'Podium or bust': Canadian bobsledders ready to get risky

The excuses have run out for Canada’s men’s bobsleigh team, and veterans Jesse Lumsden and Justin Kripps will be the first to admit it.

“We’re [OK] learning from mistakes,” says Lumsden, Kripps’s brakeman in the two-man event last season. “As long as we’re not making the same ones.”

There were a lot of mistakes to learn from last season. It seemed full of promise with strong early results on North American tracks before a series of subpar results ensued when the World Cup circuit shifted to Europe.

Lumsden said at the end of last season that a number of factors contributed to the disappointing performances for Kripps and himself. He pointed to everything from weather to their starting order in races to equipment shortcomings, including a missing set of runners.

“It was a reality check for not only the athletes but for the [Canadian] federation as well to say, get your shit together because it’s an Olympic season,” says the native of Burlington, Ont.

That Olympic season is underway, and with just months to go before the 2018 Games in South Korea, Lumsden says they’re in a much better position to handle the adversity.

“It’s tough to get ahead of the curve but we have talented people in place who build our sleds and are working hard to give us that technical advantage that we’ve seen other teams harness,” he says.

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Kripps, left, and Lumsden feel they have what it takes to reach the Olympic podium after winning a silver at the world championships last winter. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

‘Gong show’

The Canadian bobsleigh team is in Park City, Utah this week for the second World Cup event of the season (live streaming on CBCSports.ca begins Friday at 5 p.m. ET).

Last week, Kripps drove Alex Kopacz to a silver medal in Lake Placid in the two-man. Meanwhile, Lumsden teamed with pilot Chris Spring for the first time since 2014 and finished fifth.

In all likelihood, Lumsden and Kripps will be reunited for the Olympics. But for now, the coaching staff is tinkering with its lineups and the athletes don’t seem to mind.

“I have some ideas of who will be with me on my team. It doesn’t affect me,” says Kripps, from Summerland, B.C. “Personality-wise, I can mesh with whoever.”

The Hawaiian-born pilot was in the same head space as Lumsden for much of last season, trying to sift through the disappointment of demoralizing results.

“Last year was a gong show but it made us stronger,” Kripps says. “The hardest part about the year was that other countries had figured out how to use their equipment and it was giving them an advantage.”

Despite their struggles, Kripps and Lumsden won a silver medal at the world championships in Germany last February. They’ve been holding onto that result and using it as motivation early this season.

Kripps is also using the valuable time he’s had on the track in Pyeongchang to help come up with a blueprint for an Olympic podium finish.

Kripps, Lumsden are 2nd best at 2-man bobsleigh Worlds1:58

‘All of the risks’

Kripps and Lumsden say they have more success on North American tracks because of their familiarity with them. When the World Cup circuit moves to Europe, the advantage shifts to the athletes who are able to train more often on those tracks.

The Pyeongchang track, says Kripps, is the great equalizer. It’s new to everyone.

“We have a better chance [there] than a normal World Cup because I think Canada has done a really good job in figuring out the driving program for that track,” he says. “I think we’re a little further ahead than some of the other nations.”

Kripps considers the Olympic track rather ordinary and feels “no one is scared of it.” He says teams can approach it one of two ways: Play it cautiously and hope that other teams make mistakes, or risk it all and hope that it pays off.

He knows which option he’ll choose.

“I’ll be taking all of the risks and hope I can execute it properly,” Kripps says.

That’s what four years of training is going to come down to for Kripps, Lumsden and the rest of the men’s bobsleigh team. Four runs of less than 60 seconds each will determine whether or not they can capture medals for Canada. Only two previous times have men’s bobsledders from this country reached the podium at the Olympics. 

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe we could do this,” Lumsden says. “It’s the honest truth. I believe in my teammates and coaching staff. I know we can do it.”

Kripps is even more blunt.

“It’s podium or bust,” he says. “Nobody really cares if you’re fourth or 40th.

“If you’re not top three, it doesn’t matter.”

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