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Cheryl Simundson had grown accustomed to the rhythms of silence and celebration whenever her daughter, Kaillie Humphries, competed. At the Olympics, Humphries preferred to isolate herself, tapping into a deep focus that had already won the Canadian bobsledder two gold medals by the time of the 2018 Games.
In Pyeongchang, South Korea, however, Simundson sensed a change. Humphries sought out his family, wanting to hang out, needing to be close. Simundson’s maternal antennae took notice, even as Humphries cemented her legacy by winning a bronze medal with teammate Phylicia George.
After the event, Humphries opened up about the issues she was facing. Bobsleigh Canada coach Todd Hays had mentally and verbally abused her, she told her family, and her mental health was deteriorating. Simundson just wanted his daughter to come home.
Athletes returned home to Canada after the Games before their gear. When the luggage was also returned, Humphries asked Simundson to ride with her to collect it. They spotted Humphries’ belongings abandoned on the road outside Canada Olympic Park in Calgary. Mother and daughter cried.
“Just like a big pile of garbage,” Simundson said. “That was the start of the whole nightmare of what’s going on. In that moment, it hits you like a brick in the forehead like, ‘Is that how they treat you?’
“And that was before it even got super nasty.”
For a long time, the most decorated female bobsledder in the world did not know if she would participate in the Beijing Games.
Shortly after the 2018 Olympics, Humphries filed a formal mental and verbal abuse complaint against Hays; she also named several Canadian bobsled officials, whom she accused of failing to adequately address her demands. The move sparked a long legal standoff between her and Canada’s national program, which she had trained and raced for for 15 years.
In the complaint, which also named the president of Canada’s bobsleigh and skeleton governing body and another staff member, whom Humphries accused of failing to respond adequately to her complaints, she cited several incidents in which she said Hays yelled at her. In one, she said, Hays voiced “personal and professional attacks” for “more than an hour.”
Bobsleigh Canada declined to comment on the charges brought by Humphries, or to make Hays available for an interview. Others in the Canadian program, however, stood up for their team and its staff. Canadian gold medalist Bobsledder Justin Kripps released a statement in 2019 on behalf of returning competitors who defended the culture of the program. Other team members, including many womensaid his comments reflected their views and experiences.
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Wanting to move on and pursue her career, she asked to be released from the program and applied for American citizenship, which would allow her to compete for the United States. There were lawsuits and countersuits, and little support from other Canadian bobsledders, all of which took their toll, Humphries said.
In December, however, Humphries learned that her years-long effort to change nationality had been approved just in time for her to compete for the United States in Beijing.
“I knew what I was doing was right,” Humphries said. “The transition I had made in the sports world, why I stood up for myself, why I left an abusive environment was the right decision. I had to remind myself that whatever the outcome was going to be. That was part of travel. “
Success, then stop
For Simundson, Humphries has always stood up and stood out. Shortly after watching the 1988 Winter Olympics in her hometown of Calgary, two-year-old Humphries climbed onto the dining room table and declared that she would one day be a medalist Olympic gold. “That’s great,” Simundson remembers thinking. “Now sit down and let’s finish your dinner.”
For a time, ski racing was the outlet for his ambition. Humphries broke one leg, then the other.
Instead of opting for a more conservative sport, she tried bobsledding, winning gold medals at the 2010 Games in Vancouver and 2014 in Sochi. But by the time she won her third medal, a bronze in Pyeongchang, even her family knew something was wrong. Humphries said she became depressed and began to suffer from migraines and rashes.
After filing its complaint, Bobsleigh Canada hired an independent firm to investigate Humphries’ allegations. But the the investigation yielded no evidence to support their claims. Humphries appealed and a Canadian referee said the investigation was inadequate. Another survey is in progress.
Humphries filed a lawsuit against Bobsleigh Canada but dropped it in 2019 when the federation granted her the release she requested. (Hays, a former United States bobsledder and coach, denied the charges and sued Humphries for defamation. He remains Canada’s coach.)
By the time she officially severed ties with the Canadian team, Humphries had moved to California, married former American men’s bobsledder Travis Armbruster, and elected to compete for the United States. She was named to Team USA in November.
Humphries joined without any assurance that she would be able to gain citizenship in time to be eligible for the Beijing Olympics. Officials from countries like China and Russia, Humphries said, offered an expedited process if she agreed to compete under their flags. She refused these approaches.
“If I have to change my nationality, I have to want to represent this country,” Humphries said. “It’s not just about what’s easy. It’s about what’s right, what’s right, what’s right. And where do I stand and where do I belong? And what can I, in my heart of hearts, adequately represent?
With that in mind, Humphries and Armbruster forged ahead. Humphries lost most of his sponsors. The couple paid for equipment and coaches by running up credit card debt. They spent money on attorneys’ fees instead of a house, and put off replacing the used car Humphries bought for $5,000 after moving to the United States.
She was prepared to miss the Beijing Olympics if her nationality change took longer than expected. Obtaining US citizenship, she says, is now aligned with her identity, the lifestyle she hoped to adopt, the country where she planned to raise her children.
And watching Simone Biles prioritize her mental health over competition during the Summer Games has been inspiring, Armbruster said.
“It allowed us to say, ‘OK, if you don’t go to the Olympics, it’s going to be catastrophic, but that doesn’t make you any less of a person,'” Armbruster said.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and politicians on both sides of the aisle endorsed Humphries’ efforts. But the International Olympic Committee, Humphries said, refused to make an exception in his case that would allow him to compete for the United States while his citizenship application was pending.
Humphries, 36, hopes the committee will one day create a way for athletes involved in investigations to compete in the Olympics regardless of the program or country they have accused of wrongdoing.
“No athlete should have to choose passport over safety,” Humphries said. “It’s not that easy, so most stay in really horrible environments where it’s an abusive process, power, coaches, therapists. Your dreams are so vulnerable as an athlete.
His last interview with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in December conflicted with the World Cup event in Altenburg, Germany, an overlap that summed up much of the final years of Humphries’ life: two urgent priorities, none of which could wait.
Humphries completed three mandatory tests before heading to San Diego for his interview. She had studied for months for the citizenship test, even recruiting some of her American teammates to help her review the country’s geography and history.
She answered written questions and then took questions from an officer as her heart rate, measured on her watch, reached intense training levels.
Simundson was waiting downstairs, and when Humphries walked through the door, she offered a smile and two thumbs up. Simundson hugged Humphries and draped an American flag around his shoulders.
Mother and daughter cried again.