By Dan Plouffe
For someone whose job it is to blast headfirst around an icy spiral curve at 120 km/h, significant turbulence is the norm, but nothing could quite prepare Ottawa skeleton slider Mimi Rahneva for the wild ride she’d face in her 2022 Olympic season.
“It’s been such an emotional rollercoaster,” Rahneva reflected in an interview with the Ottawa Sports Pages shortly after returning to Calgary fresh off a 5th-place performance at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
“At the end of the race, I was super, super pumped, and just so proud of myself,” she noted. “Now that I’ve settled down, there’s just feelings of frustration seeing how other (National Sports Organizations) treated their athletes and how poorly we were treated. So I think it’s just a mixed emotion.”
Rahneva has spoken up several times this season about a lack of funding and technical/logistical support received by Canadian skeleton athletes, but the issues have gained more attention under the Olympic spotlight – particularly as the 33-year-old took Canada on a riveting run that nearly ended on the podium during the 2-day women’s skeleton competition.
The world’s #8-ranked slider sent out shockwaves by posting the fastest time of all in the first heat. But despite her best start time in the second run, she had some rough meetings with the wall on her way down, and her 18th-best head time dropped her down to 9th overall.
On day 2, Rahneva charged back into the medal conversation with the second-best performance of heat 3, but couldn’t quite climb all the way back to the podium with a good-but-not-great final run to finish 5th.
“First run, I laid down a track record, and I obviously showed what I was capable of. Then I think in the second heat that I just didn’t believe in myself for a split minute, and that cost me, so much,” explained Rahneva. “I allowed that doubt to creep in, and you can’t let that happen.”
Rahneva said the “big pressure cooker” of the Olympics is “really, really hard to deal with,” and while she couldn’t lay the blame for the bad run on anyone else, there was a lot she was carrying to the start line.
“It’s been a little bit of an awakening, having just been within reach of those medals,” signalled the 12th-place finisher from the Pyeongchang 2018 Games. “It made me wonder ‘what if?’ What if we had mental health performance (help)? What if we weren’t, like, emotionally traumatized every year?”
Asked to detail the challenges she and her teammates have faced, the long-simmering hurt and frustration flowed out from deep inside Rahneva.
“We were sent to China for the pretest event (in October) and to learn the track with no (skeleton) coach (present), and usually, that’s a really important part of the sport,” she began. “Germany I think brought six or seven coaches, they had cameras everywhere. Everyone’s trying to learn the track as quickly as possible.
“We had nobody, and most of us were crashing or hitting roofs (going down the track), and we just didn’t know what (to expect). Eventually, we picked it up just by working together as a team.
“(After the pretest event in China), we were shipped out to Whistler (for team trials). As we boarded our flight back to Vancouver from China, we were notified that the selection race was being moved up a week.
“There were six of us that went to China, three men and three women. Five of us landed in Vancouver on October 28th, which is a 17-hour time difference from Beijing, and we were expected to start sliding 2 days later, with the selection race being held on November 3rd to determine which athletes would go on which tours.
“So we ended up racing jetlagged, which was so dangerous, and so neglectful from our NSO.
“Nobody was going to look out for us, nobody was monitoring our health or any of that. When the concerns were brought up to staff, I was told that I just had to go through it and do the best that I could. There was nothing more to be done about the situation.
“And then Elisabeth (Vathje, a 2018 Olympian who had taken a different flight through Germany with the International Bobsleigh Skeleton Federation) unfortunately, was even more jetlagged. Her resting heart rate at one session was 170 when she was just sitting there, and she’s like, ‘my heart’s gonna explode and I’m not even warming up,’ so she opted out of sliding in order to put her health first.
“So again, just a super unsafe situation for all athletes involved. The other athletes who were in Whistler while we were in China were also mistreated. Madison (Charney) and Hallie (Clarke) had come out early and trained well and prepared for the selection races so well. They came 1st and 2nd in the race and should have been allocated the World Cup positions, but they were placed on the (intercontinental circuit) team while Jane and myself were given the World Cup spots.
“The entire selection process this season was flawed. But because you have your eyes set on this one goal of going to the Games, you’re almost blind to all the unjust things that took place this year.
“(In the selection race), I remember being so jetlagged that I hit the roof and felt like I almost broke my foot. After not performing well and placing 4th in the selection race, I began to plan on racing on the ICC tour. And then the next thing I know I’m being told that I’ve been selected and I’m going to Europe (for World Cups).
