Anything You Can Do, Women Can Do Better: the Race for Equality in Bobsledding

As bobsledding makes a sudden turn towards gender equality, the women leading the charge are left to take on the daunting realities of progress.

by Lindsay Gibbs
Dec 18 2014, 11:44am

Photo by John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

This weekend in Calgary, Elana Meyers Taylor of the United States and Kallie Humphries of Canada will become the first women to pilot four-man bobsleds in a World Cup race, smashing through the gender barrier at nearly 85 miles per hour.

Since the World Cup does not feature four-woman bobsled teams, Meyers Taylor and Humphries will be competing against—and alongside—men.

One of many winter sports that have historically provided limited big-stage opportunities for female athletes, bobsled is on the verge of joining of luge, ski jumping, and hockey as increasingly inclusive. Change has been a long time coming: male bobsledders have competed in the Winter Olympics since 1924 in four-man and since 1932 in two-man. Women's bobsled wasn't added until 2002—and even then, the event was limited to two-person teams.

"I think that a lot of these sports, bobsled in particular, started out as men's-club sports in that very male-dominated atmosphere," said Meyers Taylor, the silver medalist in the last two Olympic Games in the two-woman race (she lost to Humphries both times). "It's been a struggle ever since day one.

"We've always wanted to drive four-man," she added. "We never really understood why women didn't drive four-man. What was so special about driving four-man that women couldn't do it as well?"

Right before the start of the 2014-2015 season, the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (FIBT) finally realized that there was no real answer to that question, and elected to make the event gender-neutral. This was a last-minute decision that left Meyers Taylor and Humphries scrambling to qualify for the World Cup season—a process that requires them to complete five lower-level four-man races on three different tracks—but it was, undoubtedly, a big step forward for the sport.

Of course, that doesn't mean that support for the change is unanimous.

"I'd be lying if I said that everyone in our sport is in favor of this kind of thing." Darrin Steele, the CEO of the U.S.A. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation and FIBT's vice president of sport, told VICE Sports. "There's a lot of tradition, and a lot of conservative views of the disciplines. There are certainly some individuals who aren't crazy about this."

Photo by GEPA/USA TODAY Sports

"Alright Bree, you're about to make history. Keep the silver side down."

Those were the words that Bree Schaaf, a U.S. Olympic bobsledder in 2006 and 2010, heard over the loudspeaker back in 2011 as she stood on top of the bobsled track at Lake Placid. She'd been down the track thousands of times, but this time was different—this time, she was driving a four-man bobsled, and there were three female push athletes about to make the trip down the hill with her.

This wasn't an official event, or even a competition of any kind, but she was a woman about to drive a four-man bobsled down one of the most challenging tracks in the world, so "history" wasn't exactly overstating things.

Schaaf, who came in fifth in the two-woman discipline in the 2010 Olympics, had thought about driving a four-man bobsled, but it wasn't necessarily something in the forefront of her mind. That is, until a fateful day in 2011.

"We were testing equipment one day during training, and [U.S. men's bobsledder] Cory Butner was joking around saying, 'Hey Bree, do you want to take my four-man down?' All of a sudden I realized, 'Yeah, I do!

"I think that's the story of women's sports history, the people that think why not? Because certainly there are women who have been driving four-man. It just takes that push of more people doing it and (repeatedly) asking, 'Why aren't we doing this?' regardless if it kind-of rubs people the wrong way."

So Schaaf grabbed the four-man sled, chose a few women to be her brakemen, and started at the halfway point.

A few days later, after working her way up the track, she was finally ready to take off from the top. More excited than nervous, she took a deep breath, knowing she had to get into what she calls the "bobsled flow" and focus her entire mind and body on the task at hand.

The four-man bobsled is obviously heavier than the two-man—and especially the two-woman—and therefore the sled provides more stability since the runners dig further into the ice. This gives the driver more control throughout the run, but also makes it more difficult to correct mistakes, since a small error results in a lot of momentum going in the wrong direction.

This wasn't a problem for Schaaf, though. Not only was she able to keep the silver side down, she was able to maneuver every turn with ease. "It was one of the cleanest runs of my life," she said. Her teammates greeted her at the bottom of the track, along with the track's staff and competing athletes from other nations.

"Everyone was super excited, and they were all hugging and congratulating us," she said. "It was very, very cool.

The next season, Schaaf had hip surgery, and as she struggled to make a comeback, she found extra meaning in the push to get a four-woman bobsled event into competition. In the 2012-2013 season, Schaaf kept pushing officials to allow her to drive a four-woman sled against the men in smaller FIBT events, but she was met with resistance.

"Here we are, it's the millennium, and we're still asking to do the same things as the men," she said. Schaff was given a host of reasons why she couldn't compete with the men, such as a lack of ice time and the threat of a crash. Of course, crashing is an inherent risk for all bobsledders—male or female, two-man or four-man—so citing safety as a reason not to hand over a four-man sled to experienced pilots is an arbitrary excuse at best. And the addition of one extra bobsled to the four-man rotation would have a negligible impact on the practice and competition schedule.

"The reasons were just mind-blowing," she said. "I worked so hard to just maintain composure and smile and say, 'Thanks for your help.' Then I'd go right above their heads." More determined than ever, Schaaf was not afraid to ruffle some feathers along the way.

"In a meeting at one point, someone was once again giving me the reasons why this would be bad for women bobsledders, and I was like, 'Yeah, just like voting was bad for us.'"

Another time, as Schaaf was still recovering from an injury, she was struggling to move a sled and asked a former FIBT official for help. "He said to me, 'See, how are you going to do four-man if you can't even move the two-man?'

