By Dan Plouffe
Seyi Smith describes going down an icy chute in a bobsled like “somebody puts you into a trash can, throws you off a cliff, and then somebody’s sitting on your back on the way down.”
Makes you wonder why someone would go ahead and do it without a second thought. The answer for Smith? London 2012.
Joining the Canadian bobsled team just in time for the 2018 Olympic season is the latest intriguing chapter in the Ottawa-raised athlete’s career, which, up to this point, features a fair amount of heartbreak.
Smith was a member of the Canadian men’s 4×100-metre track-and-field relay team for the 2012 Summer Olympics. There, he helped bring Canadian sprinting back into the spotlight, which had faded since his coach, Ottawa’s Glenroy Gilbert, captured gold in the relay at Atlanta 1996. Smith’s team finished 3rd in the Olympic final, but was later disqualified for a lane violation.
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Reflecting on it over 5 years later, Smith says it’s still a disappointment.
“In my career, there have been so many missed opportunities,” the 30-year-old explains.
“I never really got to achieve what I truly believed I could achieve. Whether it was injuries or technicalities, I just got left with a bitter feeling, which is probably why I was so quick to jump on this. I feel like bobsled is an opportunity for me to redeem myself.”
The Canadian relay team did redeem itself with a medal at the 2013 World Championships, but Smith wasn’t part of it, injured with stress fractures in his feet and recurrent knee issues.
For 3 long years, he tried every day to rediscover the form that allowed him to make his first Olympic team, but failed to reach the national final in 2014 or 2015.
In 2016, Smith at last matched his personal-best time of 10.22 seconds in the Olympic trials heats – an accomplishment that meant “nothing” to him since a later 7th-place finish in the final kept him from returning to the Games.
“For me, my goal was Olympics or World Championships medals. Everything below that, I felt I shouldn’t be happy to do this because this is my capability,” signals the Nigeria-born athlete now based in Calgary. “I just want to be the best.
Smith knew his foot couldn’t handle another 4-year cycle of running, so he focused on building a career as an electrical engineer. But he still kept in shape, so when his track coach in Calgary – also a Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton strength and conditioning coach – pitched the idea of giving bobsled a try in early September, Smith was all in.
“I have a lot to prove,” notes the Loughborough University (UK) grad. “Pushing a sled is very, very different from running.”
Smith has nonetheless made an immediate impact. The rear brakeman debuted with a podium in his first World Cup four-man race behind pilot Chris Spring on Nov. 17 in Park City, Utah. His push crew has recorded the field’s fastest start times in 5 of 6 heats (they were #2 in the other one), en route to 5th- and 4th-place finishes (pushing Justin Kripps in the latter race Nov. 25 in Whistler).
“I’m happy with that, but there’s still a little bit of disappointment,” states the former Brookfield High School student whose family now lives near Carlingwood. “I still want more. I want to create a situation where it’s very difficult for us to lose no matter what happens with weather, or equipment, or driving.
“There’s still more to come.”
OTTAWA BOBSLED TRADITION
Smith is the latest in a somewhat strangely long line of one-time Ottawa Lions Track-and-Field Club athletes who have transformed themselves into ice runners. The list includes 2016-2017 #3-ranked World Cup skeleton racer Mimi Rahneva, 2014 Olympic bobsledder Cody Sorensen, and Gilbert, who competed in the 1994 Winter Olympics.
Smith called up his old coach on the eve of his rookie bobsled season to get some pointers.
“Glenroy has been the one guy who’s been there through my entire sporting career, from when I first started until right now,” notes Smith, crediting Gilbert for developing his mental toughness. “He’s my coach and mentor, so whatever he says, I always take to heart.”
RAHNEVA CARRYING HEAVY HEART
Like Smith is starting to write this year, Rahneva is coming off a spectacular World Cup rookie season last year. The 29-year-old hit the podium 4 times, including a victory at St. Moritz, Switzerland by the largest margin recorded in the past decade at minimum.
She’d won her first career medal at Lake Placid, New York, with her mom amongst the spectators. It was difficult to race at the same venue this year, says Rahneva, who lost her mom in June to cancer. Valentina Marinova brought her 3 daughters to Canada from Bulgaria so they could live a better life.
“She was here last year. I feel her, but I miss her at the same time. It’s a little bit challenging,” indicates Rahneva, who was 7th in the 2017-2018 World Cup opener on Nov. 9. “My sisters are here, and it was a bit emotional for all three of us. I’m just trying to kind of get my game face on and my game head going. I’ll get there.”
Though disappointed with her result in Lake Placid, she still took time to appreciate where she’s come since taking her first trip down the course with the Ontario program around 5 years ago.
“It’s such a big difference from where I began,” underlines Rahneva, who went on to place 4th and 7th at Park City and Whistler. “Honestly, the first month of going down here, I didn’t know what corner I was in. It was just a blur. I had a lot of hits, a lot of sore muscles and body. And to be able to delicately put the sled where I want it today – most of the time – it’s honestly like such a large range from where I started to now.”
Rahneva now finds herself as a definite podium contender for the 2018 Olympics, though she remains focused on getting there first. The Merivale High School grad is well on her way, with Canada poised to easily snatch 3 women’s skeleton entries for the Games, with Elisabeth Rathje ranked 3rd in the world, Rahneva 4th and Jane Channell 5th.
“It’s really big for Canada. I’m so proud of the girls,” indicates Rahneva, who’s always wanted to become an Olympian – first as an 800 m runner, then as a rugby player while at the University of Guelph. “It would be so surreal to be there. Wow, you can dream about something, and it could actually come true.”