Sport: Women’s Skeleton
Local Clubs: Ottawa Lions Track-and-Field & Ottawa Banshees Rugby
By Ethan Diamandas
For Mirela Rahneva, sliding is the easy part, and the skeleton racer said she can picture how her run will go in Beijing.
Speaking to the Sports Pages before the Games, Rahneva explained how she visualizes herself walking to the starting line, seeing herself getting a good start and making the transitions as the course bends. But she doesn’t envision any result — that would be getting too far ahead of herself — and keeping herself in the right head space will be critical to success in Beijing.
From an outsider’s perspective, skeleton is bonkers.
Racers don helmets and spandex suits, then lie face first on a thin metal sled – the only thing separating them from the hard ice. The racers sprint with all their might then hop on and barrel around corners as fast as 130 km/h.
It’s insanity, but Rahneva loves it.
With an Olympic appearance in Pyeongchang already under her belt, the 33-year-old thrives on the track — it’s where she feels comfortable and fearless.
“I get really excited talking about skeleton,” the soft-spoken Rahneva said with a small giggle. “But I think it’s the only thing that we can control. And so that part is the easy part this year.”
That’s been the new challenge for Rahneva – everything off the course. Coming off a spinal injury and subsequent surgery, the Nepean-raised athlete entered the world circuit this year feeling “off.” She wasn’t racing well, and her mind was troubled, she said.
Rahneva eventually reached out for mental health support and began to establish a routine to keep her spirits high between races and during COVID lockdowns and stringent testing protocols, which were especially hard on her.
“The natural stuff that I reverted back to was mindfulness, yoga, meditation, the typical things. But also just doing little re-energizers like painting my nails, going for walks,” the 33-year-old detailed.
Skeleton’s international circuit takes racers to beautiful places, Rahneva noted, which allows for sightseeing car rides through places like Innsbruck, Austria or St. Moritz, Switzerland – she’d win a bronze medal at a World Cup in the latter location.
“I love going for drives and just like blaring a playlist that I’ve put together,” Rahneva said. “That puts me in a good mood.”
Rahneva is a spiritual person, and her self-belief is an integral part of her sporting success. That’s why one of her favourite mantras – “Let your faith be bigger than your fear” – is something she ponders often.
“It’s actually a quote that another Ottawa athlete, Eric Wiebe, gave to me,” she said.
Wiebe, a freestyler wrestler from Stittsville, Ont., gave Rahneva a light-up piece of wood with the quote inscribed on it before she left for the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she became an Olympic champion.
That motto has been put to the test during the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, as Rahneva, like before the 2018 Games, has again had to work hard for financial support.
“I’m still working hard to find sponsors,” Rahneva said. “Nothing has changed. It’s just been all on your own, which is the story for a lot of skeleton athletes.”
While she was rehabbing her injury and taking master’s courses at Queen’s University’s School of Business before the season, Rahneva managed to pick up a sponsor, Whistler Immigration, through one of her classmates. The company, which helps new Canadians get settled, chipped in with some cash, and now Rahneva will have a new sled for the 2022 Games.
Having moved with her family to Canada from Bulgaria at age 10 herself, Rahneva said the sponsorship was extra special, especially since her parents could’ve benefitted from immigration services when they first arrived in Canada in 1997.
“My mom had to learn English, and sell everything and fund her own way here,” Rahneva noted.
The grind to obtain sponsors hasn’t changed over the last few years, but Rahneva’s attitude towards the Olympics has evolved since her 12th place finish in 2018.
“[At the last Games] I was a little bit naïve, kind of happy-go-lucky … I remember just being a little bit aloof as to what happens at the gates,” she recalled.
But when her event rolls around, Rahneva will be prepped. She’s seen the track before and knows what to expect, so her instincts will take over.
“There’s not much time. Every slider is allotted about two minutes, green light to finish, and then the next slider goes,” Rahneva said. “You’re walking to the start line, you get there, undress, you put your helmet on, you get a green light, and it’s go time.”
Asked about what she’ll tell herself the moment that light turns green, Rahneva paused for a moment.
“Relax and let it fly,” she said.
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