“And then you start asking questions, like, ‘Hey, who’s going to coach us? What’s the team fee?’ – the normal things that have happened in the past, like this is your team fee, these are your dates, these are your flights – and the response we got was: ‘You’re booking everything on your own, out of your own pocket. We don’t have a coach for you, but we trust that you have a network, and you’re an experienced slider, you’ll be fine.’
“So you go into that first World Cup just completely in shock. I remember Mark (Lynch), my teammate, had to hold my sled at the start line. Mark had to be our team captain, he had to take on the logistical and administrative role of not only going to captains’ meetings, but also being a hygiene officer for our team.
“With COVID, there are just so many extra duties that were taken on by athletes that it was just impossible to focus on performance. Somehow I managed to podium, I think, once or twice – I can’t even remember, it’s such a blur.
“And then the worry of COVID… So yeah, no coach, zero support booking anything whatsoever. And zero administrative help, so everything was on us.
“And I think we managed, but that took away from performance for sure.”
Slider reached out for mental health support
After the turbulence of the season’s start, Rahneva recognized she needed mental health help and got anti-anxiety medication prescribed from her doctor.
“That was a tough call, because I’m a bit of a naturopath,” she indicated. “I’m big into meditation, yoga, habits and things that I do to kind of manage everything on my own. But it was too much.”
With bills piling up and her own funds running in the red, Rahneva Tweeted a spreadsheet of her Olympic season expenses totalling $26,585, while noting the “carding” funding she receives from the Sport Canada Athlete Assistance Program to support living expenses was only $14,120.
“I felt really guilty (posting the spreadsheet), because I was like, ‘Should I have?’ I asked a whole bunch of friends, ‘Is it too weird to put out there?’ And they’re like, ‘No. People should know,'” recounted Rahneva, who received many messages of thanks for sharing the info.
“People don’t realize we have to pay that much money. All you see is these shiny outfits that you walk into Opening Ceremonies with, and you don’t see the struggle.”
It was another blow to receive just 8 months’ worth of carding for the year, Rahneva noted, which was the result of Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton requiring a top-8 placement at the last world championships or Olympics in order to be carded for the full 12 months. This was a change from BCS’s 2020 criteria and inconsistent with Sport Canada requirements, Rahneva added.
In the 2019-2020 season – the year before a neck injury wiped out her 2020-2021 campaign – Rahneva was 5th in the overall World Cup circuit standings, with top-4 results in 5 of 8 races, but was 16th at the world championships.
“For an athlete, that’s a good 5 or 6 grand that could have helped a lot,” noted the Bulgaria-born athlete whose family immigrated to Ottawa when she was 10. “My credit cards are full. And I owe my partner a few thousands of dollars as well.”
Rahneva highlighted some of the conditions she faced in a post-competition interview with the CBC.
After reading in the CBC story that the national skeleton program received the largest proportional funding boost of any sport organization from Own The Podium this quadrennial, Rahneva Tweeted that “there is a big discrepancy somewhere” since she saw “$0 in support this important year.”
“We haven’t seen any of it. Like, where’s that money going?” Rahneva asked. “Every cab, every COVID test, every hotel, flight, I’ve paid out of pocket. So has (teammate) Jane (Channell), so has Mark (Lynch), so has Kyle (Murray), as well as Blake (Enzie) and Madison (Charney).
“We did this all on our own, with our own supporters, not our NSO support. It was our friends and family that kept us going.”
Lori Ewing wrote about Rahneva and other athletes’ frustrations in a Canadian Press report that also noted that BCS took offence to the insinuation that money is being funnelled somewhere other than to athletes.
The added OTP funding for skeleton included $200,000 for targeted senior team athletes, and $150,000 for younger developing sliders, the report said.
“We hardly have any staff. This is as thin an organization as it can possibly be. It really is,” BCS president Sarah Storey told Ewing. “It’s not that we’re taking money from athletes and not spending it on them. $200,000 doesn’t go very far.”
‘The system in Canada is broken’, Rahneva says
Rahneva’s social media post led to a plethora of well-known current and past Canadian sliders sharing similar experiences, and drew supportive calls to action from athletes in other sports as well.
“I think it’s important to share everyone’s story because it’s the unity of the athletes that will push for that positive change, and all we want to do is leave the sport in a better condition. We have so much potential,” Rahneva underlined. “But the system in Canada is broken. It’s not what it should be.”
Rahneva illustrated the issue by noting that Sport Canada is in charge of distributing government funds to both national sports organizations and AthletesCAN – which represents Canada’s national team athletes – as well as the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, which mediates problems between the parties.
