By Dan Plouffe
When rocketing around corners down a frozen course at over 100 km/h, one wrong turn can be disastrous for a skeleton racer.
But for Ottawa native Mimi Rahneva, a wrong turn wound up giving her skeleton career an instrumental twist on her path to the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics.
In the dead of winter in 2015, the Calgary-based athlete was headed home from a Flames game when she and a fellow sliding friend took the train the wrong way. So they got off and waited for the next ride to come in the opposite direction.
“We were stuck on a platform, just cold and trying to huddle together. And this guy’s like, ‘Are you guys alright?’” recounts Rahneva, who struck up a conversation with the fellow hockey fan while they shivered.
Turns out he was part of a project management company with a focus on sports events called Compel Inc. She explained that she was a national team slider looking to break onto the top international circuit, working full-time as a caterer at the WinSport Olympic Park all the while in order to fuel the dream. She noted that she was in the midst of a fundraising campaign to buy herself a top-of-the-line sled.
“He said, “You guys are interesting. We’d like to help you out.’ Now, a lot of people say that, but he actually followed through,” notes Rahneva, who wound up getting her sled paid for by the friendly stranger and three of his friends.
“It was such a big coincidence,” reflects Rahneva. “He’s the reason why I have the equipment I have today. I have a phenomenal sled, and I would not have been able to afford it in my fourth year in the sport. That was huge.
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“I’m just lucky. The universe just kind of works with me.”
Or perhaps it simply rewards persistence and hard work – a philosophy ingrained by her parents, who emigrated to Canada from Bulgaria when Rahneva was 10 to give her a better life along with her two younger sisters.
When it came time to design a graphic to go on her new sled, family occupied a central place amongst the collection of names that helped make her skeleton journey possible.
“I put together the skeleton tree to represent my roots,” explains Rahneva, who has a big heart around the name of her mother, recently deceased due to cancer. “I’m grateful for where I’ve come from, and the roots represent being grounded.
“It means a lot to me. The people I’ve put in my roots are my family members, and the people who have really, really helped me get off the ground.
“Through the stem and into the branches are all the people who have really helped me grow as a person and develop as an athlete, and kind of branch out into the world.”
Rahneva’s roots in sport came with the Ottawa Lions Track-and-Field Club. As an 11-year-old, she’d bike 10+ km each way from home near the Nepean Sportsplex to Terry Fox Athletic Facility so she could attend the club’s summer camp.
She turned to rugby at Merivale High School and went on to win three Ontario gold and four Canadian bronze medals with the Guelph University Gryphons.
Rahneva’s skeleton ride began at the closest track to home in Lake Placid, where she stayed in a church basement for several months to start her career.
Frugality and self-funding were major themes throughout Rahneva’s early years in the sport. Even after she got her sled, she was still faced with debt from $20,000 in team fees while living off national development card funding of roughly $10,000.
But the 29-year-old has since drawn support from the likes of True North Mortgage and the Canadian Athletes Now Fund after delivering an unbelievable rookie season on the World Cup circuit in 2016-17, which saw her finish 3rd in the overall standings.
Frequently the fastest starter in the field, Rahneva now finds herself as a podium threat in PyeongChang, alongside Canadian teammates Elisabeth Vathje and Jane Channell – all ranked inside the world’s top-8.
“It’s such pride and joy to have Canada on your back. I do it for the love of the sport, I don’t know how else to describe it,” highlights the winner of five World Cup medals. “It’s incredible to be out and to have Canada behind you. And it’s really cool when you do well because it’s like, ‘Well that’s for you, Canada.’”
Making it to the Olympics has been Rahneva’s dream since her childhood days running down a 100-metre segment of a bike path near the Sportsplex.
“At first, I wanted to go as an 800-metre runner. Then I wanted to go as a rugby player when rugby sevens was introduced to the 2016 Summer Games. All of a sudden, it was skeleton – this sport I had no idea about until 2010,” smiles Rahneva. “Sometimes I think it’s a little bit weird what we do. We toboggan. It’s interesting as a sport. It’s an Olympic sport. It’s got a lot of history.
“It’s been taken out of the Olympics for being too dangerous. It’s been put back in because it’s so cool. It’s got a lot of momentum going forward.
“To be representing Canada, from a small town in Bulgaria, it’s just… I don’t know, the world is your oyster. You can do anything you wish.”
Fri., Feb. 16 Heat 1 & 2 6:15 a.m. ET
Sat., Feb. 17 Heat 3 & 4 6:15 a.m.