By Dan Plouffe
Ottawa’s Mimi Rahneva has her sights set on a World Championships medal and a Crystal Globe this season, but the two-time skeleton Olympian has already scored a big victory before the start of her sliding campaign – in the boardroom.
The 34-year-old has been a leader among a large group of current and former Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton athletes demanding leadership changes at their national sport organization, and this past Saturday, their preferred candidate was acclaimed as BCS’s new president, when Sarah Storey unexpectedly chose not to seek a third term.
“I think people are still in shock, to be honest,” Rahneva said in a Monday interview with the Ottawa Sports Pages. “It’s a little bit mixed emotions. We know that Sarah has done a lot for the NSO, but it’s also really exciting to get some nice fresh blood in – new people with new ideas and new ways of thinking.”
The group had lost faith in BCS’s leadership and called for the resignation of Storey (who was also the organization’s chief executive officer) and high-performance director Chris Le Bihan, while seeking improvements to funding, athlete health and safety, and organizational culture.
Elections for director positions, including president, were scheduled to be held at BCS’s annual general meeting on Sept. 29, but Storey abruptly adjourned the meeting before voting could take place, stating there were concerns over voter eligibility.
The continuation of the meeting was held on Nov. 5. Storey gave a president’s address highlighting some of BCS’s accomplishments while she was at the helm, Rahneva recounted, but instead of it being an election speech rally, to everyone’s surprise, it turned out to be a farewell. Storey announced at the end of her remarks that she would not be seeking re-election as president, which left Tara McNeil – the candidate favoured by the athletes’ group – to be acclaimed as the only candidate for president.
“I think it was news to everybody,” indicated Rahneva, who was unsure what led to Storey’s decision to step aside. “But I know the athletes really had a lot of power in this process, and that’s really positive to see in the end.”
With the World Cup season set to begin on Nov. 24 in Whistler, B.C., Le Bihan remains in his position as high-performance director. Rahneva said that’s a tough situation and difficult for her to comment on, but she noted that BCS has signed an agreement to join Abuse-Free Sport, the federal government’s new program to address maltreatment in Canadian sport, and “I think there will be mechanisms there where athletes can leverage their voice.”
Rahneva was vocal before and after she finished fifth at the Beijing Olympics about many of the problems she and other athletes have faced, and said the need for new leadership had become clear.
“The sliding community is small, but when you add up over the years everyone that’s kind of come through the culture, I think it’s quite evident that there were issues, and people wanted it to change,” she highlighted. “Do I think the message got through (to leadership)? I don’t think so. I think it continues to be, ‘We’re doing what we can with the resources we have, and basically that’s all we can do.’
“The athletes believe that there’s more that can be done and that it can be done better. I think that’s the problem when you’ve been in power for too long, you can get a little bit complacent: ‘This is the way we’ve always done things.’
“I think that’s why it’s important to have turnover and fresh people coming in with fresh ideas, new perspectives and new ways of doing things. I think that’s how you develop and grow and stay innovative, in a way.”
Rahneva is excited to see fellow Queen’s University innovation management masters grad Matt Stapley join the board to provide sorely-missing help on sponsorships, partnerships and marketing, along with McNeil, a physiologist and administrator of 25+ years who understands the demands athletes face.
Also joining the board alongside three directors whose terms continue are bobsleigh athlete representative Cynthia Appiah and Rahneva, the skeleton athlete rep.
“I’ve always wanted to leave the sport in a better place than when I started, but since I’ve been involved, it’s actually gone the other direction,” explained Rahneva, who was inspired to push for change in large part for the benefit of future generations.
“We have some athletes who are sliding in their first international races this week, both bobsleigh and skeleton, and we want to be able to support them,” she detailed.
Without a national skeleton coach, Rahneva and other veterans have taken a more hands-on approach to helping developing athletes lately, along with assistance from Whistler’s Snipers Skeleton Club. After forerunning the track during training for this weekend’s North American Cup races, Rahneva went right back to the top to film other athletes’ starts, and she’s helped shuttle them around.