"Of course, I'm thinking, there's four people! That's completely illogical. But the only response I had was, 'Don't worry, as soon as I move this sled I'll be back in the kitchen where I belong.'"

In 2013, Schaaf joined forces with Humphries, Meyers Taylor and other female bobsledders, and began to work together in the quest for four-woman. They started a Facebook group to gauge interest, began getting the support of their federations, and put together plans for a four-woman bobsled school. However, the hectic nature of the Olympic season in 2013-2014 put all the plans on hold.

When Schaaf didn't make the U.S. team for Sochi, she decided to retire from the sport and begin working as a broadcaster. She said that when the FIBT announced that women could pilot four-man sleds this fall, it was a "bittersweet" moment for her.

"I'll admit I cried for about three minutes," she said. "Then I pictured myself in the sled, hitting my head around, and I realized, I slid for 12 years, my time's done," she said. "This is on these two girls. And admittedly, I'm not nearly as strong or as fast as Elana or Kallie."

"They're the perfect two people to bring this to the world."

Photo by Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

In 2013, Humphries submitted an official request to the FIBT asking for women to be able to drive four-man sleds, but the request was denied because it didn't come from a national federation. So this past summer, the Canadian federation passed along her request, this time asking merely for an exhibition four-man race in an America's Cup event between Humphries and Meyers Taylor.

The FIBT, which had recently experienced some overturn and now had more progressive members, made the decision to expand the scope of the request.

"My feeling was, if we're going to look at this, let's not limit it to an exhibition race," said Steele, who competed in the 1998 and 2002 Olympics in bobsled. "Let's talk about whether this is the right thing to do to make (four-man) gender neutral. If women are good enough to make their teams, why not?"

The federation discussed the issue at length in executive meetings all summer, and there were certainly reservations about altering the deep-seated traditions of the sport, but at the end of September, the world of four-man bobsled was finally opened up to female athletes.

Of course, this didn't leave much time for female four-man pilots to prepare.

"I started out in Park City in the third week in October, slid like three days, and was already in my first race, so it was a pretty quick turnaround," Meyers Taylor said. "I don't have that much experience in four-man, so it was kind-of trial by fire."

In addition to the condensed schedule, Meyers Taylor's first big test was finding men to be her push athletes in team trials. If she qualified for the U.S. team in four-man, the federation would assign her brakemen, but for now, she was on her own. It wasn't easy.

"Everyone wanted to make the World Cup team and they thought the best way to do that was with a man," Meyers Taylor said. "It was really tough. But we were able to get through it."

The two-time silver medalist did have a secret weapon, though: her husband, experienced bobsled brakeman Nic Taylor, who rode in her sled at trials. Though he currently has a job as a track-and-field coach in Arizona and can't compete with her full-time, Taylor was able help his wife navigate the new territory.

"It's awesome," Meyers Taylor said. "He knows a lot more about four-man than I do. Just to have him there to teach—I had a rookie on my sled, and another guy was very inexperienced, so to have him teach them handling, riding position, and loading, was super helpful."

Incredibly, Meyers Taylor was able to finish in third place at trials, earning her the right to pilot the USA-3 four-man sled during the season. There wasn't any time to celebrate, though—she immediately hit the ground running in an attempt to finish the World Cup qualifications. With the season only a month old, Meyers Taylor has already competed in nearly a dozen races, including her two-man competitions. Her qualification journey has taken her as far as France, and while she hasn't yet dominated four-man the way she does two-woman, she has already found herself on the four-man podium a couple of times in the smaller events.

On Saturday, Meyers Taylor and Humphries (who made the Canadian team in trials and also completed her World Cup requirements), will finally get the moment they've been waiting for, when they stand at the top of the track with three men behind them and get ready to rocket down the track in Calgary.

Of course, due to the fact that the FIBT made the rule change so last minute and the schedule was already set, the pioneers will feel just as rushed as they have all season: Meyers Taylor and Humphries will have to race in four-man just one hour after they race in two-woman.

"It's something that the men don't have to do, and they've never had to do," Meyers Taylor said. "It's tough to be consistent over two runs, and now we need to be consistent over four runs in two different sleds. It's going to take a lot of teamwork to get through [Calgary]."

"In hindsight, we should have acted much earlier than we did because there's a number of things that have been complicated in the process just because of the short time-frame," Steele said. "There's certainly some obstacles this year. It's really a testament to Elana and Kallie that they met it head on. They said, 'Alright, this isn't going to be easy for us, we'll do whatever we have to,' and they did."

"I think the main thing [for me and Humphries] is that we're both competitors," Meyers-Taylor said. "We both want to go out there and win, we both want to have opportunities to compete as much as we can. I love sliding, I love what I do, I love going down the hill at faster and faster speeds.

"As far as trailblazing, I recognize there is a lot of history behind this and we're doing things that women haven't done before and that's awesome. But the cool thing will be when we're not singled out because we're women, when we're just another sled on the line."

Steele, who hopes to see the four-woman event come to fruition during his tenure, thinks that moment isn't far away at all. "It's not a novelty," he said. "It's historic, and it's going to be a big deal in Calgary. But the reality is that they're just athletes trying to get down the track faster than anyone else."

The focus will rightly be on Meyers Taylor and Humphries in Calgary, but this isn't just about them. Rather, it's about all of the female bobsledders who have come before them and been denied this opportunity, all of their colleagues such as Schaaf who fought so hard to get here, and all of the women who will take advantage of the new bobsledding opportunities in the future.

After all, while women driving four-man is a positive development, the main goal is still to get a four-woman discipline. Meyers Taylor and Humphries are merely paving the way.

"You'll get your sport if you beat guys and if you embarrass them," Schaaf said. "So it's a necessary step."