bronze medal here in Whistler. [Afterwards], going to tracks that I've never been at before was definitely a learning curve, but I’m proud of my team and what we accomplished last year and looking to build off that this season.”
Gray is still learning the ins and outs of the front seat, which makes Norton Canada’s No. 2 driver. Perhaps his best outing came at a North American Cup (NAC) event last season in Lake Placid, N.Y., where he earned gold and bronze in two-man. Working at his father’s Harley Davidson shop in Ottawa prepared him well for the duties of maintaining his sled: an unheralded but vital part of the sport.
Norton, a former hockey player, believes that more NAC reps will give him and his team valuable experience.
“The North American circuit offers us the opportunity to get on the tracks that Europeans don't spend as much time on, so when the World Cup does return to these tracks, we have the practice in the lines and the feel of those tracks to be able to perform well,” he said.
Unlike years past, when national team spots were expressly on the line during selection races, BCS is undergoing what high-performance director Chris Le Bihan calls a “technical evaluation" for its athletes.
“We're not sitting here surprised with our athlete pool,” Le Bihan explained. “We go through these types of cycles every couple of quads where you have an elite group of pilots and teams [retire]. It’s an exciting time. You get a bigger crop of people coming in, and you get to see what they're made of over the next couple of years and prepare them for either an Olympic experience, or to be the next senior team athletes at the start of the next quad.”
Team Canada returns to Whistler Nov. 27 for NAC competition.