“All in all, the community is strong and supporting each other,” underlined the three-time World Cup gold medallist. “There is a lot of camaraderie and teamwork and collaboration.”
Rahneva has been pleased to see some recent governance improvements already. A new high-performance management group – which includes retired two-time Olympic bobsledder Cody Sorensen of Ottawa – developed the selection criteria for this year’s national team and ran the selection races.
Rahneva knows the new board still has a lot of work ahead, starting with education on the ins-and-outs of governance. But her priorities will include a greater focus on athlete health and safety, restarting the neglected athletes’ council, getting more people involved in decision-making across the board, and hiring key staff – hopefully with guidance from Sport Canada and the Canadian Olympic Committee.
“I think we’ve got some really diverse and experienced people who are athlete-centric and can make us run like a business, because that’s what we need,” signalled the former Merivale Marauders and Guelph Gryphons rugby player. “It’s been a very active board, in a way to cut costs. But I think we need the expertise of a CEO, or someone that’s specifically geared towards sponsorships and bringing in dollars.
“We can’t keep relying on Sport Canada funding. It’s not enough.”
Slider ‘worked my butt off’ to pay down debt incurred during 2022 Olympic season
After making her second Olympic appearance this past February and posting the fastest first run en route to a fifth place finish overall, Rahneva didn’t kick her feet up at all this offseason.
She relaxed for a moment with family in Ottawa, then it was back to her home base in Calgary to train in pursuit of the first individual World Championships medal of her career, which she wants to win on her favourite track in St. Moritz, Switzerland come February.
“And I worked my butt off so I could pay down some debt” for five months with a tech firm, added Rahneva, who enjoyed getting some great professional experience as she takes a “year-by-year” approach to her skeleton career.
With an interest in sustainability and the environment, Rahneva was pleased to work in technology since it can offer solutions, and especially at a start-up company.
“I found it exciting. Every day, there’s something new, changing, adapting and evolving, and I thought that was really cool,” reflected Rahneva, who worked in a sales role. “Much like sports, it was very performance-driven and I like that.”
‘Crazy whirlwind’ of maltreatment across Canadian sport
While she was busy making money to finance her global sliding pursuits, Rahneva has been pleased to see Canadian athletes from many sports step up to demand change and better treatment.
“It’s just been a whirlwind. It’s crazy. You might think your problems are kind of isolated, but then you see actually some of the biggest sports in Canada, like hockey, and there’s injustice and wrongdoings all over the place,” said the Bulgaria-born athlete whose family moved to Nepean when she was 10. “I hope, I hope that all these issues across so many sports will really have the higher-ups look at the way sport is run in Canada and maybe look at innovating and making sure that athletes are taken care of a little bit better.”
Rahneva added an example of a needed improvement: many athletes don’t have benefits, herself included.
“When you go to the Olympics, you have free dental for that one time in four years. So I know people get cavities fixed, teeth cleaning, you name it. And that’s great, but why are we sending athletes to the Olympics not fully healthy? There’s a lot of issues there,” she outlined.
“How are we expecting athletes to perform and win medals and make our country look good when we’ve really neglected their health in so many ways? Mental health, dental health, physical health, financial health – all of the above.
“We’ll see what happens. Nothing’s ever gonna get done without people being vocal about it.”
Since her days of riding her bike 10+ kilometres to-and-from track camp with the Ottawa Lions club as an 11-year-old, and sleeping in a church basement in Lake Placid, NY while taking her first skeleton slides, Rahneva has gained a very strong appreciation for everything that goes into achieving big performances, far beyond a quick push and precise turns.
While the boardroom battles have taken a toll, she’s still very optimistic that some career-best results will lie around the corner this season.
“I have a little bit more left in me that I didn’t quite get from my performance at the Olympics,” highlighted the winner of 11 career World Cup medals. “I have my eyes set on the St. Moritz World Championships and I’m really, really excited to see that through, and I hope that I can achieve my goal there. That’s been my main motivator.”
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