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Canada’s sliders hopeful of progress after calls for leadership change answered

Canada’s sliders hopeful of progress after calls for leadership change answered

Standing on the side of the mountain in the picturesque setting of the Whistler Sliding Centre, just steps away from the track where she will begin her World Cup season, Canadian bobsleigh pilot Cynthia Appiah takes a deep breath.

“There are going to be moments where you kind of sit back and you reflect on this and wonder how you got through that. How did my teammates go through that?” the 32-year-old tells CBC Sports, reflecting on a turbulent eight months at Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton [BCS], the governing body for the sports in Canada.

“I think as athletes we learn to fight through adversity. We never want to give up until we absolutely have to, and so I don’t know if that’s like a tool that we build within ourselves or we’re just naturally inclined to fight through the negativity.”

In March, upward of 80 skeleton and bobsleigh athletes stood resolute in their calls for change at BCS. Citing a toxic and authoritarian culture, the athletes demanded the resignation of the organization’s leaders, including Sarah Storey, CEO and president of the board of directors, and high-performance director Chris Le Bihan.

For months those calls got louder and headlines swirled, stories laced with descriptions of the organization’s grim culture of intimidation

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Appiah was part of the group asking for something to change.

“I’ve been on the national team since 2015 and I don’t think I’ve ever felt like my voice was ever heard by the leadership and I think this is now the turning of the page that we’ve been asking for for so long,” Appiah said. 

She was poised to make her Olympic debut at the Pyeongchang Games in 2018 but just weeks before they were to begin she was demoted to an alternate spot. It was heartbreaking and she nearly left the sport because of it. She describes an atmosphere in BCS that left her feeling unheard, fearful and disrespected.

“I count myself one of the lucky ones, and I use that term very loosely, because of what happened in 2018 with the decision to put me on as a reserve athlete,” Appiah said. “That’s something that took a long time to get over.”

At the beginning of November, Storey declined to run for a third term, opening up the door for Tara McNeil to take over as president. Stephen Norris remained as vice-president.

“It was an interesting offseason because we knew that it wouldn’t be a cakewalk,” Appiah said. “We just needed something different and that’s what we’re looking for at the end of the day. Whatever the opinions may be of any individual I think we felt that we wanted to grow the sport and our vision wasn’t aligning with the current leadership.”

Appiah piloted Canada’s two-woman sled in the Beijing Olympics in February. (AFP via Getty Images)

Challenges of past months linger

Appiah and skeleton athlete Mirela Rahneva serve as athlete representatives in the organization.

“To be honest with you I had been tinkering with it for some time, but one of the stumbling blocks was that I felt the leadership needed to change before I actually put my name forward,” Appiah said. “I knew in good conscience I didn’t want to be a part of the athlete rep board if leadership stayed the same.

“I feel like this is just the next natural step in being a veteran on the team.”

Rahneva is optimistic about this new direction. 

“I think a lot of growth has happened. A lot of personal growth, and federation growth,” Rahneva said. 

She, like many others on the team, wants to look forward now — but the challenging circumstances of the last number of months still linger. 

“I have had to put it kind of on a ‘tree.’ I ‘tree’ things that I have to deal with later. Right now I’m focusing on racing.”

Skeleton athlete Mirela Rahneva along with Appiah serve as athlete representatives in BCS. (The Associated Press)

‘Doesn’t happen overnight’

When asked if there is already a healthier atmosphere around the organization, Rahneva is careful with her words.

“It’s trying to. It’s really trying to. It doesn’t happen overnight,” she said. “I think there are a lot of processes and a lot of people at the table that play a role in the change that occurs. Sometimes those people all mean well but they have different agendas or different goals. So it’s kind of like a dance that you have to play out I guess.”

Norris acknowledges they have a lot of work to do as an organization, not just to restore the good faith of the athletes but Canadians as well.

“Don’t give up on us. We are working hard and I mean very hard. This board, the staff and the athletes are making sure we have that stable fortitude and platform so that we can make Canadians proud again,” he said. “The level of trust is something we have to work really hard to rebuild. All of us. Staff. Board. Athletes. Sponsors. And our amazing support from funding agencies.”

Norris said he’s been heartened by the amount of openness and vulnerability shown by athletes who have been willing to speak out to try to be part of the solution. 

“In all of this adversity we have an opportunity to lay the groundwork for something as a community can be proud of. I hope we can look back on this and say this was the tipping point we needed to sort ourselves out as a group,” he said.

There is a feeling from both sides right now, athletes and leadership, that they are moving in the same direction. Bobsleigh and skeleton athletes know they compete in a niche sport that once every four years is thrust into the spotlight at the Olympics. 

So to be in the headlines for all the wrong reasons outside of that timeframe has left many who love the sport with a bad taste in their mouths.

Justin Kripps won a gold medal driving Canada’s four-man sled in 2018 and has since retired to coach. (Getty Images)

Kripps transititoned to coach

It’s why Olympic gold medallist Justin Kripps, who retired in August after 16 years of piloting Canadian sleds, made the quick transition to coach on the team. 

He was instrumental in helping grow the sport in the country through his consistent and podium performances for so long — Kripps also feels he had many positive experiences throughout his career, something he now wants to provide the next generation of athletes.

“I think everyone wants to move forward. I hope both sides want to do that. That’s the key ingredient to this. Acknowledging what happened and then moving forward from here,” he said. 

“With all the stuff going on this summer with BCS I thought it was important to stay involved at least for a little bit and pass on some knowledge I’ve accrued. It saddened me to see how many negative experiences there were because my career has been the opposite. I look back on it with such fond memories.

“I thought if I could help more people be more likely to have that experience then I should try and help for a bit.”

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