Canadian Rugby Star Jen Kish Auditions for New, Daunting Role: Brakeman for Bobsleigh gold-medallist
CALGARY — By rights, Jen Kish should be celebrating her Olympic bronze medal on a tropical beach with a novel in one hand and a margarita in the other.
Instead, the captain of the Canadian women’s rugby team is subjecting herself to the terror of trying out a new sport in the icehouse at Winsport’s Canada Olympic Park. The heavily tattooed Kish is an intimidating force on the rugby pitch, but she’s a wide-eyed rookie this week seeking to become the next dual summer/winter Olympian as a brakeman in bobsleigh.
Not one to hide her fear, a nervous Kish openly asked Tuesday what to do if she should spill out of the sled during an instructional session with two-time Olympic gold medallist Kaillie Humphries and Olympic silver and bronze medallist Lascelles Brown.
“If I ever went out for the rugby team, I would be thinking the exact same thoughts,” Humphries says. “I have no cardio capacity whatsoever. I would be pooping my pants, like ‘These girls are going to hit me.’
“It’s not that Olympic athletes and Olympic medallists don’t get scared about things. We get scared like everybody else. But the fact that she has enough courage to still come out and push through her fear and be able to push herself as an athlete — that speaks volumes.”
Kish, 28, is one of a handful of Canadian summer Olympians to receive invitations to try out for the bobsleigh team. Hurdlers Nikkita Holder and Phylicia George flew in from Toronto last month to audition. Last year, hurdler Priscilla Lopes-Schliep gave it a go.
Canada already has two world-class brakemen in Melissa Lotholz and Cynthia Appiah, but needs more given the county can send up to three women’s two-man sleds to the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“We’re not trying to poach athletes from other sports,” says Chris Le Bihan, high performance director at Bobsleigh Canada. “We’re just looking at giving them a different opportunity.”
Humphries, 31, says the competition is wide open for the right to push her sled in Korea. Lotholz and Appiah might be the favourites today, but bobsleigh is a sport where successful pilots are always trying to knock hundredths of a second off their run times.
“We’re about a year-and-a-half away from the 2018 Games and trying to make history by defending my Olympic title in two-man for a third time,” she says. “I require something bigger, something more.”
Humphries won gold in Vancouver and Sochi with brakeman Heather Moyse, who is 38 and not competing this season.
“I’ve got a huge target on my back,” Humphries says. “These girls are coming for me. The Americans are very strong at the start. The Germans are very strong in the driving. I’m one of the top drivers in the world. I’m one of the top starters, but I can’t do it by myself. I need a teammate and a partner who can help me achieve that.
“We’ve got girls currently in the program who are working very hard, but I want to leave no doubt — no hesitation in my mind or my competitors’ minds that I’m here to win.”
Kish has no plans to retire from rugby, and she initially hesitated when Humphries sent her an invitation via Twitter. After all, she’s busy building a new house on the outskirts of Edmonton with her partner Nadine and winding down from the adrenaline rush of the Rio Games.
“I was making excuses at first,” she says. “I guess it’s the fear of failure — the unknown. I was like, ‘What if I’m crap at it?’”
Upon reflection, Kish figured she had nothing to lose and loves the idea of competing with an Olympic champion like Humphries. So she jumped in the car Monday and drove to Calgary.
“I’m just giving it a go,” she says. “If it works out, what a duo that would be. We’ve both got blonde hair, tattoos and bad-ass attitudes. So it would be cool, but she doesn’t have any expectation of me, and I don’t have any expectations either. I’m just trying my best, and we’ll go from there.”
After three days of instruction, Kish will undergo testing on Friday to see if she can reach the World Cup standard. The rugby captain brings to the ice a tantalizing combination of power and speed thanks in part to her experience pushing the scrum.
But identifying a successful brakeman is not an exact science. Jesse Lumsden, formerly of the Calgary Stampeders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, successfully made the transition from football to bobsleigh, but countless other have failed to put up the requisite numbers in the icehouse.
“Jen’s a fantastic athlete,” Humphries says. “At the end of the day, I believe she has what it takes to be absolutely great in this sport. But there’s no way of knowing it unless we get her out, teach her what to do and see what happens. That’s what we’re doing. I’m very honoured that she’s willing to come out and try.”