It can be tough for athletes to get much traction from a complaint, Rahneva said, noting that if an NSO were to be punished financially for a misstep, it would also hurt the athletes who are reliant upon their NSOs for their own funding.
“It’s this vicious circle,” she said. “And it gets to a certain point where it becomes a conflict of interest.”
Rahneva underlined that the reason she’s speaking up isn’t out of frustration that she missed a medal. She talked about it before the Games and would have done the same if she’d been on the podium too.
“I had hoped to medal, you know, so it would come out not sounding bitter,” said Rahneva, who finished 0.69 seconds away from 3rd. “I’m still incredibly proud of what I achieved. I just think (the message) would have probably had more momentum, if it came with a medal, to be like, ‘Hey, this is achievable. But it’s not because of any of the support from this organization.'”
‘Incredible support’ from Canadian fans
While this season has been trying, Rahneva emphasized that it has most definitely not all been negative.
“I want to share how incredible the support has been from Canadians. It’s so emotional just thinking about it,” she highlighted. “Stepping onto the start line, that is what I was doing it for. I did it for Canada.
“I did it for all the people that enjoy sport and to inspire all the kids out there who are diving onto a towel on their living room floor headfirst trying to slide on the hardwood. There’s just so much positivity around the support from Canadians.
“And I want to share that I really enjoyed the experience as well. China was incredible. Every volunteer staff member was so encouraging, so positive, they just wanted to know you and talk to you and share a little bit about themselves.
“The COC was also really supportive and incredible. (Canadian Olympic Committee president) Tricia Smith came to our race and she was waving the Canada flag. When I pulled up after my first heat, that was such a joyous moment. It was incredible.”
Rahneva also does take satisfaction in having achieved all that she has with limited means.
“I’m incredibly proud of myself,” signalled Rahneva, who will be visiting her sister and nieces back in Ottawa next week. “And I think everyone who’s close to me, and who knows everything, have come out and said how proud they are too.”
Slider unsure if she’ll be able to continue competing next season
Next year’s world championships will be held on the track where she recorded the largest margin of victory ever in a World Cup race in 2017.
“St. Moritz is a track that I love. I really look forward to competing there, but I’m not sure if I can do it,” stated Rahneva, who’s also worried that speaking out may have repercussions.
If Beijing winds up being her final ride, Rahneva will nonetheless leave Canadians with an inspiring, improbable tale from her skeleton career.
When she arrived in Canada from Bulgaria as a 10-year-old, Rahneva hardly spoke a word of English, but she managed to make friends by playing sports.
Come age 11, she was biking 10+ km each way from her home near the Nepean Sportsplex to go to track-and-field camp with the Ottawa Lions club at Terry Fox Athletic Facility.
Rahneva later took up rugby at Merivale High School en route to a decorated university career with the Guelph University Gryphons, where she won 3 Ontario gold and 4 Canadian bronze medals.
When Rahneva took her first strides into skeleton, she stayed in a church basement for several months in Lake Placid, NY to save on expenses. For several years more, she worked full-time as a caterer for WinSport in Calgary while hoping to break onto the international skeleton scene.
Her persistence paid off – when she finally got her chance on the World Cup circuit, Rahneva finished 3rd overall in her rookie season in 2016-2017.
After her “wide-eyed” Olympic debut in 2018 came more challenges to overcome, beyond the persistent financial hurdles. Calgary’s bobsled track closed, leaving Whistler as the only Canadian track. Then she missed all of last year’s (COVID-shortened) season with an injury that required spinal fusion surgery (which has since successfully left her with no lingering neck problems).
Earlier this season, Rahneva won 2 World Cup medals to bring her career total to 11. And then she let it fly in Beijing, China and was the world’s fastest slider in the first run of the Olympics.
Rahneva said that what she wants Canadians to remember from her journey is simply that anything is possible.
“If you want to achieve something, go for it and don’t look back,” she encouraged. “I think it’s so important to go after what you want. And to just believe in yourself. If no one else does, that’s fine. But you have to believe in you. And surround yourself with people who you know will support you and who have your back – just create a little tribe and go for it.
“I think that literally nothing is out of reach. Anything is achievable. I was born in Ruse, Bulgaria, which is a teeny, tiny little dot on the map. And my mom had this big dream of coming to Canada, so she brought her three girls here.
“And you know, I went to the Olympics twice. I got my masters last year. I mean, the world is your oyster. Go out and get it.”
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